In 2018, Arthur Anderson donated his entire collection of Woodstock art to the New York State Museum. The trove of 1,500 objects consists of paintings, drawings, lithographs, ceramic ware, sculpture and photographs by 200 artists who were members of the nation’s foremost art colony, which thrived during the first half of the 20th century. Anderson’s donation was accompanied by a year-long exhibition at the State Museum that showcased the colony’s rich variety of styles, ranging from realism to abstraction, its emphasis on landscape and portraiture, and the special role played by lithography; many works are by Bolton Brown, whose experiments with the print-making process established lithography as a fine arts medium. Karen Quinn, the State Museum’s senior historian and curator of art and culture, said the exhibition and collection has spurred several educational projects, fulfilling Anderson’s hopes that the artworks would spur educational initiatives throughout the state and become widely accessible. In addition, the collection has resulted in other donations of Woodstock art to the museum, fulfilling another hope of his.
Ulster County, as the place of origin, has an obvious connection to Anderson’s collection, and so it’s entirely fitting that a portion of the State Museum exhibition opened February 4 at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, which will run through July 23. For those who, like myself, relish the exhibitions at the Woodstock Artists Association culled from its historic archives (founded in 1919, the WAA is a living link to the original colony), then the Dorsky show will be an embarrassment of riches. The exhibition is supplemented by a few works from the Dorsky’s own collection.
Anderson is a longtime supporter of the arts (the exhibition is housed in a gallery that bears the name of his management consultant firm; besides the Dorsky, he’s served on the boards of WAAM and the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild). He began collecting in 1990, after the New York City-based advertising and marketing consultant purchased a weekend home in West Shokan. A particular focus was George Bellows and his circle, which included Robert Henri, Charles Rosen, and Eugene Speicher (prior to World War II, Speicher was the most famous portrait painter in America). Numerous lithographs by Bellows, including an experimental series depicting a Goyaesque scene of hungry dogs and a searing lithograph of carnage on a World War I battlefield (part of a series on German war crimes, the print actually belongs to the Dorsky) demonstrate the artist’s interests extended well beyond the boxing ring and scenes of urban New York. The 1920s was a particularly fertile period for the colony, and Bellows’ sketches and prints of his fellow artists (all of whom seem to have had mustaches) brings the cast of characters and their art making to life. Three small sketches done on the spot in Madrid demonstrate the quick, precise eye of Henri, founder of the Ash Can school and an influential teacher. A striking lithograph from 1949 by Yasuo Kuniyoshi entitled Carnival conjures up the catastrophe of World War II, with its tragic, shadowy mask and grotesquely askew puppet arms and leg.
Another particular interest of Anderson was watercolors. While the show includes a number of lovely conventional, landscapes in oil, some in a tonalist style, the watercolors tend to be quirkier and less conventional, notably the folk art-inspired pale watercolor of a farm by Arnold Blanch and George Ault’s cheerful gouache of a flaming maple (an artist known for his eerily empty Precisionist landscapes). In Bradley Walker Tomlin’s pen and ink and watercolor-tinted drawing of a cat crouched in a tree in front of a colonial-style dormer window, the straight, almost diagrammatic lines of the architecture are contrasted with the rounded forms of the cat and tree branches.
In the 1930s, Woodstock artists won more commissions for federally funded WPA murals than artists located anywhere else in the nation except New York City. Two submissions for a mural for the Poughkeepsie Post Office are representative of this development, both depicting panoramas of the city’s waterfront. Charles Rosen’s lively, loosely painted watercolor sketch of the contemporary city, bracketed by the Mid-Hudson Bridge and railroad trestle (today’s Walkway over the Hudson), was the winner (and can still be viewed in situ), although Blanche’s gouache of the scene during the steamboat era is historically fascinating and has a folksy charm.
