Notes on Albert Pinkham Ryder
A curator of a small university museum I met through an exhibit I curated two years ago in Greenpoint Brooklyn, Homage to Albert Pinkham Ryder, spoke often of expanding the project to greater significance. Of course, with all the available funding, I could have borrowed a few Ryder paintings and added several more artists to the roster.
If the show had taken place, it would have been in commemoration of Ryder’s birthday this month on March 12, 2002. It will be the 155th anniversary of his birth in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1847. With some regret, I declined the opportunity, though I thought we could still reflect on Ryder’s greatness through none other than the painter Bill Jensen, a direct heir to Ryder’s legacy. Between 1990-1992, Jensen delivered a lecture on Ryder in conjunction with the most memorable and extraordinary traveling retrospective of Ryder’s paintings at the National Museum of American Art in Washington DC, The Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, White Chapel Art Gallery in London, and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
With Bill’s consent, the following is a transcription of the lecture. I am pleased to publish it for the first time in the Brooklyn Rail. Hopefully, those who have yet to discover the visionary resonance of Ryder’s modest scale painting will go immediately to the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum and also to The Brooklyn Museum to see his marvelous early landscapes and the landmark Moonlight Marine paintings. A crucial influence on artists such as Marsden Hartley and Jackson Pollock, Ryder’s unique vision is as important to American painting as Herman Melville’s is to American literature.
What I will be saying about the paintings is not mystical; it may be a little spiritual, but as objective as any subjective ideas can be about art.
I feel so many things about art should not or cannot be talked about but I accepted this opportunity to speak about Albert Pinkham Ryder because I feel a great responsibility to say the right words about his work.
It is my worry not to sound too academic in trying to explain why Ryder is such a great painter but not fully appreciated according to his genius. I want somehow to communicate as clearly as what it is about his work that only few other artists seem to see. Marsden Hartley said that Ryder was most favored among professional artists. The artist Ronald Bladen told me that when he was a student at San Francisco Art Institute in the 1940’s Ryder was the most talked about artist there. It remains curious that it is still difficult to find crucial writing on his art.
There’s no other artist whose feelings or ideas come closer to my own than Ryder’s. The things I say about Ryder’s work, I expect to have in my own. They may not be, but I hope that they are. Seeing Ryder’s work seemed to clarify my sense for things inside of myself.
When I was in college in the Midwest, Ryder was never mentioned. Coming to New York, my introduction to Ryder still took some time. I was in East Hampton visiting the artist Herman Cherry. That night there was a full moon with clouds racing overhead, and he said, “Oh look, it’s a Ryder sky!” and I thought, “Oh, it does look like a horse and Ryder by the moon!” One month later, I started my teaching job at the Brooklyn Museum and after teaching, I would wander through the galleries and soon rounded a corner and discovered five small Ryder paintings salon hung. I felt as if I had been hit by lightning. I had never seen paintings that had such PRESENCE.
I was struck by a LIGHT that seemed to burn from deep within them. I was struck by the painting’s intense DRAMA: their EMOTIONAL AND INTELLECTUAL GESTURING of every shape, every mark, every color to every shape, mark, and color; their weight of immense DENSITY and in the next instant their WEIGHTLESSNESS. They had a feeling that time had been COMPRESSED. They had that “SLAP IN THE FACE REALITY” that reveals powerful INVISIBLE FORCES in and around us. These paintings seem to be constructed of LIVING TISSUE.
Ryder’s light seemed to come from deep within the paintings. In comparison to one to one of his contemporaries, Ralph Blakelock, who seems to “put” the light in his paintings, Ryder’s light feels discovered and born within the painting itself.
In comparison to Ryder, the paintings of some of his other contemporaries, Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Church again seem to be no more than theater sets. In their accurate pictures of the surface world, I wait for something to happen but it never does. Even within their heroic panorama nothing happens. Just theater sets waiting for the Drama. In contrast, Ryder’s paintings are full of a powerful drama that goes way beyond their literary iconography.
