On ViewThomas Cole National Historic Site & Olana State Historic Site
June 12 – October 31, 2021
Catskill & Hudson, NY
In 2015 the artist Stephen Hannock and I curated a show titled River Crossings: Contemporary Art Comes Home at Cedar Grove in Catskill, the home and studio of Thomas Cole, and at Olana, Cole’s pupil Frederic Church’s 250-acre environment and neo-Persian home in Hudson. This was the first collaboration between these two ur-sites of American landscape painting, and it helped to draw attention to them and spur both enhancements of the properties and a renewed interest in their former inhabitants in the burgeoning contemporary art community upstate. Since that time, the Thomas Cole site has been triumphantly transformed: the original wall colors and dadoes of the early-19th century farmhouse have been revealed and restored, new exhibits both digital and analog have been introduced, Cole’s final studio has been rebuilt and serves now as a state-of-the-art exhibition space. The house and grounds look splendid and now rival Olana across the river, whose own multi-year effort is well underway to bring the parkland back to the state that Church intended, to increase public access to the surroundings, and to enhance both views from and of this singularly beautiful house. Meanwhile, the Hudson River Skywalk over the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and a newly designed series of trails connect the two properties for the first time.
Building on this success is the second collaborative historical/contemporary art show between the two sites: Cross Pollination is the product of a partnership with the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, which has lent 16 prized images of hummingbirds by the quirky American salt marsh painter and naturalist Martin Johnson Heade for the occasion, along with other works.1 Heade showed 12 of them in Brazil in 1864 but the intended chromolithograph publication, Gems of Brazil (1863–64), was never completed. The gorgeous roughly 12 by 10-inch oil paintings were the product of observation of live and dead specimens, the artist freezing the flight of these most difficult to see birds and picturing them on branches or aloft with opulent flora against atmospheric tropical backdrops. Heade would continue to paint hummingbirds for 40 years, seeing what he called these “seemingly insignificant but most brilliant and attractive little creatures” as sublime and poetic analogues for the parlous state of the natural world. Cross Pollination addresses an element of the work of the Hudson River School (or First New York School) and its present inheritors upstate (or Third New York School) that our show six years ago could only lightly touch upon: that is, the ecological emergency that humanity has brought on itself and now must face in our fraught Anthropocene, as intuited in the works of our 19th-century forebearers.
Jeff Whetstone, Drawing E. obsoleta, 2011. Installation view, The Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Photo: © Peter Aaron/OTTO.
The informative catalogue to the exhibition builds upon recent research by Maggie M. Cao, Theodore E. Stebbins Jr.’s many publications on Heade, and Tim Barringer and Elizabeth Kornhauser’s groundbreaking Thomas Cole exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that productively cast almost every facet of his practice in a new light.2 Heade’s series of paintings of hummingbirds are ostensibly the impetus for the show and they are striking. In the throes of the Civil War the artist sailed to Rio de Janeiro in the hopes of producing designs he could then publish in book form. Setting aside the diminished demand for exquisitely illustrated natural history books in a war-torn nation, his aesthetic focus and commitment to scientific accuracy had an impact on his peers and later generations of American artist/naturalists.
Contemporary artists have responded to Heade’s ecological challenge in a variety of ways. At Cedar Grove, Cole’s house and grounds, Mark Dion and Dana Sherwood have erected a neo-Victorian lavender and violet-hued Pollinator Pavilion between the house and Cole’s restored final studio, where eight of Heade’s Gems of Brazil and other 19th-century works in the show including watercolors by Church’s daughter Isabel are displayed. Comfortable seating in the open-air pavilion encourages respiting and plentiful plantings attract hummingbirds and other species. Inside the house itself are works by several artists including Patrick Jacobs’s Duchampian Pink Forest with Stump (2016), an expansive multimedia diorama behind a wall visible through a small glass oculus, and lovely terraria of living plants by Paula Hayes in hand-blown glass that interact with both paintings from the Cole House collection and the magnificent Catskill views out the windows, collapsing the micro and the macro, the natural and the artificial. The display also features photographs by Rachel Sussmann, engaging motorized flip-books of hummingbirds by Juan Fontanive, oils by Dana Sherwood, an installation by Sayler/Morris, and sculptural works by Jeffrey Gibson, Nick Cave, and Lisa Sanditz, smartly installed amidst historical material by curator Kate Menconeri and director Betsy Jacks. In Cole’s barn/first studio is Jeff Whetstone’s mesmeric film Drawing E. Obsoleta (2011), spliced together from months of shooting his blackened hand holding a stick and gently manipulating a rat snake on a white surface to produce human/reptilian drawings. It is calligraphic, arabesques abound, and while you may think of films of Picasso painting on glass or Pollock playing Jack the Dripper for Hans Namuth in the Springs, this imaginative and ambitious aesthetic collaboration between snake and person reads as haunting and symbolic.
Across the Hudson at Olana the highlight is outside the house: Jean Shin’s eloquent and enticing installation FALLEN (2021) featuring a Church-planted 140-year-old hemlock tree from the grounds that died earlier this year and which she and a corps of volunteers has stripped of its bark using traditional tools of the tanning industry (a practice in the nearby forests that both Cole and Church bitterly lamented). They then outfitted the denuded tree with a patchwork of offcut pieces of brown, blue, and yellow colored leather attached with rivets that forms a Frankensteinian skin and balanced the over 30-foot long trunk on gneiss and quartzite boulders on top of a bed of its own discarded bark. It lies on the lawn outside Olana’s main entrance like a docked ship, a deceptively elegant and deeply moving reminder of cycles of nature and humankind’s irreversible impact on its environs. Shin has also traversed the massive 250-acre property and tagged the surviving hemlocks, trees under assault now not by humans but by an invasive insect, an act both hopeful and desperate—two qualities we need as a race to deal with our self-inflicted state. Inside the house, the works by Nick Cave, Vik Muniz, Flora Mace, Jeffrey Gibson, Sussman, and Portia Munson enhance the interior overseen by curator William L. Coleman and director Sean E. Sawyer. Most welcome is Cole’s daughter Emily’s lovely magnolia decorated tea service that she designed in 1900, displayed, appropriately, in the dining room. Two upstairs galleries house the remainder of Heade’s works including a perfect painting of a monumental Blue Morpho butterfly, as well as more works by Cole and Frederic and Isabel Church productively mixed with contemporary material from Richard Estes and Paula Hayes. Naturalism came naturally to artists in the 19th century, clinging to their diminishing environs in their rapidly industrializing nation, on land that Algonquin-speaking tribes had respected for generations. This appears most urgently in Heade’s whimsical Gremlin in the Studio I of ca. 1871–75, a little-seen curiosity from a private collection. One of Heade’s panoramic, twilit marsh landscapes sits elevated on two rough hewn sawhorses in the Greenwich Village studio he shared with Church. Underneath, the malevolent sprite of the title, a flat red balloon-like head supported by angular stick arms and spindly legs, appears, and we see that the marsh depicted in the painting is draining, unimpeded, onto the studio floor, to the gremlin’s delight. It was one thing to paint paradise, another to see it fritter away in your own lifetime.
The catalogue features essays by the collaborators Kate Menconeri, Julia B. Rosenbaum, Mindy N. Besaw from Crystal Bridges, and William L. Coleman. Cross Pollination: Heade, Cole, Church, and Our Contemporary Moment (Thomas Cole National Historic Site and The Olana Partnership, 2020).
Jason Rosenfeld, review of Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings, The Brooklyn Rail, March 2018. https://brooklynrail.org/2018/03/artseen/Thomas-Coles-Journey-Atlantic-Crossings