Albert Pinkham Ryder and a Century of American Art – The Brooklyn Rail
New Bedford Whaling Museum
June 24 – October 31, 2021
New Bedford, MA
The exhibition currently on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum is a unique opportunity to see a collection of 25 paintings by Albert Pinkham Ryder (whose total production is estimated at around 160 paintings) and related works by modern and contemporary artists. . Widely neglected by scholars, Ryder is the quintessential artist, an object of reverence among painters since his later years. Despite its wide influence, it has been 30 years since Albert Pinkham Ryder’s last comprehensive exhibition, curated by Elizabeth Broun, then director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in 1990-91 at SAAM and the Brooklyn Museum. The current exhibit in Ryder’s hometown was curated by Broun, now Director Emeritus; William C. Agee, curator and professor emeritus at Hunter College; and Christina Connett Brophy, former chief curator of the Whaling Museum and now senior director of the museum’s galleries at the Mystic Seaport Museum.
Born in New Bedford in 1847, Ryder moved with his family in the late 1860s to New York, where he remained for the rest of his life. After training at the National Academy of Design, he participated in exhibitions sponsored by the Society of American Artists and worked for artist and dealer Daniel Cottier. By the turn of the century, Ryder stopped sending works to exhibitions and limited his social interactions. He spends more and more time on his canvases, refusing to let go and delaying the delivery of commissioned works for years. It is probably this engaged but selfless activity that has caught the attention of generations of artists, such as Jackson Pollock, who once said, “The only American master that interests me is Ryder.1
At the Whaling Museum, curators have grouped Ryder’s paintings according to iconographic themes that reveal a broader scope than the seascapes for which he is most famous: early landscapes and pastoral scenes, orientalist and mythological subjects show his scope. The visitor is greeted by Flying Dutchman (completed in 1887), one of Ryder’s most famous paintings, which shares its subject with the no less spectacular Jonah (circa 1885-1895) and Lord Ullin’s daughter (before 1907) – all display the gripping moment of a maritime drama in a centrifugal rhythm of foamy paintings. The exhibition also presents some rarely seen paintings, among which the few Ryders in private hands, such as the luminous Landscape-Woman and Child (around 1875) and Near Litchfield, Connecticut (1876), which is based on a combination of the delicate sfumato of George Inness with a raw brush. The glazes slowly infiltrated with yellows and ochres at the beginning Landscape with sheep (ca. 1870) offer an atmosphere of metaphysical presence. Ryder, who once wrote, “You can’t get the tone without reworking something over and over again,” was known for the thick paint surfaces of his works, such as Lorelei (ca. 1896-1917), on which he worked for 20 years.2 However, the exhibit also features a few examples of Ryder’s early, quickly painted planks, which were made almost in one go, with the dark background of the wood still visible through the paint, as in The lovers’ boat (around 1881) and Pegasus at the start (completed in 1901).
The exhibition catalog, released a year ago to coincide with the exhibition’s original opening date, which has been postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions (resulting in changes for some loans), is a publication substantial. High-quality images alternate with the essays of the three commissioners. While Brophy’s text focuses on the historical and artistic context of New Bedford, Broun provides an analysis of Ryder’s work and the effect of his paintings on viewers. As she writes, Ryder’s works “slowly reveal their appeal over time, after repeated gazes,” echoing the artist’s slow work.3 Agee’s essay (like her curation) focuses on Ryder’s legacy: “Her influence across generations of artists has often been silent, if not invisible, like an underground stream, yet still flowing steadily. “4 Agee explains that Ryder’s paintings appealed to artists by giving them “permission to feel again, to break free from the shackles of theory.”5 This license for freedom and individuality was also felt by painter Peter Shear, who describes Ryder’s work as a “lucky place to get lost at a time when, like all young artists, I was seeking permission to to be myself “.6
While contemporary works, like Shear’s, are displayed separately from Ryder’s, a small, more historical section puts a Ryder painting in dialogue with those of various modern artists whose works deeply echo those of Ryder, like Arthur. Dove, Charles Burchfield, Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock. Marsden Hartley’s white Seagull (1942-1943) hangs next to a reproduction of Ryder Dead bird (1890s, Phillips Collection), which, along with Hartley’s magnificent portrait of Ryder in 1938 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), has unfortunately not been loaned to the exhibition. Hartley was known for his longtime interest in Ryder, although their interactions were limited; he would follow Ryder through the streets on his nocturnal walks without disturbing him. Ryder’s tumultuous and expressive whirlpools find an echo in Pollock’s early works, such as the small but mighty TP boat in Menemsha pond (around 1934). Pollock painted it when he was studying with Thomas Hart Benton. Pollock’s professor channeled his love for Ryder into the young artist, who was also associated with the Ferargil Galleries, known to have handled Ryder’s counterfeits – these proliferated from the 1910s to the 1930s.
