THE NEW CRITERION, March 2018
On “Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
If there were ever an artist in need of some re-evaluation, it must be the painter Thomas Cole (1801–1848). Cole’s remarkable life has been long overshadowed by his outsize legacy in American art. Through his protégés Asher Brown Durand and Frederic Edwin Church, Cole famously inspired the “Hudson River School” of landscape painting. But this was a term Cole never knew in his lifetime. His own work, dense with allegory and narrative, shares less than one might expect with the more empirical American landscape artists of the second half of the nineteenth century. In his painted tribute of 1849, Durand immortalized his mentor in death, at forty-seven, as the “Kindred Spirit” of both the poet William Cullen Bryant and the American wilderness, as Cole and Bryant look out over Kaaterskill Falls and the wilds of the Catskill Mountains. But Cole was anything but a rustic, as one might assume, or an American provincial—or even, for that matter, American-born.
“Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings,” an ambitious and scholarly exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reconsiders the New World paintings of the English-born Cole in light of his engagement with Old World art.1 This engagement included the Old Masters, in particular Claude Lorrain, on through Cole’s contemporaries J. M. W. Turner, John Constable, Thomas Lawrence, and John Martin—all of whom he met first-hand through repeated “Atlantic crossings.” By exhibiting Cole’s masterpieces such as The Course of Empire (1833–36) and The Oxbow (1836) alongside the very paintings that Cole saw in the exhibition halls and studios of Europe, “Atlantic Crossings” makes the case that this renowned American artist was enriched by a surprisingly modern and worldly view.
And such revisionism makes sense for anyone who has ever wondered about Cole’s unusual body of work and his true place in American art. It has taken a transatlantic pair of curators to bring such questions to light: Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser (American), the Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum; and Tim Barringer (British), the Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art at Yale University. The genesis for their exhibition emerged in 2013, when the two worked together for a time in the Met’s American Wing. Christopher Riopelle, the Curator of Post-1800 Paintings at the National Gallery, London—where the exhibition will travel next—also contributes his own understanding of European paintings at the time of Cole’s foreign sojourns, as well as the role of the plein-air oil sketch, which Cole adopted during his time in Florence in 1831.
“Cole’s life was anything but insular,” these curators write in their catalogue introduction. “Rather, it was marked by restless transatlantic travel and by a complex, often troubled, engagement with the traditions of European art and thought, a commitment that countered, but paradoxically also heightened, Cole’s abiding passion for the American wilderness.”
Thomas Cole was born on February 1, 1801, in the factory town of Bolton-le-Moors, in Lancashire, England. The city was a center for textile manufacturing on the front lines of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. In 1812, hand-laborers who had lost their livelihoods in spinning and weaving to mechanization attacked and firebombed the Bolton plants. Along with the general squalor and depredations of England’s factory towns, these “Luddites,” named after the folkloric character of “Ned Ludd,” helped define Cole’s dim view of industry and progress.
Far from the American wilderness we might expect, the first rooms of “Atlantic Crossings” are therefore filled with similarly bleak images of urban industry by Turner and Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg. (Less propitiously, I should add, these rooms are also filled with the voice of the pop singer Sting, who has recorded the narration for an opening video. I am sure this celebrity selection sounded good when commissioned for the exhibition. The sound has a less salubrious effect when heard on repeat through the painting galleries. This latter-day Luddite critic simply asks that curators consider the disturbance of such noise in their shows.)
Up against Britain’s new economy, Thomas Cole’s father, James Cole, failed in a string of manufacturing ventures. Ultimately, these failures helped propel Thomas’s successes. At thirteen, Thomas Cole found apprentice work in the production of calico fabrics, designing wood blocks used for printing patterns. A book of such patterns is included in the exhibition. Moving to nearby Liverpool, Cole then became an engraver’s apprentice and was first exposed to the Old Master collection of William Roscoe, the “Liverpool Medici.”
In 1818—two hundred years from the current exhibition, the curators note—the Cole family set sail for America. As James Cole attempted to establish, again unsuccessfully, a wallpaper printing business in Steubenville, Ohio, Thomas, now a young adult, worked as an engraver’s assistant in Philadelphia.
In April 1825, Cole made his way north to New York. It was the year of completion for the Erie Canal, a defining achievement for the emerging world city. It also proved to be an auspicious moment for an artist who would become famous for painting the changing wilderness along the country’s arterial waterways, in particular the Hudson River.
