"Our Town: Images of Woodstock" at WAAM | Visual Art | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram

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"Our Town: Images of Woodstock" at WAAM

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Earl B. Winslow, The Woodstock Bus, c. 1930, oil on canvas. Woodstock Artists Association & Museum.
  • Earl B. Winslow, The Woodstock Bus, c. 1930, oil on canvas. Woodstock Artists Association & Museum.

Before everyone went around taking selfies everywhere, Woodstock was already celebrating itself in pictures. In "Our Town: Images of Woodstock," the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum gathers early paintings and drawings of the now-famous hamlet, in preparation for WAAM's centenary next year.

The show begins with exterior views. Julia Leaycraft's Village in Winter (Woodstock), circa 1940, depicts the snow-covered town bustling with shoppers, sledders, snow-shovelers, skiers, in colorful wintry garb. Leaycraft's composition translates Bruegel's snowscapes into 20th-century terms, conveying brisk movement and communal joy.

The Woodstock Bus, a painting circa 1930 by Earle B. Winslow, contains an amusing portrait of Wilna Hervey, a local Woodstock celebrity who played "The Powerful Katrina" in the Toonerville Trolley silent film series. In the painting, we see the formidable Hervey from behind, entering a Cubist jalopy labeled "Woodstock Buss," while another woman—perhaps her partner, Nan Mason—searches in her purse for the fare. (The misspelling of "bus" may be an inside joke.)

Philip Guston, probably the greatest Woodstock artist, was constantly evolving. Ref's Back Porch, an ink drawing from 1947, exhibits a feverish early stage of abstraction, transforming detritus on a porch into a spiraling, chaotic tumble of lines—which would later dissolve into the liquid, rippling abstractions of the 1950s.

The second phase of "Our Town" uses the X-ray powers of art to enter local houses, which were often rich with paintings and drawings. A "gift economy" connected artists, who exchanged artworks as a token of friendship. "How pervasive art was in their lives in every way!" remarks Janice La Motta, curator of the show. One subtheme of Woodstock painting was art about art.

The key interior scene is Woodstock Christmas by John McClellan, a shadowy black and white lithograph of five friends blearily gathered in a living room. A dark-haired woman reclines on a pillow, under a blanket. A man bends over, warming his hands on a wood stove. Three others sit hunched at a table over mugs of coffee. A sheet covers the window, holding back the glaring morning light. There's no Christmas tree, no tinsel, no stockings, no presents—just five people sharing the same hangover. Woodstock Christmas is a sympathetic snapshot of the hard-drinking atheists of 1936.

Visual art in Woodstock began as a utopian experiment of the Byrdcliffe Colony in 1902. Elements of that idealism remained after the artists left Byrdcliffe (and later the Maverick Colony) to settle into private houses. Woodstock became a refuge for lesbians, Communists, avant-gardists—and sometimes lesbian Communist avant-gardists—who were not so welcome in larger American society. These outcasts created a community that Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Philip Roth would eventually choose to join. In their paintings and drawings, Woodstock artists expressed affection for the unique subculture they had created. "There's a warmth; there's a sense of 'This is all beloved,'" observes La Motta.

"Our Town: Images of Woodstock" will remain at the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum until December 31. Woodstockart.org

—Sparrow

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