On ViewNew Bedford Whaling Museum
June 24 – October 31, 2021
New Bedford, MA
The exhibition currently on view at the New Bedford Whaling Museum is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to see a gathering of 25 pictures by Albert Pinkham Ryder (whose total production is estimated around 160 paintings) and related works by modern and contemporary artists. Largely neglected by scholars, Ryder is the ultimate artist’s artist, an object of reverence among painters since his late years. Despite his wide influence, it has been 30 years since the last comprehensive Albert Pinkham Ryder show, curated by Elizabeth Broun, then-director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, took place in 1990–91 at SAAM and the Brooklyn Museum. The current exhibition in Ryder’s hometown has been curated by Broun, now director emerita; William C. Agee, curator and professor emeritus at Hunter College; and Christina Connett Brophy, former chief curator at the Whaling Museum and now Senior Director of Museum Galleries at the Mystic Seaport Museum.
Born in New Bedford in 1847, Ryder left with his family in the late 1860s for New York, where he remained for the rest of his life. After training at the National Academy of Design, he participated in exhibitions sponsored by the Society of American Artists and worked for artist and dealer Daniel Cottier. By the end of the century, Ryder stopped sending works to exhibitions and limited his social interactions. He spent more and more time on his canvases, refusing to let them go and postponing the delivery of commissioned works for years. It is probably this committed, but selfless, activity that attracted the attention of several generations of artists, such as Jackson Pollock, who once said, “The only American master who interests me is Ryder.”1
At the Whaling Museum, the curators have grouped Ryder’s paintings according to iconographic themes that reveal a larger scope than the marines for which he is most famous: early landscapes and pastoral scenes, Orientalist and mythological subjects show his reach. The visitor is welcomed by Flying Dutchman (completed by 1887), one of Ryder’s most famous paintings, which shares its subject matter with the no less spectacular Jonah (ca. 1885–95) and Lord Ullin’s Daughter (before 1907)—all display the pregnant moment of a maritime drama in a centrifugal rhythm of foamy paints. The exhibition also presents some rarely seen paintings, among them the few Ryders in private hands, such as the luminous Landscape-Woman and Child (ca. 1875) and Near Litchfield, Connecticut (1876), which relies on a combination of George Inness’s delicate sfumato with raw brushwork. The slowly seeped glazes of yellows and ochres in the early Landscape with Sheep (ca. 1870) provide an atmosphere of metaphysical presence. Ryder, who once wrote, “You can’t get the tone without working a thing over and over,” was known for the thick paint surfaces of his works, such as Lorelei (ca. 1896–1917), over which he labored for 20 years.2 However, the show also offers a few examples of Ryder’s early, swiftly painted boards, which were made almost at once, with the dark background of the wood still visible through the paint, as in The Lovers’ Boat (ca. 1881) and Pegasus Departing (completed by 1901).
The exhibition catalogue, published a year ago to coincide with the exhibition’s original opening date, which was postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions (resulting in changes for some loans), is a substantial publication. High-quality images alternate with essays by the three curators. While Brophy’s text focuses on the historical and artistic context of New Bedford, Broun gives an analysis of Ryder’s work and the effect of his paintings on viewers. As she writes, Ryder’s artworks “reveal their allure slowly over time, after repeated looking,” echoing the artist’s own slow labor.3 Agee’s essay (like his curation) focuses on Ryder’s legacy: “His influence through generations of artists has often been quiet, even invisible, like an underground stream, but nevertheless one that flows steadily.”4 Agee explains that Ryder’s paintings have attracted artists by giving them “permission to feel again, to break free of the chains of theory.”5 This license for freedom and individuality was also felt by painter Peter Shear, who describes Ryder’s work as a “fortunate place to get lost at a moment when, like all young artists, I was searching for the permission to be myself.”6
While the contemporary works, like Shear’s, are displayed separately from Ryder’s, a small, more historically grounded section places a painting by Ryder in dialogue with those of various modern artists whose works deeply echo Ryder’s own, such as Arthur Dove, Charles Burchfield, Thomas Hart Benton, and Jackson Pollock. Marsden Hartley’s white Gull (1942–43) hangs next to a reproduction of Ryder’s Dead Bird (1890s, Phillips Collection), which, along with the magnificent portrait of Ryder that Hartley made in 1938 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), was unfortunately not lent to the show. Hartley was known for his lifelong interest in Ryder, although their interactions were limited; he would follow Ryder in the streets during his nightly walks without disturbing him. Ryder’s tumultuous, expressive swirls are echoed in the early works of Pollock, such as the tiny but mighty T. P.’s Boat in Menemsha Pond (ca. 1934). Pollock painted it when he was studying with Thomas Hart Benton. Pollock’s teacher channeled his love of Ryder into the younger artist, who also happened to be associated with Ferargil Galleries, known for handling Ryder forgeries—these proliferated from the 1910s to the 1930s.