With little in the way of formal training, Cole rapidly scaled the heights of New York’s burgeoning art scene. Paintings such as View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) (1827) announced his arrival. In “Atlantic Crossings,” this stunning painting rises out of nothing, but it already displays many of the characteristics that defined Cole’s body of work: steep, vertiginous perspectives with clear layers of fore-, middle-, and background; gnarled, anthropomorphic trees playing out a melancholy dance on a rocky stage as though illuminated in spotlight; slivers of the Hudson River along a high horizon line signaling deep distance. His dramatic painting Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,” Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) extends these compositional techniques, with theatrical trees replaced by a staging of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking bodice-ripper. Cole found ready patronage for his heroic local scenery among New York’s growing collector class. Their interest in the state’s dramatic sites was hastened by an emerging tourist trade, which brought a new awareness to both the natural beauty and rapid development of the upstate region.
In 1829, through the encouragement of his New York collectors, Cole set out to expand his artistic education back in Europe. He brought with him his sketchbooks of Niagara Falls and other New World wonders with which he hoped to interest Old World buyers. His sales strategy met with limited success, but it was enough to sustain a prolonged Grand Tour that began in London and continued through France and Italy from 1829 through 1832.
The artists Cole was able to meet along the way, all while still in his twenties, attest to both his manifest talents and his intense ambitions. He arrived in London in time to catch the 1829 summer show at the Royal Academy. The exhibition included Constable’s Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames—Morning after a Stormy Night (1829) and Turner’s Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus—Homer’s Odyssey (1829), each now exhibited together again in “Atlantic Crossings,” on loan from the Yale Center for British Art and The National Gallery, London, respectively. Cole attended salons with John Martin and joined Thomas Lawrence, the president of the Royal Academy, for breakfast at his home, followed by a tour of his studio.
But Cole was anything but starstruck. His writings tell of his often humorously low regard for the artists he met. Turner, whom he visited in his studio, was among his greatest disappointments: “I had expected to see an older looking man with a countenance pale with thought, but I was entirely mistaken. He has a common form and common countenance, and there is nothing in his appearance or conversation indicative of genius.” The same goes for the paintings in the Louvre: “I was disgusted in the beginning with their subjects. Battle, murder and death, Venuses and Psyches, the bloody and the voluptuous, are the things in which they seem to delight: and these are portrayed in a cold, hard, and often tawdry style.”
Cole returned to the United States in late 1832. Within four years he completed his most ambitious works: View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, a longtime staple of the Met’s American painting collection, and the five-canvas cycle of The Course of Empire, on loan from the New-York Historical Society.
The classical fantasy of The Course of Empire and the modern factualism of The Oxbow might seem worlds apart. Yet both came out of Cole’s European travels, argues “Atlantic Crossings,” and the visual evidence seems hard to dispute. The same swirling storm clouds of Turner’s Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812) threaten the summit of Mt. Holyoke in The Oxbow. The ruined tower in the left foreground of Constable’s Hadleigh Castle reappears as the overgrown column in The Course of Empire: Desolation. Even the classical columns in the central panel of The Course of Empire have an uncanny resemblance, as Tim Barringer points out, to Cumberland Terrace in Regent’s Park, near Cole’s London lodgings. Yet what’s most remarkable, perhaps, is the result of a new study of The Oxbow. Advanced infrared imaging has revealed that this painting in fact began as an early canvas for The Course of Empire, which Cole painted over.
The same ideas of civilization’s fall, spread over the five panels of The Course of Empire, are summarized in The Oxbow. An Edenic paradise becomes a decadent empire; an American wilderness gives way to the encroachment of farming and logging. This same millenarian view can be found embedded in most everything Cole painted, whether it be the ruins of Aqueduct near Rome (1832) or the ruined forests in the foreground of River in the Catskills (1843).
Born into the English Dissenting tradition and baptized in the fires of Bolton, Cole railed against the “copper-hearted barbarians” and “dollar-godded utilitarians,” the “toiling to produce more toil—accumulating in order to aggrandize” in his writing and his art. His perspective was not that of forward projection but of cautionary reflection, with a message particularly aimed at his adopted homeland, where he became a citizen in 1834.
The painterly innovations Cole picked up in Europe, in particular the mechanics for plein-air oil sketching, inspired the florid naturalism of his American disciples. Yet Cole himself was always less and something more than a pure landscape painter. Unlike the later landscapes of Church or Durand, where nature speaks for itself, Cole used nature to speak for his ideas. Of course, all great landscape painting says something, but Cole’s messaging was more explicit. His compositions were both allegories and real places. His landscapes were science fictions—science and fiction in equal measure. Cole’s overt political messaging might help explain his recent resurgence, even as interest in the later Hudson River School continues to wax and wane. Yet Cole resists oversimplification. He was more than a proto- environmentalist immigrant railing against the populist politics of Jacksonian America. Beyond the political situation, he gave vision to the human condition.
1 “Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings” opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on January 30 and remains on view through May 13, 2018. The exhibition will next travel to The National Gallery, London (June 11–October 7, 2018).
