If you’re small and regional, and there are several of you, you can make more of an impact if you join forces. That’s the premise of “Linking Collections, Building Connections: Works from the Hudson Valley Visual Art Collections Consortium,” an exhibition at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, located at SUNY-New Paltz, that digs into the archives of not just the Dorsky, but also the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, Center for Photography at Woodstock, Woodstock Artists’ Association & Museum and Women’s Studio Workshop (WSW). On display are 150 artworks that encapsulate the intense artistic activity that occurred in the mid-Hudson Valley over the last century or so and continues still. The show has been up since August and closes on December 11, so if you haven’t seen it, you can still catch it over this weekend.
Usually the lending institution is a mere footnote, meriting no more than a line of type on the label of the exhibited artwork. Here, the institutions take center stage – an approach that is partly merited by the fact that each has played an unusually active role in helping generate the art that it then has collected, conserved and shown. As Michael Asbill – an artist living in Accord who created the exhibition’s pièce de résistance, a multimedia work titled The Cloud – notes in the catalogue for the show, all of these particular institutions are noteworthy for the involvement of artists and formed productive community settings for artmaking. (His own commission and contribution qualify the Dorsky, the newcomer in the bunch, as well.)
That special emphasis on community left an indelible mark on the kind of work that was produced, be it the exquisite Arts-and-Crafts furniture made by hand at Byrdcliffe or KaKe Art’s Seen around Rosendale photographic series, in which the sign-wielding artist, posed in various vicinities, conflates a self-conscious sense of a small-town atmosphere with celebrity sightings, touching on the communal vibe.
Asbill’s piece consists of representative artworks stretching from the mid-19th century to the present, arranged chronologically on a wall painted with a pixillated image of a cloud, which he took from a Bierstadt painting. Scattered among the paintings, photographs and drawings are several electronic monitors, displaying video art as well as works selected from the electronic database on a keyboard by the visitor. It’s the bridge between the concrete and the virtual, extending the exhibition outward through cyberspace while imaginatively conjuring up what a fragment of the latest in digital data management might look like, were it to materialize into actual objects.
Curators Ariel Shanberg and Brian Wallace arranged artwork culled from the various institutions into themes, including the self-referential categories of “patronage” and “making history” (through the involvement of artists). One of the most compelling is “Circles of Affiliation: The Cramers,” which was a particularly clever way for the curators to leverage the overlap in images and subjects among the collections. Konrad Cramer joined the Maverick after immigrating to America from his native Germany, where he had studied with Kandinsky; he and wife became seminal figures in the Woodstock art colony. Photos of the strikingly handsome Cramer, including one by Stieglitz, intermingle with paintings by Cramer and his wife Florence, depicting themselves and their circle of friends and family over the years, and much of the story seems to be told between the lines – such as the stylistic influences that held sway over the years.
The inclusion of a few works by Big Names – a photo by Jacob Riis, a small, luscious painting of a cherry-red coffee cup by Philip Guston, made when he was living in Woodstock in 1973 – provides a fascinating sense of the pivotal dance between the regional scene and the larger art world, canonized in art history narratives. The Guston in particular is a gem: Its slabs of steam, poised like a pair of pink, fleshy wings over the black void of the cup’s opening, turn this most ordinary of morning events into a carnal reckoning, a premonition of escape, while simultaneously denying the mysticism of smoke or beauty for beauty’s sake. But it’s the overall richness of the regional art scene that most engages and delights, in its repetitions (the roundhouse and railyards in the Rondout, for example, which were a popular subject among the Woodstock artists in the 1930s), recollections (lithographs and drawings of Eddyville when it had no trees; a meditative photo by Lilo Raymond of walls of peeling paint in Kingston’s City Hall before its restoration) and resonances between past and present (the posed, soft-focus sepia photographs of Eva Watson-Schutze, circa 1905, find an echo in the series The Binnewater Gang – also sepia, also harking back to an earlier century, except that they were staged by Sandra Brown, Lindsey Clark-Ryan and Crystal Hammerschmidt in 2007, turning romantic myth and reverie into farce).
On the far left-hand side of the wall of Asbill’s Cloud is the earliest piece in the show: a luminous Hudson River painting by Jervis McEntee, a resident of the Rondout who painted in the mid- and late 19th century. It’s one of two Hudson River paintings purchased by the Dorsky and hints at a curious void, which is the lack of more representations of the school of painting that was the first art movement in America and historically the most significant for the region. Sara Pasti, the Dorsky’s director, explained that most of the work was collected by the New-York Historical Society and hence went to New York; it wasn’t until the early 20th century that there was any sort of arts association or collecting entity in this region (apart from Vassar).
The project of collaboration is designed to make sure that a big gap in the art history of the region doesn’t happen again – that the record isn’t lost because the institutions were too small, that the collections continue to grow, that in fiscal hard times money is still found to commission art and offer artists’ residencies. The overview of the past century offered by the exhibit is compelling enough that the current art that is being made and collected in the area is already writing its own history. “Two hundred and fifty years hence, when people look back, they’ll see the art that is being made now,” Pasti said.
The Dorsky is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The suggested donation is $5. A catalogue of the show is available for $12.