Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Once and Future Art

Ryder is the dark star of American art – never quite definable but a figure of such gravitational pull he cannot be avoided or ignored


“Have you ever seen an inch worm crawl up a leaf or twig, and then clinging to the very end, revolve in the air, feeling for something to reach something? That’s like me. I am trying to find something out there beyond the place on which I have a footing.”  —Albert Pinkham Ryder

In 1913, the young artists organizing the International Exhibition of Modern Art at New York City’s 69th Regiment Armory sought a living American painter who could bridge the centuries between classical figuration and the formal upheavals of Europe’s avant-garde. They gave pride of place to Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847–1917), who spanned the ages by imagining romantic subject matter stripped to essentials of form and color and rendered through an alchemy of time — Ryder might work on a canvas for more than a decade — and strange brews of pigments and mediums.

What the American modernists saw in Ryder was a visionary who welcomed collisions between the realistic depiction of subject matter and the tactile materiality of viscid paint on a flat surface.

Hence, the thrust of brushstroke and the crust of white paint in Lord Ullin’s Daughter (before 1907) conveys the movement of the painter’s hand and wrist morphing into crashing waves and sea-foam. The pathos of the 1809 Scottish poem the picture is based upon can be sensed through the barely discernible figures in the heaving boat. You just know those huddled shapes are destined for a sad end, even if you have never read the lines about a young maiden and her love, the chieftain of a rival clan, being pursued by her furious father. Raked brown paint conjures gnarly cliffs and clotted swipes of greenish-gray become clouds blotting the sun, a radiant pall that embodies the last two stanzas:

“Come back! Come back!” he cried in grief,
“Across this stormy water;
And I’ll forgive your Highland chief,
My daughter! — oh, my daughter!”

’Twas vain: the loud waves lash’d the shore,
Return or aid preventing;
The waters wild went o’er his child,
And he was left lamenting.

And this is Ryder’s magic: To return such sentiments — which at first impression may feel hoary, even corny — back to bedrock emotions derived from life’s too many tragic truths. And then, in the bargain, to hoist those romantic words from their time of horse and steam into the 20th century, which, for good and ill, would be one of breakneck mechanical, scientific, philosophical, and artistic tumult. Is it any wonder that no less an innovator than Jackson Pollock, born in 1912, would, as he matured into the artist who famously broke the ice for the abstract expressionists, say, “The only American master who interests me is Ryder”?

The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s exhibition of slightly more than a score of Ryder’s small canvases also includes works by a century’s worth of artists he has influenced, including Pollock, Bill Jensen, Lois Dodd, Marsden Hartley, and Katherine Bradford. The inclusion of these modern stalwarts gets at why New Bedford’s native son is American art’s dark star — never quite definable but a figure of such gravitational pull that he cannot be avoided or ignored. His paintings come down to us as relics — we are not seeing them as they looked on the day they were finished because, painting in thick layers profligate with various oils, varnishes, thinners, and waxes, they have darkened, cracked, and separated over the decades. The very idea of “finish” was foreign to this sage of the fleeting time span that is a human life — looking at a Ryder is to see the baby and the elder simultaneously with all the ripe buds and colorful blooms and mature gravitas and wizened crags in between. Maybe Ryder can be seen as the first process artist, less concerned with the archival coherence of his images than with the mystery of setting his roiling slabs of paint upon an odyssey that viewers of succeeding ages see in different forms. Ryder foretold the ongoing destiny of his own canvases when an admirer asked if the cracking of his paintings ever concerned him. He replied, “When a thing has the elements of beauty from the beginning, it cannot be destroyed. Take the instance of Greek sculpture — the Venus de Milo I might say — ages and men have ravaged it, its arms and nose have been broken off, but it still remains a thing of beauty because beauty was part of it from the beginning.”

Artists for more than a century have agreed with this assessment as it applies to Ryder’s own work. As the sumptuous catalog relates, the painter Richard Pousette-Dart (another of the artists included in the New Bedford show) told an interviewer in 1986 that despite the fact that Ryder’s surfaces were “cracking up,” his imagery remains  “more beautiful than a lot of stuff that will never crack up.” Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum can get an appreciation of this phenomenon by going to the Henry R. Luce study center, the museum’s annex of American art, where paintings and sculpture and ceramics are crammed cheek-by-jowl in glass cases, not suitable, due to reasons of quality or deterioration, for prime-time exposure in the main galleries. Ryder’s Curfew Hour (created by 1882) resembles nothing so much as Gondwanaland, the ancient supercontinent that sundered into the landmasses we now know as the southern hemisphere. In Curfew Hour, we observe paint pulling slowly apart, tectonic coagulations of dried-blood browns and smoky blacks, a yellow sky as segmented as a skull’s smile, the barely discernible scene of some small buildings underpinned by a ground as vivid as cooling lava. Whatever Ryder’s original intention, this object radiates tranquil beauty today—an entity that was one thing for its original viewers, something else again for the young hot-shots organizing the Armory show, vibrant inspiration for the post-war New York School painters, now a must-see for artists of all stripes, and god only knows what for generations to come. 

In New Bedford, none of the paintings on view have as yet transmuted into such glorious wrecks, but all of them are laced with traceries, some delicate as spider webs, others more like crazed glass, the colors glazed over by age. In his 1897 Pastoral Study (which is roughly two feet wide, fairly large as Ryders go), the cattle seem serene in their postures, although their direct gaze at the viewer imparts faint apprehension. And perhaps it is just such ambiguous divides — his obsession with taking us beyond any mere surfaces — that endows Ryder with such abiding power. There is viscera here, an echo of the animals painted on the bulging rock formations of cave walls some 30,000 years ago, those unknowable artists implying the sheer heft of the beasts who gave them all manner of sustenance. The cave painters were much closer to nature than we are, their hands covered in the blood of the animals they ate as well as the juices of succulent plants, all precursor to the fingers, hands, and arms no doubt spattered with pigments as they worked on rock walls lit by torchlight. And think of those original conceptual artists who spit pigment around their own hands, those prints preserved on cave walls and still communicating intelligence and imagination to us 30 millennia down the road.

Ryder gets at something equally as primal, at art’s genuine messiness and rawness, something not always easy to achieve amid civilization’s contradictory comforts. Or, as Ryder once put it, “The artist should not sacrifice his ideals to a landlord and a costly studio. A rain-tight roof, frugal living, a box of colors, and God’s sunlight through clear windows keep the soul attuned and the body vigorous for one’s daily work. The artist should once and forever emancipate himself from the bondage of appearances and the unpardonable sin of expending on ignoble aims the precious ointment that should serve only to nourish the lamp burning before the tabernacle of his muse.”

The paintings on view are testament that Ryder meant every word.   ❖

A Wild Note of Longing: Albert Pinkham Ryder and a Century of American Art
The New Bedford Whaling Museum
18 Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford, MA
Through October 31




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