THE NEW CRITERION, February 2018
On the controversy surrounding the Berkshire Museum, and on “Ann Purcell: Caravan Series” at Berry Campbell, “Ben Godward: Sculptures” at Sean Scully Studio, and “Katherine Bernhardt: Green” at Canada.
“All of the paintings that are scheduled for sale are in the care of Sotheby’s.”
Such is the welcome you now receive upon a visit to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The phrase might as well be the museum’s new motto, emblazoned on the banners by the entryway. Times are tough. Forget the past. Everything must go! Through a $50 million liquidation sale, the leaders of this century-old institution have been flaunting their decision to monetize the most valuable non-performing assets, as the saying now goes, of what was once known as the permanent collection.
On the auction block are forty objects selected purely for appraised value, regardless of their ties to the institution, its history, or its mission. Most notable: two innovative motorized sculptures by Alexander Calder, purchased by the museum’s pioneering director Laura Bragg in 1933, the year she gave Calder his first museum exhibition; works by the nineteenth-century painters George Henry Durrie and Albert Bierstadt, both of the local Connecticut River Valley; and two paintings by Norman Rockwell, Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950) and Blacksmith’s Boy—Heel and Toe (1940), given to the museum’s permanent collection by Rockwell himself, who lived and worked in nearby Stockbridge. Through a sale that has been directly opposed by his heirs, one Rockwell painting alone could fetch $30 million at auction.
“Securing the future of this museum requires bold and imaginative thinking,” says Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw, the president of the Berkshire’s board of trustees. In an interview with Berkshire Magazine, Van Shields, the museum’s director, explains what this “bold and imaginative thinking” will mean: “We envision almost being like in Harry Potter.” With the revenue from the sale, “We are going to elevate the museum into becoming a higher-tier attraction. By differentiating in the marketplace, we are going to fit into the cultural mix better.” The collection, or whatever will remain of it, “is going to be on view in a way that is going to be pretty spectacular.”
The Berkshire Museum was already “pretty spectacular” to anyone who cared to notice. Located in the largest town in the Berkshire mountains, the museum was founded in 1902 by Zenas Crane (1840–1917), an heir to the Crane paper company, to be an encyclopedic museum inspired by both the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Just a stone’s throw away from Arrowhead, the farm where Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick (the view of Mount Greylock from his writing desk was his “hump like a snow-hill”), the institution maintained a singular relationship with the artists and writers who congregated in the Berkshire mountains and who enriched the museum’s collection—in particular, Calder and Rockwell.
The museum’s Renaissance Revival design, which will be gutted along with its collection should the sale go through, was the work of the notable local architect Henry Seaver, who also designed halls at nearby Williams College. Exhibits of natural science were built into the lower levels, while the upper floor, illuminated by skylights, was set aside for the art collection. Alexander Calder’s first works of architectural sculpture were commissioned in 1932 as site-specific mobiles for the museum’s central auditorium, which would be destroyed in the redesign.
Shields, in pushing his “New Vision to Serve the Community,” has been markedly unsentimental regarding both the collection and the history of his institution. “These paintings, it is not like we are throwing them out the window,” he gracelessly explains. By selling his collection, he promises to underwrite “learning experiences that will teach skills that foster success in the twenty-first century: critical thinking, creativity, and the ability to collaborate.” “Art,” “donor intent,” and the “public trust” will, presumably, not be on the new curriculum. Nor do such antiquated notions have a place in this future of museum stewardship. “If the paintings leave here, so be it,” Shields concludes. “There’s a Rockwell museum right down the street.”
At press time, Shields has stepped aside on a medical leave, and a court order has temporarily halted his sale. But the museum is moving ahead with plans for the auction, and the Berkshire’s collection still appears on Sotheby’s website. The Pittsfield community has rallied valiantly against the sale of its treasures. Several museum professionals have also spoken out against the “deaccessioning” of a permanent collection to generate operating and capital income, which violates the peer-reviewed standards of American curators and would prevent the Berkshire Museum from borrowing art in the future from member institutions.
Yet through the brazenness of its “bold and imaginative thinking,” the leadership of the Berkshire Museum is seeking to push a “New Vision” not only on its own institution but also on the museum world at large. Other institutions seem to be picking up on the slumlord approach to arts management, where even the copper pipes might be ripped out of the walls, it would seem, for the right return on investment.
Just last month, Philadelphia’s La Salle University consigned forty-six works of its collection to Christie’s. According to the university’s spin, the proceeds from this sale would fund a “five-year strategic plan—a blueprint for La Salle’s sustainable and vibrant future, and a pathway to enhanced student experience and outcomes.” A bumper crop of editorialists has likewise sprouted up to push the new anything-goes mentality: “Art museums should sell works in storage to avoid raising admission fees,” declares Michael O’Hare, a professor of public policy at Berkeley, in the San Francisco Chronicle; “9 Works the Met Should Sell Right Now to Avoid Raising Ticket Prices—Forever,” speculate Menachem Wecker and Margaret Carrigan at Artnet.
