Family time

Friday, June 7, 2019

Old and in the way

Thomas Cole - Catskill Mountain House - 1843
Odd, two national articles referencing the seminal Hudson River painter Thomas Cole this month. He's been gone for 171 years now by my reckoning.

It's not often that I find myself in agreement with a right wing columnist and I don't buy much of his argument but if you have an interest read Brian Allen's Classic American Art in the doldrums at National Review.

In terms of art and architecture we have largely thrown our classical foundations away for a chimera of empty dross and vacant fancy.

Still he goes a bit rhetorically overboard in his reasoning for the sea change in current taste to modernism, ascribing very convenient and tendentious political foils.
The great American landscape and seascape painters created a visual iconography for civic and religious ideals celebrating the country’s past, present, and future. Explorers, settlers, and cowboys were once heroes, making land and sea an asset for human advancement and prosperity. Now, they’re more likely racists, polluters, swindlers, killers.
His argument is weak. Cole painted in the era of the Grand Landscape, humans and their presence didn't really even start entering the picture plane in a major way here in America until the ashcan and social realist movements of the teens and twenties. And the human advancement of these settlers he romantically extols left a trail of devastation and misery for the native inhabitants.

He also unnecessarily takes a cheap shot at the African American artist Hale Woodruff, calling one of his works hideous and suggesting that the artist is unknown and has little merit, something I profoundly disagree with. He alleges that his currently popularity is merely race driven.
A hideous painting by Hale Aspacio Woodruff, Picking Cotton, from 1926, sold for $764,000. He’s a minor African-American artist. It’s not that Woodruff is in style; nobody’s heard of him. It’s his race and his subject that appeal.
I didn't realize that there was a cadre of right wing, racist art historians, guess I learned something new. Frightening.

The other article mentioning Cole is at the New Yorker, Timelessness in Works by Thomas Cole and Brice Marden by Peter Schjeldahl. The author compares the 19th century painter to a man he refers to as the last great American abstractionist. I don't really buy this either and don't know why he felt the need to conflate the two painters either for the purposes of this article they have as much in common as marbles and whipping cream.
All differences aside, I absorbed from works by both artists a poetic affirmation of reconciliation with nature, including the human kind, and a recoil from the wastage of nature’s gifts. The shows hint at long spiritual rhythms that are not lost, though they may be occluded, in the staccato frenzies of our day.
Very poetic but long spiritual rhythms are a bit over my pay grade, I'll take his word for it.

On the subject of Modern Art, looks like MoMA in New York is headed is heading in a better direction. See the New York Times, Will the renovated MoMA let folk art back in?

You can't stay stuck in the past but you throw it away at your peril. Many wonderful museums in this country that have done so have become mere bastions of institutional cynicism and shadows of their former selves. The DeYoung comes immediately to mind. If I want to see great art in San Francisco I go to the Legion of Honor.


Sanoguy said...

I looked up Hale Woodruff... His work looks to be very, very good... he appears to have been prolific also. I don't know where he fits in the pantheon of African American artists, but, it is hard to believe that he is a "minor" artist.

Blue Heron said...

I agree with you Mike. In my opinion, Woodruff was an excellent artist. But that doesn't fit with the opinion in some right wing circles that if a black person is awarded acclaim, it can't be for reasons of merit.