There is a selection of small works by abstractionists Konrad Cramer and Andrew Dasburg (known as the “Rock City Rebels,” a reference to their geographical location in town and radical stylistic stance) and numerous portraits: Winold Reiss’ large illustrative pastel of a looming cigarette-wielding flapper is certainly eye catching, but I preferred John Carroll’s Cezannesque Lydia, with its severe frontality and simplified forms; Henry Lee McFee’s Portrait of Florence Ballin is stylistically conventional but nonetheless beautifully composed, with the large bulk of the fur coat-wearing seated woman balanced by the window at left, the mirror at top right, and the table at lower right. Also noteworthy is Speicher’s sweet portrait of a young African American woman, wearing what appears to be a wreath of flowers, pearl earrings and a nattily tied blue scarf, from the Dorsky’s own collection.
Among the selection of sculptures, Edward Chavez’s tabletop bronze piece consisting of an arrangement of tilted plinths, topped by a flattened triangle, conveys muscularity and monumentality despite its small size. Of particular delight to Woodstock natives is the yellowed hand-drawn map showing the location of each artist’s home. Most surprising piece in the show is Al Held’s painting on paper of hard-edged intersecting geometric shapes and planes, which stylistically speaking hails from a different planet, the internationally significant post-war art world of New York City centered around abstraction. Held first achieved art-world fame for his spare black and white geometric abstractions in the 1960s, and after buying a property in the area spent some of his career here.
Hudson Valley artists 2023: Homespun, the second exhibition currently on view at the Dorsky, is a marvel of inventiveness utilizing fabric, fiber, and thread. The 19 featured artists, who range in age from early 30s to late 80s, variously sew, weave, embroider, quilt, collage, dye, and tuft these materials, in some cases recycled from old clothing or other discards , or incorporating vintage textiles. The gallery walls vibrate with the bright colors of artworks in the form of banners, quilt-like or flag-like hangings, free-form soft relief sculptures, totemic figures, and twin pennants (in the case of Paolo Aaro’s diptych, whose vivid hues and intricate patterns reference spiritual allusions found in indigenous Filipino culture). In the middle of the large gallery, the fabric of discarded umbrellas salvaged from the streets of New York find a second life attached to a nylon string hung from the ceiling, drooping flags that curl onto the floor in a dispiriting heap; the piece, by Niki Lederer, is entitled Breaking Repeated Patterns. Bearing witness nearby are Hanna Washburn’s three anthropomorphic sculptures, consisting of upholstered chairs sprouting colorful protuberances of crazily arranged stuffed fabric forms suggesting animal or dolphin heads and arms, torsos, and other body parts, mutant creatures whose playfulness makes them eminently adoptable.
I was feeling hungry as I glimpsed the table set up nearby laden with cakes, momentarily in awe of such a spread at an art opening — until a closer look revealed they weren’t real but an installation by Orly Cogan. Arranged on a vintage tablecloth, the crocheted, knitted, embroidered, appliqued, and painted cakes, with their elaborate details of frosting, sugar roses, berries and the like, and culminating in a tiered wedding cake, still looked delicious, even though my brain knew they were a mouthful of wool. A multi-colored humungous sundae, a heart-shaped box of candies, and a scattering of creampuffs in paper crenellated linings completed the delectable set up.
Some works in the exhibition subvert the domestic associations of quilts, embroidery, and other crafts that constituted traditional women’s work. Irony and lampooning imagery is the m.o. in Natalie Baxter’s quilt Nuclear Housecoat, in which rocket shapes are subtly incorporated into the floral pattern surrounding an actual vintage housecoat, as well as in Melissa Dudourian’s giant pairs of colored knit panties. In other cases thread and fabric are incorporated into abstract, hard-edged minimalist pieces, an oeuvre and style traditionally the province of male artists. Samantha Bittman’s finely crafted patterned geometric pieces, which subtly merge painting with weavings of thread, conflate the categories of design, abstract painting, and design. Laura Kaufman’s paintings of glyphs, each a dark-colored floating form on a square of linen stretched over a frame, similarly mix painting (in this case, watercolor) with areas of embroidery in severe geometric patterns.
