Art of the World's `Central Park'

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IN 1864, a hyperbolic headline in the New York Times described the area where I live as the "Central Park of the World." This area had been an unmapped, nameless wilderness of about 6 million square miles in northeastern New York State. It had been trod only by Indian moccasins and the boots of the hardiest settlers - almost a terra incognita - until 1837 when it was christened "The Adirondacks" by the New York State Natural History Survey. The name, translated bark-eaters, was the one the Iroquois India ns gave to the Algonquin.

In 1837, Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, the co-founders of what is known as the "Hudson River School" of American landscape painting, sketched around the Schroon Lake area in the eastern Adirondacks. Cole decided the scenery was "not grand, but has a wild sort of beauty."

The name, Adirondack, and the area quickly caught on. Also in 1837, another landscapist, Charles Cromwell Ingham, painted his sizable oil painting titled "The Great Adirondack Pass," which he proudly labeled as having been "painted on the spot."

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The image depicts a rocky defile guarded by huge boulders, with the sheer rise of a cliff face in the background brooding over a forest. At the base of one stupendous boulder, the tiny figure of a woodsman is already busy with his ax. Larger and better-defined in the left foreground is the artist painting away in rapture at the magnificently forbidding scene.

Long before the region attracted enough notice to have the New York State legislature establish the Adirondack Forest Preserve and declare it "forever wild" in 1885 and before the outer perimeters of the Adirondack Park were established, artists were making their own personal statements about the Adirondacks and, so to speak, discussing multiple uses of the area.

One might read Ingham's painting as placing the aesthetic "wilderness" experience of the urban artist escaping from the city on a higher plane than that of the woodsman chopping away for a living. Aesthetics and livelihood have been pitted against each other ever since.

Thus, the procession of eminent artists to the Adirondacks began. Many other Hudson River painters found inspiration there and expressed the prevailing view that to experience nature untouched by man was to draw closer to the divine.

Unlike Ingham's unusual landscape, artists like William James Stillman chose views, as in his "Saranac Lake," so characteristic and ubiquitous that today one can still find them everywhere. The roster of early landscapists includes Samuel Colman, Frederick Edwin Church, Homer Dodge Martin, Wiliam Trost Richards, and John Frederick Kensett.

Kensett was a friend of both Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole. He had accompanied Durand to Europe and had met Cole in Paris. Kensett is con- sidered part of the "second generation" of Hudson River painters and of the movement called "luminism." His luminist canvases reached their peak in his later years on the Connecticut shore, but the 1856 canvas shown here, "Lake George," shows his underlying interest in light and its effects on sky, mountains, and water and his emphasis on the serene aspects of natu re.

Not all painters confined their pictorial commentary to the sublimity or serenity of unsubdued nature. Eliphalet Terry, who was Winslow Homer's first teacher, painted a stark canvas in 1859 of "Baker's Farm" bleakly surrounded by tree stumps, with an antler-crowned deer looking reproachfully out of the foreground. The beauty of the background mountains seems very far away from this bare subsistence farm.

After railroads penetrated the region, bringing train loads of sportsmen to happy hunting and fishing grounds, other painters like Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait and Frederick Remington portrayed the pleasures of the city visitors' experience. Winslow Homer did a number of brilliant watercolors and oils. His unsentimental brush also depicted the devastation by ax, and his episodes of hunting and fishing are metaphors of the ironies of survival, not the romantic quality of nature.

Tourists and summer vacationers also took advantage of the access given by the railroads. Some liked the area so well they built summer residences called "camps," which ranged from one-room fishing and hunting shacks constructed of rude planks to J. P. Morgan's "grand camp" with its 90-foot ballroom. This subject was taken up more by engravers and photographers than painters, but Florine Stettheimer in 1919 did an animated, witty, and satirical portrayal of the water sports off the dock of an elegant cam p in "Lake Placid."

The artists' attraction to the Adirondacks has continued to the present time more or less unabated. John Marin, Childe Hassam, George Luks, Rockwell Kent, and even Georgia O'Keefe painted their own personal visions without any pictoral comment on the state of nature or the appropriate use of the vast area. Photographer Alfred Stieglitz and sculptor David Smith both had studios on Lake George. Even Abstract Expressionists Willem de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler have paintings with Adirondack titles.

In recent decades, artists have returned to injecting varying amounts of commentary in their paintings. A mural painted by Frank Owen in 1990, is a radical departure from all other Adirondack paintings, even recent ones. Titled "Floor of the Forest," it discusses visually the history, the ecology, and the current tensions and turmoils of the area.

As seen in the recent show "A Wild Sort of Beauty - Public Places and Private Visions" at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain, New York, the work takes up the entire wall. The piece is described as "acrylic on canvas," an inadequate description of a work composed of numerous rectangular canvases irregularly joined together by painted planks.

The artist's technique is complex. Small branches, leaves, twigs, and rocks, which look like real objects arranged in a collage, are actually solid paint that has been molded into the forms. A white snowshoe on a white background is an impressive example.

Owen's principal metaphor is the detritus of the forest floor. The viewer can find indications of just about every aspect of the past and present of the Adirondacks. An actual slender nine-foot tree trunk rests casually on the center of the painting. Its image appears elsewhere.

There is a progression of twigs across the underlying rectilinear movement of the canvases, which may suggest lumbering, buildings, and airport runways. Photographs are freely used and embedded in the paint by a carbon transfer process. Some are early photos - a hunter with his deer, a handsome Adirondack camp, logs floating down a river. Others, taken by Owen, are of present-day gatherings of tense-looking groups.

When he discusses the work, he sounds as if he took great satisfaction in placing side by side environmental activists, who want to limit future growth in order to preserve the present wilderness, and the advocates of development, who want to put in subdivisions and condos, log more extensively, and generally open up the area to commercialism. To reinforce the debate, Owens scatters words across the canvas. There are single words like PUBLIC, PRIVATE, and he has included newspaper headlines and columns.

From first to last, artists have their say in paint about this place, a place that is not even central to New York State, much less the country or the world. But as Central Park gives city dwellers an expanse of green relief from concrete and commerce, the Adirondack area does provide visitors a chance to experience a "wild sort of beauty" and will continue to inspire artists to give us their images of that beauty.

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