Vol. LXII, No. 36
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
STEPHEN SONDHEIM IN NEW HOPE: This photograph of composer Stephen Sondheim was taken in the 1960s by Jack Rosen and can be seen in Art and the River at the James A. Michener Art Museum in New Hope. The exhibition will run through October 5. You can find a wealth of information about various Bucks County artists on the museums interactive database at www.michenermuseum.org/bucksartists.
“New Hope! It’s rather curious that we should have selected a town by that name as our first stopping place. It was a beautiful spot, too, reminding me somewhat of a slumbering European village.”
Henry Miller in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare
Back in his homeland in 1941 after a decade abroad, the author of Tropic of Cancer could see nothing but mockery in the name of the first stop on his journey through the U.S.A. in a 1932 Buick. Although he had come to the artists colony on the banks of the Delaware to visit abstract painter Bill Ney, a kindred spirit whom he found to be “the very symbol of new hope, new enthusiasm, new deals,” he nevertheless concluded that there was “no hope for the artist” in America.
Miller’s pessimism is belied by “Art and the River,” the lively, essentially optimistic exhibit at the Michener Art Museum in New Hope, where a watercolor by Bill Ney himself (View from New Street) is among over 50 works celebrating the Delaware River and Delaware Canal now on view in the Della Penna Gallery through October 5. Evidence of “the symbol of new hope’s” impact on the local scene can be found on the museum’s impressively wide-ranging interactive database for the Bucks County Artists (www.michenermuseum.org/bucks artists), which credits Ney with changing the face of the town during his 40 years there: “Building and remodeling property on Mechanic Street, he transformed it into an artist’s community, dubbed the Latin Quarter. He also built the Tow Path House “and introduced an abstract, non objective aesthetic to the area” that set him apart from “the impressionists who dominated the New Hope art scene” at the time. In 1927 this “outspoken modernist” led a group of progressive artists to secede from the “too conservative” Phillips Mill exhibition. Three decades later the same exhibition was awarding him top prize.
Charles Frederic Ramsey, who joined Ney in seceding and then founded The New Group in 1930, is represented in “Art and the River” under the category New Hope Modernism. The playful and compelling central image in his oil, The Cloud (ca. 1919), is the sort that invites Rorshach-style guessing games. You can almost imagine a preview of Disney in the early-Mickey-Mouse shape of the cloud, like a sprawling, seemingly freeform subversion of the geometric vision suggested by the bright, blocky, autumnal landscape laid out below it. Mainly, it’s fun to look at, a whimsical cloud floating over a formation of child’s building blocks. The building-block simplicity is more starkly figured in Ramsey’s The New Hope — Lambertville Bridge. Painted in 1919 and looking as fresh as yesterday afternoon, this oil on cardboard laid on masonite is one of the works I kept coming back to admire. I wonder what those more conservative impressionists made of this joyous, righteously “non objective” vision? It’s hard to imagine how anyone from any school of art could resist it. Born in France in 1875, Ramsey camouflaged ships for the war effort during World War I and settled in New Hope in 1917 after being dismissed as director of the Minneapolis School of Art “for alleged socialist views.”
On the same wall with Ramsey’s two paintings is a much larger work by a later abstract artist, Alan Gold stein (b. 1938), whose oil and charcoal on canvas, Upriver From Lumberville Walking Bridge II (ca. 1981), would almost certainly have riled the jurors at the 1927 Phillips Mill exhibition. The work resembles a template construct of the scene where the subdued fall colors of the shore meet the varying blue segments of the the Delaware, which is more often than not seen as blue in “Art and the River.” Like Ramsey’s bridge, Goldstein’s invites you into the scene. An abstract triptych that could be compared to a flattened piece of sculpture or a do-it-yourself mobile kit, it not only turns the view on its head, it disassembles it; you almost feel that you could move it about like the backdrop for a stage set; no wonder then that, according to the database, Goldstein approached a career in painting by way of architecture and set design.
Lights in Windows
The idea that the politics of aesthetics could have created dissension among these painters hardly seems credible when you see how well the show’s images complement one another, whether grouped with the Contemporary Scene or the Impressionist Tradition or New Hope Modernism. As much as I enjoyed the abstract visions of Ramsey and Goldstein, not to mention pure landscapes like Daniel Garber’s The Quarry and Lowry’s Hill and Edward Redfield’s Early Spring, and darkly moody early work like William C. Lathrop’s Misty Day on the Canal from 1903, I was especially intrigued by the subtle glimmers of the human presence in the form of lighted windows all but lost in darkness, as in George Sotter’s Christ mas on the Canal or Walter Schofield’s Winter Landscape, and most extravagantly, in the lights, at once festive, magical, and sinister, in Anthony Michael Autorino’s Bridge Street from Rail Yard. (Magical for sure, since the documentation places the painting ca. 1920 when the artist was born in 1938.)
Among the most impressive works in the show is Robert Beck’s Second Crossing, a night scene in which you’re staring head-on at the dark prow of the most famous boat that ever crossed the Delaware. The vague human forms that you can barely discern need no introduction. The conventional renditions of Washington crossing the Delaware are side views. This one is coming magnificently right at you while in the dark hills of the background you can see one or two scattered lights that might be camp fires or lighted windows or anything you care to imagine.
Not surprisingly in an exhibit where a river and a canal are the subjects, these glimpses of human presence are rare, by day or by night (with the exception of Stephen Sondheim). While the notion of hope may have little to do with landscapes, river views, or cloud formations, those lighted windows suggest that people are somewhere on the other side hoping, or dreaming, or reading, or making love, or writing, or painting.
Bucks County Luminaries
One of the saddest aspects of the impending permanent closing of the New Hope branch of the Michener in February 2009 is the loss of a remarkable permanent display on the history and the future of the arts in Bucks County — a multi-media, interactive exhibition highlighting the life and work of the artists, authors, playwrights, lyricists, and composers who have lived and worked in the area, including Oscar Hammerstein, Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perlman, Pearl Buck, Henry Chapman Mercer, and Harlem Renaissance novelist Jean Toomer, whose novel Cane has been architecturally assembled in the gallery, page by page in its entirety, a veritable house of words. The Moss Hart exhibit features an actual stage door, and there’s even a “newsstand” displaying magazines of the period when Perlman and Parker were in their New Yorker prime. In the video theater you can see clips from innumerable Hollywood films featuring the contributions of Bucks County writers and composers, from The Jazz Singer and Animal Crackers to On the Waterfront. It’s a supremely imaginative celebration and we can only hope that the Michener administration and the powers that be in New Hope will find another home for it somewhere in the town. It’s a natural tourist attraction that has been overlooked and that should not be missed. The museum is located at 500 Union Square Drive, New Hope. Gallery hours: Tuesday-Friday. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday (Memorial Day through Labor Day) 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit www.michenerartmuseum.org for further information.
“Art and the River” is sponsored by Jim’s of Lambertville Fine Art Gallery. Additional funding is provided by Lou & Carol Della Penna, Marsha Brown Creole Kitchen at the Olde Stone Church, Nouveau Magazine, Park Place Antique Jewelry, and Lambertville House.
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