“The Art of Albert Pinkham Ryder,” at the Brooklyn Museum until January 7, 1991, is a wonderful study in the problematics of painting, and should be attended by all who take an interest, morbid or not, in American art. This show will not come round again, if only because Ryder’s paintings are so fragile and festering that they are disintegrating before, as it were, our collective eyes. We are all aware that some paintings hold up better than others, and that few canvases executed before 1950 look quite the same now as they did to the artist the day he finished them, but the Ryder show brings home with a vengeance the mortality of this particular art. A section of the show is devoted to the chemistry of deterioration, with grisly enlargements of Ryder’s cracking, shrinking, wrinkling, bubbling, sagging, darkening, alligatoring agglutinations of pigment. His paintings are subject to “traction crackle,” “varnish slide,” and “perennial plastic flow”; they suffer from an ongoing chemical activity that insurance companies call “inherent vice.”
It is all Ryder’s fault. Though the basics of stable, enduring oil painting were established by Jan van Eyck early in the fifteenth century, and though abundant technical wisdom existed in the art schools and ateliers of the late nineteenth. Ryder in his reckless, betranced quest for poetically lustrous surfaces committed every chemical sin in the book, mixing his oils with alcohol, bitumen, and candlewax, painting “wet-on-wet,” applying rapid-drying paints (flake white, umbers, and Prussian blue) on top of “slow driers” like lamp black and Van Dyke brown, pouring on varnish straight from the bottle and painting on top of the still-tacky surface. In his later, increasingly reclusive years he became pathologically reluctant to part with his work and trash alike; his tacky paintings were piled in the dusty jumble of his apartments and sometimes damaged underfoot. To display canvases to a visitor, he would wipe them “with a wet cloth to bring out their depth and transparency,” the evaporating water blanching the paint and glazes. He also wiped with kerosene and was fond of melting colors together with a hot poker. Alarmed patrons found him reclaiming his paintings and ruining them; on one occasion in 1905, when the collector John Gellatly aggravated Ryder by pressing him for delivery of a commissioned work, the painter ragefully, in the presence of a visitor to his studio, Sadakichi Hartmann, heated up an old hair-clipper in the coals of his fire and ran it “criss-cross through the picture surface, leaving deep gashes as if made by the prongs of a rake.” X-rays of Pegasus Departing do indeed show angry parallel scorings.
The fullest account of the vandalism Ryder wreaked on his own works can be found in the chapter “Albert P. Ryder: His Technical Procedures,” which the conservator Sheldon Keck contributed to William Innes Homer and Lloyd Goodrich’s Albert Pinkham Ryder. But the room in the Brooklyn Museum devoted to this problem is vivid enough, displaying the pustular black ruin of the painting Desdemona and the lava-like crust of The Curfew Hour, scarcely still recognizable as a human artifact. In other rooms of the exhibit a number of well-known, much-reproduced works are failing fast: the bigger version of Macbeth and the Witches an inscrutable murk, The Sentimental Journey and The Lone Horseman not much better, The Lorelei and The Forest of Arden and the panel Woman with a Deer unignorably disfigured by great fissures, even the famous Race Track—its spectral rider telescoped by posterity with Ryder’s name—so sunk in its whites as to seem less a painting than a pale sketch of one. A number of the paintings present in the Ryder retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a year after his death in 1917, now exist primarily in the form of black-and-white photographs taken in 1918; the originals have all but dissolved.
