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Art: America’s Saintly Sage

7 minute read
Robert Hughes

In the end, it is artists who make other artists famous. A striking case in point, in America, was Albert Pinkham Ryder. This somewhat reclusive visionary was born in 1847; grew up in the whaling town of New Bedford, Mass.; studied in New York City; spent most of his working life there and died in 1917. As far as is known, he painted fewer than 200 works. Yet a succession of American artists has looked up to him as a sage, a holy man: the native prophet who linked tradition to modernism.

The young independents who organized the epochal Armory Show in 1913 — Arthur B. Davies, George Bellows, Walt Kuhn and others — made sure that Ryder was the only American to share its central galleries with the new European masters: Matisse, Gauguin, Cezanne, Van Gogh. “There’s only Ryder in American painting,” remarked Kuhn. “No artist ever used more of the vital energies of the imagination than Ryder,” wrote Marsden Hartley in 1936, “and no one was ever truer to his experience . . . One finds his elements so perfectly true that even the moon herself must recognize them if she had time to look.” For Jackson Pollock, in 1944, “the only American master who interests me is Ryder.” From Andrew Wyeth and Morris Graves in the 1940s to Bill Jensen today, Ryder influenced or at least had some talismanic value for a striking number of Americans who had nothing else in common.

The difference between fiction and myth is that people do not feel impelled to act on fictions, whereas myths are a guide to life. In this sense, one could say that Ryder, in the process of becoming the very prototype of the saintly visionary, patron of outsiders, pure of spirit and attuned to the great rhythms of nature, became America’s first mythic artists’ artist.

Yet to visit the Ryder retrospective, the first in a generation, which has been assembled with meticulous scholarship by Elizabeth Broun at the Brooklyn Museum (through Jan. 8), is to become sharply aware of the limits of the Ryder myth. He is like Poe — so overwrought, yet so influential. One sees, not for the first or only time, the paradox of American art in its larval days: how its course could be deeply affected, and the enthusiasm of its artists unstintingly engaged, by works whose actual aesthetic merits often seem slight.

The show contains perhaps a dozen paintings before which one can feel the enthusiasm Ryder’s name has always generated. Most of these are his famous “marines” — dark, concentrated images of boats, the fishing smacks of his New England youth, pitted against wind and wave under the centered, tide- dragging eye of the moon. But then there is the rest of his work, and especially the earlier religious and allegorical material, much of which is bathetic and some quite ludicrous in its earnest gropings toward elevated pictorial speech.

In part, these limits were due to the poverty of Ryder’s training as a draftsman of the human figure. Ryder could make dramatic, even magical conjunctions of shape. His color, judging from what is left of it, was rich. But he drew feebly. New York in the early 1870s could not give an art student much more than a remote echo of beaux arts disciplines in that department. The convention is to treat this as Ryder’s good luck: it enabled his native, visionary qualities to prosper, unsullied by academic convention.

But the truth is that his figures and animals never benefited from their awkwardness. His horses are spindly, half-seen nags, and the dryads, babies and damsels in his decorative paintings are boneless stereotypes. Ryder’s attempts at decoration — mirror frames, screens and so forth — look naive and gaumless compared with the more polished work of Tiffany or John La Farge. Ryder was not sophisticated enough to rival them, while as a Realist he was stumped by a lack of curiosity about the actual, resistant world. You know at once that Ryder spent no time looking at a body and analyzing its structure. Instead he generalized, in conformity to what the sentiments of the day called “poesy.” Therefore he was at the furthest possible remove from those great American empiricists of his time, Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer.

Does his inadequacy with the figure matter? Yes, but not fatally. Turner himself — whose Slave Ship, often seen in New York in the 1870s, is probably the main source for Ryder’s perennially astonishing vision of Jonah in the churning waters, about to be swallowed by the whale — also drew figures like slugs. Still, when you look at the figures in Ryder’s The Story of the Cross, whose “awkward posture and flattened quality” the catalog rather optimistically likens to Duccio and Cimabue, you know that any such comparison is impertinent. The Ryder is pious kitsch.

Landscape Ryder could handle — though not for reasons Turner would have approved. It made fewer demands on particularity. “There was no detail to vex the eye,” Ryder wrote of one view of a lone tree in a field near Yarmouth, Mass. And so “I squeezed out big chunks of pure, moist color and taking my palette knife, I laid on blue, green, white and brown in great sweeping strokes . . . I saw that it was good and clean and strong. I saw nature springing into life upon my dead canvas. It was better than nature . . . I raced around the fields like a colt let loose, and literally bellowed for joy.”

Thus Ryder the proto-Expressionist was born. He sounds like De Kooning, but actually he looked more like his idol, Corot, only denser and more fixed: tiny imploded scenes, whose glow and atmospheric subtlety were much admired in their time but can hardly even be assessed now. For in pursuit of jewel-like effects and deep layering of color, Ryder painted “lean over fat,” so that slower-drying strata of paint underneath pulled the quicker-drying surface apart. He would slosh abominable messes of varnish on the surface, and pile up the pigment by incessant retouching until the images became quaking pitch lakes.

And then there was the dirt. In the late 19th century, when curators were presumably less anal than they are today, dirt was considered a positive adjunct of museum art; it lent mellowness and venerability. Ryder’s studio was filthy, a pack rat’s cave. “It is appalling, this craze for clean-looking pictures,” he once complained. “Nature isn’t clean.” To distinguish between the dirt, the dust, the brown varnish, the pigmented glazes and the goo underneath and then to stabilize the surface to preserve some notion of Ryder’s intentions have always been a conservator’s nightmare — and a losing battle as well. One may be quite sure that whenever it takes place, the next Ryder retrospective will be even less visible than this one.

Only the paintings with the strongest tonal structure have remained altogether legible, and most of these are the marines. Images like Moonlight (which he actually painted on board ship, returning from a trip to Europe) go far beyond the self-conscious poeticism that infests so much of Ryder’s work. They are diminutive in size but large in scale. Thick darkness and eerie light turn in the sky; the sea heaves, scattered with moon flakes and endowed with a Courbet-like solidity. “My soul, like to a ship in a black storm,/ Is driven, I know not whither” — Vittoria’s dying words in John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy The White Devil seem to fit this recurrent dream of Ryder’s coastal childhood, the boat scudding in the maw of the waves or becalmed, like a floating coffin, on the expectant water.

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