On ViewArkell Museum
May 28 – December 30, 2021
If you drive along the Erie Canal today, you are not likely to see much action. But 130 years ago, it was the most important waterway in the East, and second only in the country to the Mississippi River. So anyone looking to make a living in upstate New York—including artists—would gravitate there. That in part is what determined the itinerary of Fritz Vogt (1842–1900), an itinerant renderer who worked in five counties west of Albany. He left behind hundreds of drawings in graphite and colored pencil that give a glimpse of a world that no longer exists, when towns were growing and farming was prosperous. Even more interesting is what they reveal of the differing aesthetic demands impelling a commercial artist.
Selections of this work have been shown at various locations in New York, most recently in the jewel-box like exhibition of 18 pieces at the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie, one of those cities along the canal that Vogt passed through. We know little about the artist except that he made the drawings in the 1890s, long after photography had established itself as the preferred method of documentation for architecture and landscape. Yet the owners of the buildings he drew—middle class homes, businesses and farms, mostly—patronized the work. The Garlock family of Canajoharie, for example, could have trusted their house pride to a photographer, but nothing dignified possession like a picture made by hand. Vogt slept in the houses, barns, and hotels he drew, and the sense of a commercial artist’s life on the road in the broad middle of 19th century America is vivid and poignant.
It didn’t matter that Vogt, who most likely taught himself to draw in the course of studying architecture, possibly in Germany (documents are sparse) had little conventional talent. The ruler was his life raft and he was often at sea. He struggled with perspective like a student in an art class, and he often bit off more than he could chew, as when he tried his hand at an entire streetscape. In one picture, the Farmer’s Hotel is jammed in between buildings of different proportional sizes, which shear off in different directions. Only the train tracks running across the entire sheet in the foreground hold the scene together. But fluency was not the point; detail and frontality were. The client expected the subject to be not only recognizable but prominent, even stately. The effect was augmented, as in commercial prints of the time, with lettering, bordering and titling. The entire ensemble bespeaks an archival ambition: like the Erie Canal, these places were established, and they weren’t going away.
The failure to master visual conventions in their ardent pursuit is what gives so much folk and outsider art its charm, but in Vogt’s drawings something more intense is going on. He seems to have had two aesthetic sides, and they coexisted uncomfortably. The first was mechanical, embodied in his architectonic and perspectival struggles. The second was expressive, elaborated in the diaphanous greenery that decorated his landscapes, as well as in the elaborate, formal script of the titles and in the delicate colors he applied. These details may seem like bells and whistles on the commercial engine of architectural drafting, but they constitute a subversive strategy, a probably unconscious bait and switch that customers seemed to have responded to.
Baroque art overcame many dichotomies by pushing to the limit relationships between stasis and flow, line and color, nature and culture, evanescence and permanence, pleasure and moral use. But the Baroque never came to the Mohawk valley, and Vogt could not have embraced its solutions in any case. He had a job to do, and his customers were practical people, probably the same sort as those who insisted, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Artist of the Beautiful (1844), that Owen Warland gave up his useless search for aesthetic perfection. Nevertheless, the trees of upstate New York seem to have freed Vogt’s hand to indulge itself in pure drawing pleasure. And in the process, the landscape enabled him to give his customers not simply the evidence of their achievement, but an experience of the beauty of it.