The Ryder messiness extends to an odd overlapping between restorers and forgers. Ryder is the most forged painter of his time, and also the most restored; in this exhibit we are warned that much of what we see—for instance, the outlines incised around Dancing Dryads, details of Pegasus Departing, swaths of The Lorelei—is the work of other hands, busy even while he was alive. After Ryder’s death, his disorderly estate began miraculously to sprout new Ryders; his caretaker, Louise Fitzpatrick, his artistic executor, Charles Melville Dewey, and the Canadian artist Horatio Walker all happened to paint in the moonlit Rydersque style, and in the murky shuffle between restorers and collectors and authenticators a welter of indubitable forgeries appeared. In 1915 he himself wrote a collector of his paintings, Alexander Morten, that “a great many spurious Ryders have lately come onto the market.” Though Ryder generally didn’t sign his paintings, “having always felt that they spoke for themselves,” he consented to authenticate Morten’s, and allowed himself to be taken over to the Brooklyn Museum to sign a group of six paintings purchased in 1914. The last room of the exhibit hangs thirteen alleged Ryders now thought to be forgeries, many still proudly wearing their gilt frames and museum labels. With the help of wall commentaries, we can see how these paintings—most often, boats on a sublunar sea—lack the patient searchingness that distinguished the mature Ryder’s opaque, expressionistic skies and rigorously smoothed compositions. But, given the uncertainty and crudity of many authentic Ryders, our discernment is perhaps an illusion of curatorially aided hindsight. The working parts, as it were, of a Ryder are so few that even a crude imitation can click. Elizabeth Broun’s catalog quotes Clement Greenberg, who wrote of one Ryder forgery that it
manages to be a rather good picture precisely because it takes nothing from Ryder except his manner, leaving out the difficult intensity and originality of emotion he could not realize often enough in his own work. While Ryder could not always meet the high terms he set himself, the forger, even though he was only a hack, could meet them when reduced.
Mention of Greenberg brings us to the matter of Ryder’s high modern reputation, Jackson Pollock said in 1944, “The only American master who interests me is Ryder.” In the Armory Show of 1913, which brought modernist painting to America, Ryder was given, with such Europeans as Gauguin and Redon, patriarchal status—an old master of the avant-garde. Nor have the post-Pop fluctuations of artistic mood noticeably lowered the esteem in which Ryder is held. Paradoxically (if the postmodern sensibility can be seen as coherent enough to contain paradoxes), we like it that his paintings are self-destructing; each disintegrating Ryder is a slow-motion happening. We like it that he was so sublimely careless in his intensity—that he sacrificed product to procedure. Ms. Broun is quite eloquent in linking Ryder to Pollock:
They were united in their faith in the very process of painting as a means of embodying the content of the work…. Pollock’s layered skeins of paint create tension between plane and depth that is close to that in Ryder’s heavily built-up, wet-on-wet paint films. One looks through Pollock’s threaded webs into a mystical, invented space much like that seen under magnification in Ryder’s layered glazes and marbled paint films…. Ryder’s peculiar approach served as an American analogue to surrealist automatism in that it was an art rooted in the process of painting rather than in a preconceived image.
“Mystical” is the key word above; indeed Ms. Broun rather mystically credits Ryder with foreseeing the aesthetic effect of magnified crackling and chemical mismarriage. That may be what Ryder meant when he said, of his layers of paint, “I have so much enjoyment underneath.” The painter’s enjoyment, perhaps for the first time, is worked into aesthetics. A witness to his painting said of it, “It was an emotional process that often disregarded sound technique.” Ryder was not much troubled by the signs of deterioration that emerged in his work: “When a thing has elements of beauty from the beginning,” he said, “it cannot be destroyed.” He wrote the dealer William Macbeth, who wanted to clean In the Stable of its darkening varnish: “I hope you will not have the picture cleaned; I am confident that the color is as perfect as when painted; if there are any cracks they count for little in this enlightened age.” When Macbeth persisted, Ryder stormed. “It is appalling, this craze for clean looking pictures. Nature isn’t clean.” He would have approved when, some forty years later, Pollock left a bumblebee embedded in one of his giant drip paintings. Art imitates Nature not in its appearances but in its processes, its uncleanness, its uncomplaining susceptibility to accident.
