Etched on the bay window of the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts in Woodstock is the phrase "It All Started Here." "What all started here?" one may ask. The Kleinert's new show, "Byrdcliffe's Legacy: Handmade in the 20th Century (An Ode to Nature & Place)," answers that question. The exhibition runs through October 9.
"Byrdcliffe's Legacy" begins with a photograph of Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, who founded the Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony in 1902. ("Byrdcliffe" is derived from the combined middle names of Whitehead and his wife.) In the photo the founder looks startled, as if interrupted in a reverie. What was Whitehead's daydream? Perhaps the century of art that succeeded him. Byrdcliffe is now the oldest-operating arts colony in America.
Bolton Brown was a key figure in the early colony: He scouted Woodstock as a location, and served as chief lithographer to the artists—until Whitehead fired him. Brown also produced more than 100 prints for George Bellows, who bought a house in Woodstock in 1920. A Bellows lithograph, Love of Winter, shows a group of celebrants in the center of town—like the Woodstockers who still gather on Christmas Eve awaiting Santa's arrival. (The print doubled as a Christmas card.) One of Brown's own lithographs, At My Gate, conveys the expansive Catskills sky on an aimless summer day.
But Byrdcliffe was a crafts colony as well as a utopian home for artists. The show, curated by Sylvia Wolf, Tina Bromberg, and Karen Walker, includes a pair of elegant andirons designed by Brown, plus a bowl he made. Zulma Steele, one of the original colonists, is represented by a monotype, two vases, a painting, and a commanding drop-front desk with iris panels. "Byrdcliffe's Legacy" includes all the crafts the original colony taught: ceramics, weaving, woodworking, photography, jewelry, printing, metalwork. "The philosophy is that everything you made to use should also be beautiful, to touch, to wear, to sit on," explains Wolf. The show collects nearly 200 pieces drawn from the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, the Dorsky Museum, the Woodstock Historical Society, the Woodstock Artists Association, and private collectors.
"Byrdcliffe's Legacy" proceeds chronologically, offering a speedy tour of 20th-century art: the Arts and Crafts movement, the Ashcan School, Art Deco, Danish Modern, Abstraction Expressionism, Fluxus, Pop. Most of the current luminaries of the Woodstock art world are here—Judy Pfaff, Milton Glaser, Mary Frank, Donald Elder—but the salon arrangement emphasizes collectivity rather than individual "stars."
Nonetheless, certain pieces stand out. An untitled ink drawing by Philip Guston, of two leaves, creates an image that is both empty and monumental. Leaves, Trunks & Vines is a photogram Jared Handelsman made by standing in the woods with a large sheet of photographic paper, allowing moonlight to expose the negative. The black-and-white image—unframed, tacked to the wall—is simultaneously literal and abstract, with a vibrating moon-magic. "It's just perfect," Wolf says.
As a teenager in the 1960s I met John G. Ernst, who'd trade his latest watercolor for a bottle of whiskey. Seeing his work now, I notice the exquisite command of color, the syncopation of the lines. Ernst's style falls somewhere between Zen calligraphy and newspaper cartoon.
"Byrdcliffe's Legacy" has a domestic air; the Kleinert/James gallery resembles a big, quirky living room. I see almost no influence of the heroic Hudson River School, with its transcendent light-bedazzled vistas. Instead, the descendants of Byrdcliffe strove to create livable art: paintings, chairs, and bowls that fill in the spaces of daily life. "Byrdcliffe's Legacy: Handmade in the 20th Century" remains at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts in Woodstock through October 9. (845) 679-2079; Woodstockguild.org