A notorious forgery of a lost Ryder painting, Nourmahal (completed by 1924), is presented in the New Bedford show, giving an interesting glimpse into the artist’s complex body of work, which included more fakes in circulation than authentic paintings. Despite the high quality of the forgery shown here (it fooled the Met curator who acquired it in 1932), its flatness reveals a very different method than Ryder’s. Instead of the lengthy editing, layering, and glazing, and the accidented surface, the forged canvas displays a uniform surface without the awkwardness of an authentic painting. Where a Ryder painting involves hesitancies, changes, repentance, and repair, the forgery is efficient and straightforward. It manages to take Ryder’s manner while “leaving out the difficult intensity and originality of emotion,” as once suggested by Clement Greenberg.7 The regular pattern of the forged cracks does not have the charm of the erratic deep crevices of an original Ryder.
Bill Jensen’s A Room of Ryders (Dedicated to Ronnie Bladen) (1986–88) is probably the most accurate depiction of how one feels in a room of Ryders. The overwhelming intensity of compressed feelings, the dynamic and interpenetrating shapes all echo Ryder’s process of creative stewing and experimentation with the medium, a way of working that Jensen describes as “groping.”8 The title of Jensen’s work refers to the sculptor Ronald Bladen, who is presented next to Jensen with an early, heavily impastoed painting. An adjacent room displays a short film showing Jensen in his Williamsburg studio speaking about Ryder, which will be included in an upcoming documentary film about Ryder’s legacy directed by Sarah Cowan and Stephanie Wuertz.
The curation of this exhibition presents Ryder’s legacy in contemporary art mostly through the artists’ interest in Ryder and iconographical resemblances—the theme of moonlight is especially prominent, although it is actually more common in the contemporary works than in Ryder’s. A canvas by Katherine Bradford depicts a ghostly boat in the night, while Lois Dodd’s seven small paintings represent moonlight and nocturne scenery. In Emily Auchincloss’s abstract works, it is the intentionally small scale that refers to Ryder’s own preference for limited size. She understands that although Ryder’s built-up surfaces are not expansive, they are deep in both literal and figurative terms, containing “time itself—time spent changing one’s mind, time spent in doubt, time spent in the process of painting, stopping, looking. Looking again. Months, years, decades of time, compressed onto the canvas.”9
- “Jackson Pollock: A Questionnaire,” Arts and Architecture (Los Angeles) 61, No. 2 (February 1944): 14.
- Elizabeth Broun, Albert Pinkham Ryder (Washington: Published for the National Museum of American Art by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), 212.
- William C. Agee, Elizabeth Broun, and Christina Connett Brophy, A Wild Note of Longing: Albert Pinkham Ryder and a Century of American Art (New York: Rizzoli Electa; New Bedford: in association with the New Bedford Whaling Museum, 2020), 97–98.
- Agee, Broun, and Brophy, Longing, 153.
- Ibid., 165.
- Exhibition’s wall text.
- Clement Greenberg, “Review of an Exhibition of Albert Pinkham Ryder” (1947), in Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 180.
- Agee, Broun, and Brophy, Longing, 208.
- Ibid., 203.