Ryder did not issue many statements on method and theory, but he said enough to establish him as a precursor of much that is joyously violent in modern art. One paragraph in particular, from an interview with Adelaide Louise Samson (who may have contributed the stately, balanced cadences), has the force of a revelation:
Nature is a teacher who never deceives. When I grew weary with the futile struggle to imitate the canvases of the past, I went out in the fields, determined to serve nature as faithfully as I had served art. In my desire to be accurate I became lost in a maze of detail. Try as I would, my colors were not those of nature. My leaves were infinitely below the standard of a leaf, my finest strokes were coarse and crude. The old scene presented itself to me framed in a opening between two trees. It stood out like a painted canvas—the deep blue of a midday sky—a solitary tree, brilliant with the green of early summer, a foundation of brown earth and gnarled roots. There was no detail to vex the eye. Three solid masses of form and color—sky, foliage and earth—the whole bathed in an atmosphere of golden luminosity. I threw my brushes aside: they were too small for the work in hand. I squeezed out big chunks of pure, moist color and taking my palette knife, I laid on blue, green, white and brown in great sweeping strokes. As I worked I saw that it was good and clean and strong. I saw nature springing into life upon my dead canvas. It was better than nature, for it was vibrating with the thrill of a new creation. Exultantly I painted until the sun sank below the horizon, then I raced around the fields like a colt let loose, and literally bellowed for joy.
The bellow—a “barbaric yawp”—and the “great sweeping strokes” of pure color presage abstract expressionism and its gargantuan color-field children; but Ryder’s canvases and panels were almost always small. He liked to paint on cigar-box lids, for the glow of the red cedar underneath. It was his enameled tones that pleased his contemporaries, and won him admirers from the start, though early criticism had to work around the inadequacies of his draughtsmanship: “Mr. Ryder…often raises an involuntary smile by the oddity and apparent naiveté of his pictures.” One does not need to compare Ryder’s skills with those of his great contemporaries Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins; compared with even a middling student at a middling art school, he draws poorly. His faces have no expression; his bodies have little muscle or movement. He was introduced to brush and paints as a child in New Bedford, and, he told Adelaide Samson, “I at once proceeded to study the works of the great to discover how best to achieve immortality with a square of canvas and a box of colors.” But he had troublesome eyes—they became inflamed with use, and prevented his continuing his schooling past grammar school—and, the first time he applied to the National Academy of Design in New York, he failed the entrance exam. Yet quite soon he acquired a mentor and a sponsor, the portrait painter William Marshall, and when he was at last admitted to the academy, according to his fellow student J. Alden Weir, his “gentle & timid nature made him a favorite with everyone.”
Ryder’s modest successes—he had patrons from early on, and toward the end was pursued by commissions—are entangled with something guileless, rare, and captivating about his personality; in an art world of debonair cosmopolitans like John LaFarge, his dedication to art, despite so little apparent talent for it, savored of heroism and sanctity. His heedless techniques, his trite and wispy poems (collected in the Homer-Goodrich volume and quoted by Broun), the dim melodrama of his fairy-tale tableaux, and his decay, after 1900, into grubby eccentricity and counterproductive obsessiveness, all conspire to suggest that Ryder was a bit of a simpleton. Americans, with their basically millennial expectations, admire holy fools, especially in the arts, and the full-blown Ryder, combining Whitman’s beard with Emily Dickinson’s reclusiveness, is our holy fool of painting. Puritanism, which continues to shape our collective aesthetic sensibility if not our personal behavior, values sincerity and prefers, to a suspect facility like John Singer Sargent’s, an awkwardness, an evident conquest of difficulty, like Ryder’s. In its world-hating heart, Puritanism admires, as ultimate proof of sincerity, self-destruction, whether it comes as the plastic slide of Ryder’s gumbo or Pollock’s drunken car crash. On such disdainful negations are glowing reputations built.
