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Hudson River School Painters’ Homes Make Way for Contemporary Art

Kiki Smith, "Wolf with Birds III" (2010), bronze with gold leaf, 44 ½ x 54 x 2 ½ (Collection of Maria and Conrad Janis, Courtesy Pace Gallery)
Kiki Smith, “Wolf with Birds III” (2010), bronze with gold leaf, 44 ½ x 54 x 2 ½ in (collection of Maria and Conrad Janis, courtesy Pace Gallery)

Next month, 28 contemporary American artists will infiltrate the homes of the two artists who are the “physical cornerstone of American art,” as co-curator Stephen Hannock puts it. River Crossings: Contemporary Art Comes Home, opening May 3 at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site and Frederic Edwin Church’s Olana State Historic Site, also marks the first time that the two sites, which face each other across the Hudson River in upstate New York, have collaborated.

Court Hall at Olana (photo by Andy Wainwright)
Court Hall at Olana (photo by Andy Wainwright) (click to enlarge)

“It was always kind of a marvel that over 150 years, the two places located directly across the river from each other had never had so much as a cocktail party together,” Hannock said. The painter co-curated the two-site exhibition with art historian Jason Rosenfeld, and the challenge was not only to install art in the preserved interiors of Church and Cole’s former residences, with the limitations of 19th-century era lighting, but also to foster a visual dialogue between very different art.

“All I did was imagine sitting on the back porch with Cole a hundred and fifty years ago, with this kid Fred Church who was his student, and me describing to them the work they would have on the wall in the third millennium,” Hannock said.

The parlor of Thomas Cole House (photo by Michael Fredericks)
The parlor of the Thomas Cole House (photo by Michael Fredericks)

Cole founded the Hudson River School movement of romantic landscape painters, considered the first American art movement, and was a teacher to Church. Rivers Crossing won’t focus on sweeping vistas or the colors of the Catskills at dawn, though Hannock’s included painting “Oxbow” is a contemporary take on Cole’s 1836 “View from Mount Holyoke Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow.”

But for most of the artists, like Martin Puryear, Cindy Sherman, Lynn Davis, Romare Bearden, Thomas Nozkowski, and Kiki Smith, there’s less of a direct link to Cole and Church. Maya Lin will show her “Silver Hudson River,” a representation of the river’s path formed from molten recycled silver, while a self-portrait tapestry by Chuck Close will hang where a tapestry at Olana was once displayed. Valerie Hegarty’s intervention in a room at Olana will feature a canvas gnawed by birds, similar to her recent disruption of the period rooms at the Brooklyn Museum. “Our approach for Rivers Crossing is the appreciation of the craft and the day-to-day work that goes in,” Hannock explained.

Lynn Davis, "Horseshoe Falls, Ontario Canada" (1992), silver gelatin print, 57 x 58 (Collection of the Artist, © Lynn Davis)
Lynn Davis, “Horseshoe Falls, Ontario Canada” (1992), silver gelatin print, 57 x 58 in (collection of the artist, © Lynn Davis)

The creative activity that Cole and Church embodied is hard to sense in the now-static interiors of their former homes, gorgeous though they are. Olana sits on 250 acres with a Persian-inspired building filled with an eclectic assortment of international decorative arts. Cole’s Cedar Grove home and sunlit studio still feature panoramic vistas toward the Catskills. Connected practically door-to-door by the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, both properties will have Rivers Crossing art inside and out.

Speaking about Cole’s home, Hannock described how he was struck by the cots in the servants’ quarters of the house. “It reminded me so much of the cots in the backs of artists’ homes taking care of sick people [during the AIDS epidemic],” he said. An installation will have one of those cots with its 19th-century bedding surrounded by works by Frank Moore, including the last piece he made before before he died in 2002 after two decades of living with HIV. “There are a lot of flow charts connecting one artist to another and coming back again, and I think that’s one of the things that will surface in this exhibition,” Hannock said. And for the first time since the 19th century, the work of Cole and Church will be part of those intersections right in their homes alongside the flow of the Hudson.

Romare Bearden, "Prelude to Farewell" (1981, collage), 49 x 37 1/4 (Courtesy the Studio Museum in Harlem, Gift of Altria Group, Inc.)
Romare Bearden, “Prelude to Farewell” (1981), collage, 49 x 37 1/4 in (courtesy the Studio Museum in Harlem, gift of Altria Group, Inc.)
The sitting room of Thomas Cole House (photo by Michael Fredericks)
The sitting room of Thomas Cole House (photo by Michael Fredericks)

River Crossings: Contemporary Art Comes Home runs May 3 to November 1 at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site (218 Spring Street, Catskill, New York) and the Olana State Historic Site (5720 Route 9G, Hudson, New York).

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