In Ryder’s painting there seems to be a weight, a DENSITY below the surface. He seems to have made that crucial “PASSAGE”, as the painter Guy Goodwin’s used the word, from something felt and experienced into something we can feel and experience in paint. It is this crucial “PASSAGE” that is important. Ryder is able to imbed his vision in the paint without the cumbersomeness of the self. It is a pure vision of a thing experienced. By “putting” the experience in, we are still left with the self, the ego is still there. In Ryder’s work, we purely see the thing experienced without the self. It is not “SELF EXPRESSION,” it is “SELFLESS EXPRESSION.” It is the thing itself; EXPERIENCE, born into paint. To eliminate the self through experience. To annihilate the self in the experience and become one with it.
The Chinese do not regard nature from the outside. Instead, the artist acts like a medium to let the spirit through and get beyond humanity and become one with it. This is “The Chi.” It is the first cannon of Chinese painting, the Life Breath, the spirit resounds in the work. It is not the spirit of the artist’s own self or ego.
If a Chinese artist would want to paint a mountain, they would go up and live on it and then come down and paint it.
When a young artist, Ryder tried to copy the colors of nature, but he could never do it. He could never get what was there. Then one day, wandering the fields in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, where he was spending the summer with an aunt and uncle, he came upon this scene with some trees framing the space just like a painting: “The deep blue of the midday sky a solitary tree, brilliant with the green of early summer, a foundation of brown earth and gnarled roots. There was no detail to vex the eye.” Ryder took his paints and palette, threw away his brushes, and smeared on the paint with his palette knife. He painted all day long happy as a goat, jumping around, running through the fields. By just that activity, unbridled by details, he was able to express the forces he was seeing below the surface. Ryder does not anthropomorphize nature, he saw the forces below the surface.
In my thinking of the EMOTION, or IMAGINATION versus the INTELLECTUAL or AESTHETIC gesturing in Ryder’s work, I struggle to understand each of their properties and their actualities in paint. Marsden Hartley also struggled with these ideas. In his essay, Art and the Personal Life, he said that he had to “Take off the old clothes for new ones.” The old clothes represent the imagination and the emotional. They are linked directly to William Blake (and indirectly to Ryder), while the new ones are the aesthetic and intellectual ideas represented by Cezanne. In the following quote Hartley says:
Yet I cannot but return to the previous theme which represents my conversion from emotional to intellectual notions; and my feeling is: of what use is a painting which does not realize it’s aesthetic problem? Underlying all sensible works of art, there must be somewhere in evidence the particular problem understood. It was so with those artists of the great past, who had the intellectual knowledge of structure upon which to place their emotions. It is this structural beauty that makes the old painting valuable…I would rather be sure that I place the colors in true relationship to each other than to have exposed a wealth of emotionalism gone wrong in the name of richness of personal statement. For this reason I believe that it is more significant to keep one’s painting in a condition of severe experimentalism than to become a quick success by means of cheap repetition.
Here I disagree with Hartley’s opinion that Ryder is only the imagination or the emotional. In Ryder’s work there is an “emotional and intellectual gesturing of every mark, every shape, every color to every other shape, mark, and color. It’s not an overt emotional gesture, but a very subtle gesturing just as glances between two people are more revealing than words. It is a way in which these abstracted entities “SPEAK” to one another in the painting.
It is also not an arbitrary gesture, but a very specific one that builds throughout the painting like fireflies on a summer night or lightning in a storm.
His work has been said to have great “design.” The word “design” may have had more importance in art in the late 19th century than now. To me, design in art is something that is “put” in to seduce the eye. Ryder is not a seducer or a designer, because he has the ability to make the PASSAGE from a thing experienced, into something born into paint. It is his great “design” that is really his great structure, and this together with his great COLOR and MARK MAKING add up to his powerful, emotional, and intellectual gesturing.
Another example of intellectual and emotional gesturing is in Piero della Francesca’ "Flagellation". Even with Piero’s smooth Florentine surface, we still find the same specific gesturing of every shape, every color, to every other shapes and color.
Piero uses geometry the same way Ryder uses rocks, trees, sea, and sky. Not for their own sake, but for what they can do to intensify the concept of the whole. Piero’s geometry is used to intensify the vision of the most barbaric act under the guise of a refined civilized society. He uses geometry not as an exercise in PERSPECTIVE but for its EMOTIONAL and INTELLECTUAL GESTURING to everything else in the painting. In Ryder’s Pastoral Study I have the feeling of movement of great bodies in space.