Viewed as visual entertainments rather than as demonstrations of spiritual effort, the Ryder paintings on display in Brooklyn offer limited satisfactions. The early daubs, small brownish glimpses of rural America influenced by the impersonal rustic intimacy of the Barbizon School of France, have at their best a golden glow and an astonishing minimalism. Near Litchfield, Connecticut and Landscape could hardly be less and be paintings at all, yet they convey reality, a cloudy-day, nameless-tree atmospherics that is curiously American. Nothing to say becomes something to say; the center of Autumn Landscape contains only crackle and warm haze, and the upside-down ghost of a painted-over horse. Horses, usually seen in a frontal foreshortening that makes them look wistfully like people, interested Ryder, whose family had owned a white horse in Bedford. Even though the white horse in Mending the Harness is exceptionally well anatomized, it and the one in The Grazing Horse have a poetic glimmer; they do not seem quite real horses but dream-images, symbols. Ryder had begun to make, instead of receive, pictures. Weir’s Orchard as a landscape is a universe removed from the early scrubby sketches of dull brown days: it is, though based on his friend Weir’s farm, where Ryder was recuperating in 1897, a vision, a haunting idyll, an abstracted brown-green essence of spring, the tree in the center beginning to take on the witchy, thick-limbed, reaching shape that trees have in his surreal Pastoral Study.
I regret to say that Ryder’s anecdotal paintings, whether the anecdote is rustic-genre (In the Stable, A Sentimental Journey), piratical (Smuggler’s Cove), Shakespearian (Macbeth and the Witches), Wagnerian (The Lorelei), or allegorical-mythological (The Temple of the Mind, The Poet on Pegasus Entering the Realm of the Muse), did not do much for me, even when I could make out, in the alligatored chiaroscuro, what was happening. His human figures are so dimly grasped, so pastel and undefined, as to be not even comic. When a little definition creeps in, comedy does too, as in the jauntily striding Perette, with her good firm feet, or A Country Girl, with her big cartoon eyes. The Shepherdess, rather delicately painted on a gilded wood panel, with gold highlights scratched through, is one of his more successful decorative works, using the same glowing tawny hues as his famous Dead Bird, thinly and enduringly painted on a cigar-box lid and given as a playful present to the wife of his dealer, James S. Inglis—Mrs. Inglis had a habit of saying, when tired, “I feel like a dead canary.”
The three overtly Christian paintings on view are not as lame as you might think: The Story of the Cross, especially, with its stiff parallel figures and unusually fresh and sunny colors, reinvents the faded biblical imagery, like a more tender Rouault. The woman with child and donkey, as if the infant Christ were being held up, in a white nightie, to witness his own crucifixion, is like nothing else in iconography. Of Ryder’s theatrical constructs, The Tempest (partly painted, we are told, by those busy posthumous hands) takes a certain life from its jaggedly gesturing sky, and The Flying Dutchman from its troughed mass of ragged waves and the contrast with the golden sky, of which the phantom ship, sails full, seems part. Here Ryder has managed a double plane of reality, a hallucination within his hallucinatory world, and it is a measure of our nervous relation with his erratic talent that we are relieved he has brought off what, after all, any competent illustrator could have.
His moonlit marine paintings—Moonlight, Under a Cloud, Moonlight Marine, Moonlit Cove, With Sloping Mast and Dipping Prow—are his signature pieces. His indifferent draftsmanship gives the various boats a spiritual vagueness and spares us, often, crew and rigging; the simplicity of the constituents—sea below, sky above, a moon, a sail—enables him to construct a scene that tightly fills the canvas with flat shapes. His tawny skies with their cut-out clouds are marvelous inventions that echo down through Motherwell and Styll. Ryder’s seas, with their more ragged scrabbled brushwork, are almost as visionary; the heaving brown hillocks of Jonah and the flung pillow-shapes of Lord Ullin’s Daughter are as abstractified as his clouds, and indeed one of the foaming crests seems to be trying to qualify as a cloud, leaping oblong into the sky. Of course it is not a sufficient compliment to say of an artist that he anticipated artistic developments of the future; this would reduce his function to a kind of soothsaying. His duty is to the contemporary Zeitgeist, to push at it where it can be pushed. By flattening his skies and enameling his waves, Ryder was able to re-express the old Romantic sense of Nature as a numinous presence. The Blakean God smiling between his wings in Jonah strikes us as eccentric and fantastic; not so the blank intensity of Ryder’s furiously glazed moons. In his marine images, as native and universal and fresh and indelible as the eternity-minded prose of Moby-Dick, this problematical painter does lay claim, against all odds, to the immortality he sought.
November 8, 1990