A notorious counterfeit of a lost Ryder painting, Nourmahal (completed 1924), is featured in the New Bedford Exhibition, giving an interesting insight into the artist’s intricate work, which included more circulating forgeries than genuine paintings. Despite the high quality of the fake shown here (he duped the Met curator who acquired it in 1932), its flatness reveals a very different method than Ryder’s. Instead of the lengthy editing, layering and frosting, and rugged surface, the forged canvas displays an even surface without the awkwardness of an authentic painting. When a Ryder painting involves hesitation, change, repentance, and repair, counterfeiting is efficient and straightforward. He manages to take Ryder’s way while “leaving aside the difficult intensity and originality of the emotion”, as Clement Greenberg once suggested.7 The regular pattern of forged cracks lacks the charm of the deep, erratic crevices of an original Ryder.
Bill Jensen’s A Room of Ryders (dedicated to Ronnie Bladen) (1986-1988) is probably the most accurate representation of what one feels in a Ryders play. The overwhelming intensity of the compressed feelings, the dynamic and interpenetrating forms all echo Ryder’s process of creative stewing and experimentation with the medium, a way of working that Jensen describes as “trial and error”.8 The title of Jensen’s work refers to sculptor Ronald Bladen, who is featured alongside Jensen with a heavily impasted early painting. An adjacent room features a short film showing Jensen in his Williamsburg studio talking about Ryder, which will be included in an upcoming Ryder Legacy documentary film directed by Sarah Cowan and Stephanie Wuertz.
The curating of this exhibit showcases Ryder’s legacy in contemporary art primarily through artists’ interest in Ryder and iconographic resemblances – the moonlight theme is particularly important, although it is in fact more common. in contemporary works than in those of Ryder. A painting by Katherine Bradford depicts a ghostly ship at night, while Lois Dodd’s seven small paintings depict moonlight and night landscapes. In Emily Auchincloss’ abstract works, it is the intentionally small scale that refers to Ryder’s preference for limited height. She understands that while Ryder’s constructed surfaces are not extensive, they are both literally and figuratively deep, containing “time itself – time spent changing your mind, time spent doubting, time spent painting, stopping, looking. Watch again. Months, years, decades, compressed on the web.9
- “Jackson Pollock: A Questionnaire”, Arts and architecture (Los Angeles) 61, n ° 2 (February 1944): 14.
- Elisabeth Broun, Albert Pinkham Ryder (Washington: published for the National Museum of American Art by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), 212.
- William C. Agee, Elizabeth Broun and Christina Connett Brophy, A wild note of nostalgia: Albert Pinkham Ryder and a century of American art (New York: Rizzoli Electa; New Bedford: in association with the New Bedford Whaling Museum, 2020), 97-98.
- Agee, Broun and Brophy, Desire, 153.
- Ibid., 165.
- Wall text of the exhibition.
- Clement Greenberg, “Review of an Exhibition by Albert Pinkham Ryder” (1947), in Clement Greenberg, The Essays Collected and Criticism: Volume 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 180.
- Agee, Broun and Brophy, Desire, 208.
- Ibid., 203.