In the life of Piero, there’s another similarity to Ryder, in that Piero’s work was uncelebrated for centuries after his death. Only in recent history has Piero’s artistic merit been rediscovered and once again he is celebrated as a great artist.
It seems to me the reason for his rediscovery was one of fashionable appropriateness of geometry and art. To me, Piero is not only great because of his geometry, but because of the way he used his geometry towards his content.
I suppose the world is still waiting for a fashionably appropriate time to recognize Ryder as a great painter. If to be fashionably appropriate is what it takes to be appreciated, then art is like fashion. This proves the conditions for Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, that The Survival of the Fittest does not operate in an artificial environment. The art world with its fashionable appropriateness seems to be the most artificial environment ever created.
Ryder is also similar to the great artist, Giorgione, whose paintings with their new poetic, pictorial space were a great influence on artists of his time and after. In this same way, Ryder’s new poetic concreteness of space has been a great influence both directly and indirectly on the artists that followed.
Another thing that might be involved with an art experience is the PRESENCE OF TIME in a work of art. It would be the impact of a “PRESENT TIME” revealed, not past time, not future time, but the exact moment, the AWESOME PRESENT, Ryder could “COMPRESS” this TIME like just about no one else. To compress this present time is to split it like an atom, and intensify the experience of that time. In this compression there is revealed powerful forces only glimpsed at. Ryder makes the INVISIBLE VISIBLE. These are the same forces that Arshille Gorky tried to see and paint when he said he would just keep staring, trying to see below the surface of things.
In World War II, Gorky wanted to form a camouflage unit with artists in the army. He said because an artist’s job was the make the INVISIBLE VISIBLE, they would be best at making the VISIBLE INVISIBLE. If Ryder were still around, all of them, Gorky, de Kooning, and Pollock, etc. enlisted and informed this unit, Ryder would be elected Commander because he would be the oldest and would have experimented the most with paint. Ryder wanted to expand the possibilities of paint in ways that it has never been done in the past.
Marsden Hartley called Ryder “the painter/poet of the immanent in things.”
While teaching at Skowhegan Summer School in Maine, I told the landscape painters that every time their paintings looked like art in books, no forces were revealed. Only when something else came into the paintings, could some of the forces be revealed. These forces are not of a greater intelligence and realm of emotion than those of human experience. These FORCES are of the macro and microcosm in nature and this nature is human energy and natural energy combined, there is no separation. We as human beings with less intelligence and a small realm of emotion mannerise these things when we start to see them. We only allow ourselves to see what we can comprehend. A great artist might be one who not only has glimpses of this other world, but is able to imbed paint with its vision. Ryder was one who could.
Sir Lawrence Gowing, a visiting lecturer at Skowhegan that Summer, gave brilliant lectures, one on William Turner. He spoke of the two-year period in Turner’s life, which changed him from an English Mannerist into a painter of great breadth and scope. Turner traveled to the Continent, to the Louvre and other museums in Europe. He then painted in the mountains of Switzerland. These forces converted him into the Turner we love today.
This was best described in Ryder’s work by Marsden Hartley, “At all times in his work one has the feeling of there having lately passed, if ever so fleetingly, some bodily shape seeing a solitude of its own.”
For me, that bodily shape would be the container for the forces I’m trying to discuss.
Ryder has been called a painter of dreams. This can be misleading unless one understands that dreams are reality condensed. Ryder may use Biblical or literary story lines only as a mere starting point to reveal his vision of reality.
After the turn of the twentieth century, ideas regarding dreams and the unconscious had a special impact on modern art. Abstractionists struggled to express the unconscious in the modern world. They are as much painters of dreams as Ryder is a painter of dreams. They are painters of reality as Ryder is a painter of reality. It is the reality of the forces below the surface. It is the thing experienced directly. Their paintings have that same slap in the face of reality as Ryder’s have.
Jackson Pollock said, “The only American master who interests me is Ryder.”
