New York is a painter’s town. It is also a place that artists have long done their best to escape during the dog days. Back in the 1930s, Thomas Hart Benton, the famous Regionalist painter from Missouri, took his student Jackson Pollock along to Martha’s Vineyard, where the future abstract expressionist could revel in fresh ocean breezes as he worked on rough-hewn landscapes in a converted chicken coop known as “Jack’s Shack.”
Both teacher and pupil were greatly influenced by Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847–1917), whose visions of sailboats veritably folding up under the force of frothing waves or drifting tranquilly under mystical moonlight remain talismans of the American sublime. New Bedford’s Whaling Museum has welcomed home its native son with a concise exhibition of some two dozen of Ryder’s moody masterpieces, along with a clutch of works by painters he has influenced over more than a century.
In Ryder’s 1870 Landscape, sky, water, and reflection transmute before our eyes into what could be a post-death-of-painting abstraction in a Chelsea gallery in the 1980s. Works on display here by a mature Benton and the still wet behind the ears Pollock echo such ambiguous vistas of the master. In 1916, perhaps in thrall to the gradated moonlight and craggy rocks of Ryder’s never quite finished The Lorelei (1896 – 1917), Charles Burchfield went whole hog into abstraction, leaving only his title to tether his watercolor to reality: Nature’s Mystic Spiral (1916) is as small as a hand grenade and every bit as potent through its mix of bright radials and jagged black serrations.
No matter how much time passes, Ryder’s preternatural compositions ride serenely upon the ebbs and flows of tomorrow’s art. If floating on dark, languid waters or scaling towering breakers is your idea of summer fun, head north and get yourself on Ryder’s wavelength. ❖