And indeed, far from an anomaly, the Berkshire Museum’s “New Vision” is the logical next step to a gestating and pernicious ideology that has long sought to repurpose museums founded to preserve their collections into collections “monetized” to preserve their museums. As I wrote in these pages in December 2016, this drive to transform museums from “being about something to being for somebody” will result in a museum for nobody.
Any place, after all, could encourage “learning experiences that will teach skills that foster success in the twenty-first century.” Through the integrity of its collection, the Berkshire Museum is the only place where visitors can experience a unique institution deeply rooted in the arts and culture of this community. Filled with great art, at least until press time, its value is far greater than the sum of its shamelessly broken-up parts.
The paintings of Ann Purcell are a tour de force of abstract mechanics. At Chelsea’s Berry Campbell gallery, an impressive selection from her “Caravan Series” of the late 1970s and early 1980s is now on view.1
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1941, Purcell studied with the Washington Color School painter Gene Davis, who became a mentor. Color and movement have likewise been hallmarks of her own work. The force of Purcell’s compositions is not so much based on a tension of in and out, surface and depth, but of up and down. Her paintings owe much to a sense for the choreography of shapes and the effects of gravity on forms. In particular, she uses collage, with strips and squares of canvas adhered to free-form acrylic designs, to explore the implications of movement. These forms seem to hang and swing, twist and turn, as though pinned at odd angles. The blue rectangle of Gypsy Wind (1983) tips like a lever. A jumble of shapes leap from the ground in Race Point (1982). These actions then appear to interact with the paint beneath, wiping and stirring her colors into dynamic compositions.
Ben Godward is the wild man of Brooklyn sculpture. Working with quick-drying foam, he creates colorful accretions that often absorb whatever detritus happens to be in the path of his Superfund creations. The plastic cups that he uses to mix his two-part urethane medium lodge into the sides of his swamp things as he flips and turns them into their final state. The casualness of their making and the colors of their execution are all absorbed into the final work, which is part performance and part product. A few years ago I watched him build a molten tower during the first half of a performance of Norte Maar’s “Brooklyn Combine” at the Brooklyn Museum, only to see him chop the thing apart and hand the pieces out to the audience in the second.
“Ben Godward: Sculptures,” now at Sean Scully Studio in Chelsea, is therefore both a departure from and a continuation of these wild beginnings.2 Working with liquid urethane resin, rather than the foaming variety, Godward has poured his medium into box molds, drying them into sheets. The results compress his wild expression into silky panels that resemble stained glass, all built out of layers of translucent pigment. Propped up against the studio walls (in the case of the larger panels) or arranged standing in series (in the case of several smaller compositions), the objects occupy a space between sculpture and painting. In their swirling colors, they also recall abstracted landscapes, like rays of light, or sedimentary rock.
There’s much to see in these absorbing creations, even if they miss out on some of Godward’s reckless spontaneity and the flotsam and jetsam of his more free-form sculptures. A stand-alone object here called Aspirational Sculpture (2018), made of a dirty ladder with urethane panels poured between the rungs, seems the most “Godward” of the lot. And, indeed, his name is scrawled right on its side.
If “Brooklyn Color School” isn’t yet a popular coinage, it’s time we made it one. The Brooklyn-based painter Katherine Bernhardt deploys color that is fast and heated, part Matisse, part Myrtle Avenue. At Canada, a Lower East Side gallery that has been exhibiting another Brooklyn Katherine (Bradford) to great success, Bernhardt uses acrylic and spray paint to lay down a complex matrix of images, often on enormous scale, often (it would seem) in the time it might take for the next elevated J Train to come screeching into the station.3
The results can be visual explosions glimpsed from a passing window. The best are semi-sensical jumbles, such as the cigarettes, smoothies, watermelons, and birds that populate her expansive Direct Flight (2017). Lima Cola (2017) is a similar rebus of Coke bottles, r2d2s, and Stormtroopers, all in the vibrant complementary colors of blue and red. Up close, her paint soaks and drips. Farther back, her images read as coded messages you just about get. Only in the middle do some paintings fall flat, such as her smaller portraits of Stormtrooper + Round Watermelons #1 (2017) and Dole + Darth Vader (2017). Here you just wish the compositions had the space to go fully bananas.
1 “Ann Purcell: Caravan Series” opened at Berry Campbell, New York, on January 4 and remains on view through February 3, 2018.
2 “Ben Godward: Sculptures” opened at Sean Scully Studio, New York, on January 4 and remains on view through February 8, 2018.
3 “Katherine Bernhardt: Green” opened at Canada, New York, on January 5 and remains on view through February 11, 2018.