I am against any kind of flag waiving or any kind of chauvinism at all. In the 1920’s, artists started using Ryder as a flag to be waived against the modern influences in art coming from Europe, a reactionary and misleading notion, for as the artist, Maurice Vlaminck said, “Intelligence is international, stupidity is national and art is local.”
Art might be about a very specific place, a time, a person. In its best sense, it embraces the subtle aspect of every specific TIME.
Marsden Hartley tried to answer the question, “What is American Art?” In his essays, he said, “The creative spirit is at home wherever that spirit finds breath to draw. It is neither national or international.” He also said that “if America is to have a great tradition, it will begin with the great and lasting name of Albert Pinkham Ryder.”
It is not the size of a painting that makes it more American, or anything else. Neither small paintings, nor large paintings. Europe, with its great frescoes and murals has a much more indigenous tradition for the grand size. America has no tradition for large church murals or art used for political purposes. Iconography, whether literal or biblical, and concepts are international, not national…(stories travel around the world).
It is not light that distinguishes American painting. Though a darker light seems to be natural to American (east coast) painting. Europe also has dark light in Rembrandt, the Venetian school, Velasquez, etc.
The difference, say, between American art and European art, could be as subtle as the difference between eating with your fork facing up or your fork facing down.
Europe, with its long history of art, based on narrative scenes painted for religious or political reasons, seems to be more indigenous and the necessity of a story or concept seems to be more apparent.
American art seems to have less need for a narrative, or conceptual basis. Its tradition seems more flat-footed, groping way of letting the content be born into paint. This is not criticism of European art, only a subtle difference between them.
The first American artists were probably ship builders and then portrait painters.
Ryder was our first and one of our (or anyone’s) greatest GROPERS. Marsden Hartley called him “Among the first citizens of the moon.”
Ryder used literal and biblical scenes only as a starting point and then the long endless path, sometimes many years, would begin. Ryder was seen working on a painting in a craft shop where he was also working on leather screens. At the end of each day of painting, he would scrape down the paint and then apply a quick dry and light wash of color. The next day he would sit and stare at the ghosts of marks and forms from the day before, and then responding to these ghosts, would begin to paint only to continue the same method day after day.
Through this process a kind of “SEEPAGE” would begin to take place. The “EXPERIENCE” would begin to slowly work its way out of the depths of Ryder’s subconscious and in this way, every mark would become at some time “electrified,” or as the artist Myron Stout called it, “Atomic painting – every bloody atom has to be painted individually.”
This groping would let the painting have a life of its own, and during the building of this process of pooling these “EXPERIENCES” from the corners of his subconscious, Ryder must have felt that he was being pulled by a team of wild dogs, or like a miner deep in the earth with only a little light on his head and with a little grip from a canary to keep him going. By repeating this process over and over again, he would let the light and content be born into paint. He was not just “putting” the light or content into the painting, but by letting it arrive, by letting it emerge from the paint, the paint transcended its material realm into living tissue.
Ryder’s groping for meaning is our need and our love for the mysterious. It is the spirit of adventure and terror of the unknown. It is this search for meaning that may have led artists like Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, etc., to express the murkiness of the modern world into the abstractions. Theirs was not the action of the artist in front of the painting, but a flat-footed groping for content. This subtlety may typify our American tradition.
A few years ago I wrote a poem on Ryder. I am a painter, not a poet, so poets please forgive me.
O-I-L Paint (for Albert Ryder)
Submerged in the murk of modern life
Immersed in the murk of oil
The great mark-maker breathes forth clarity
A clarity of images and emo-
tions born into paint
A clarity of light and human
A clarity of poignant concen-
tration and compression
A murk clarity transcended
into living tissue.
The First Father, the sea, the rock, the seed,
The Witch Doctor to cure the ills of us all.
- Bill Jensen, 19
BILL JENSEN, born in Minneapolis, has lived and worked in New York City since the early 1970s and was one of the first artists to establish a studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He came into prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s during a movement that revived the predominance of painting. Intuitive and visceral, Jensen’s abstractions have long been admired for their unconventional compositions and profound sense of color. Jensen’s work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum, New York; the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California, and many others.