Rachel Mica Weiss’s two large pieces, entitled Small Hour IV and Small Hour V, dispense with any sort of traditional craft process entirely and instead simply incorporate spools of glimmering dark thread passed between multiple eye hooks screwed into wooden frames. The result is two shroud-like expansive rectangular surfaces that reveal glints metallic green or brown as you move toward and around it, which are caused by intricate shifts in the weaving of the threads. It is the most radically minimalist work in the exhibition, yet richly sensuous. Hanging on an adjacent wall are two works by Grace Bakst Wapner that similarly rely on the quality of the material — in this case, diaphanous veils of semi-transparent gray fabric cut into strips with spiky or curved edges that overlap one another, which both reveal and conceal, hint and withdraw, and suggest a heartbreaking vulnerability, a body cut up and exposed, as well as a Zen-like absence and calm.
Kathy Greenwood utilizes the tradition of hooked rugs in recycling her family’s discarded garments into richly colored biomorphic pieces that however refute the notion of a rug by refusing to lay flat; instead, their puckered, twisted and upraised surfaces and curled edges suggest fanciful sea creatures wriggling across the floor or wall. Kat Howard’s large installation, which is entitled There Is No Calm in Stillness and is positioned against the far wall of the gallery, juxtaposes associations of comfort and domesticity with repulsion and displacement: viscera is suggested in the hundreds of worm-like pieces of nylon stocking stuffed with raw cotton, which are tied together in a jumble on the floor; the mass is enclosed in an intricate net of tightly pulled polyester threads, which extend towards the neighboring wall where they are pulled tight and tied to a meathook.
The spot-lit triangular arrangement of threads aiming toward and penetrating he cotton mass suggest the rays of light intersecting the body of Mary in Renaissance depictions of the Annunciation. Indeed, as Howard, who happened to be at the gallery when I visited, noted, “the threads from the wall feel like divine light piercing the body, but the body is not beautiful…I want to unsettle the viewer intimately,” she explained. “In order to get a reading of my work, the viewer has to come closer [to see the network of threads], and only then can you tell it’s my grotesque version of a body. My work is about trauma, the line between beauty and something dark.” Mundane materials, which in themselves have complex associations (raw cotton, for example, to both forced labor, environmental degradation, and domesticity), activate the space, carrying latent associations of control, abuse and the comfort of home. The artist retains a ghostly presence, her movements traced by the fine network of threads.
The imagery of Ishraq Zraikat’s two pieces, Twin A and Twin B, also suggest bodily organs. Each wall hanging, made of goat hair and woven wool, is a mirror image of the other, in which a floating placenta-like shape, one on a light ground, the other against a dark ground, is defined by layers of pink and gray surrounding an interior cherry-like shape, pink in one piece and red in the other. The artist used a process of felting silk and merino wool, sourced from clothes her mother had made in Jordan, on the goat hair and woven fabric, which is the material used for Bedouin tents. The textures of smooth silk and tufted fur are exquisitely sensual yet somewhat disconcerting, in describing such a fleshy form and in their confounding from the wool ground, given the lack of thread or other indication of sewing.
Many other wonderful works are in the exhibition, which is a departure from the Dorsky’s usual annual Hudson Valley artists show in that it was by invitation, not juried (the decision had to with the museum switching the annual regional artists’ exhibition from the summer to the winter). Curator Karlyn Benson, who serves as the museum’s interim curator and exhibitions manager, came up with the idea for the show and cast a wide net in locating artists. She was familiar with the work of a few, but most were discovered through and researching exhibitions of fiber art.
“While each artist has a unique approach to their chosen medium, several distinct themes run through the exhibition, including the representation of women’s issues, the history of craft and fiber art, cultural heritage, and the environment.,” wrote Benson on the museum website describing the exhibition. “Many of these artists began to use fabric in their work as a conscious reaction to the male-dominated art world that places high value on painting and sculpture above all other art forms. The embrace of fabric and craft—commonly associated with women’s work—opposes and rebels against art history’s patriarchal value system. In addition, the techniques of weaving, sewing, and quilting employed by artists in Homespun are traditional folk practices, and challenge the hierarchical opposition of fine art vs. craft.”
“The Historic Woodstock Art Colony; Arthur A. Anderson Collection” is on view through July 23. “Hudson Valley artists 2023: Homespun” is on view through April 2. The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY-New Paltz is located at One Hawk Drive, New Paltz. Open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 am-5 pm.