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Contradictions and Coincidences of the Woodstock Colony


Like an indelible stain, ingrained and reinforced by wave upon electromagnetic wave, the associations are instantaneous from Rio De Janeiro to Tokyo....Mention the word “Woodstock” and I defy you to avoid images of long-haired youth at a music festival. Try it. Try thinking as someone might have thought in July of 1969, a month before a world-wide media explosion indented their Woodstock correlations and definitions into our cultural consciousness.

As if the upstate New York town of Woodstock was founded upon the abandoned festival site, even thirty years after the great event, residents of the village are still obliged to disassociate their hometown from shadows cast by a decades-old media happening and affirm an identity separate from the impact of those far flung images. They still find themselves explaining patiently to inquiring tourists that the Woodstock Festival was held near Bethel, some 60 miles away in another county and that, despite the overwhelming hoopla and aftermath of those few days, the “real” Woodstock has maintained a solid reputation as a colony of the arts, and particularly the visual arts, for about a century.

In presenting the work of five very singular and enormously talented artists of the Woodstock area in this year’s edition of New Art International, (whose primary studio is situated in the Woodstock artists community), we cannot help but be acutely aware of the instant impression conveyed by the town’s name and likewise compelled to sketch in neglected details which may give a more lucid perspective to traditions which still attract artists to the region. It is a tale familiar to most long-time residents and one laced with internal conflicts and fascinating contradictions entering a second century with no final resolution in sight.

Three Guys From November

Although there was a small element of theatrical and circus people present in the Mink Hollow area of Woodstock dating to the 1870’s and individual painters scattered about the area, the true genesis of an arts colony began to take form in Santa Barbara, California at the Arcady estate of Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead as he gathered there with a pair of companions in 1901.

Each member of this trio was firmly under the sway of the counterculture sentiment of their day. The wealthy Whitehead had studied under the famed anti-industrialist Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Balliot College in his native England, John Ruskin, and had been profoundly influenced by the ideas expressed by William Morris in such works as the projected 21st Century utopia in his book News From Nowhere.

Writer and musician Hervey White, a complex character who had grown up in Iowa and Kansas, worked his way through Harvard (where he studied with Ruskinite scholar Charles Eliot Norton) and was finishing his novel Differences when he met Whitehead in Chicago in the late 1890’s, shared the Englishman’s interests in establishing an arts colony. Whitehead had just toured several socialist and utopian outposts in eastern upstate New York, which had for decades been a stronghold of the spiritualist and quasi-mystical movements which also held a corner of his attentions, when he moved on to the Chicago area to interview mediums on behalf of the Society for Psychical Research. He brought with him a letter of introduction to White from a mutual friend, feminist poet and theoretician Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and their meeting left lasting impressions upon both men.

In September of 1899, White found himself treking west to Arcady where the two worked out plans for a subsequently aborted colony in Oregon, the demise of which has never been adequately clarified. It wasn’t until a third member was recruited in late 1901 that the utopian dream of founding a wilderness retreat dedicated to preserving the aesthetic values lost to a machine-driven culture turned toward their final destination.

Bolton Coit Brown, a New York State native and well-known painter and lithographer, had founded the Department of Fine Arts at Stanford University in Palo Alto and was also amply versed in the ideas of Ruskin and Morris when Whitehead approached him. It was Brown who would discover the valley village between the mountains Ohayo and Overlook while Whitehead and White searched the south for an ideal location. At about a hundred miles north of New York City, Woodstock was just far enough from an urban center for the remoteness they sought and close enough, even in early 1902, to market the crafts, furniture and art they deemed necessary to support a self-sustaining community of artisans.

So it was founded and built on the Overlook Mountain property acquired by Whitehead and dubbed “Byrdcliffe” from a combination of his middle name and that of his American socialite wife, Jane Byrd McCall. It was to become one of a half dozen lasting art colonies founded in America in the pair of decades sandwiching the turn of the century that had been fueled by a desire to establish creative environments apart from the stifling atmosphere of industrialized cities. While one side of Overlook Mountain gazed upon the village of Woodstock, the other side afforded a view of the inspiration for Thomas Cole and the other masters of America’s first world recognized art movement, the Hudson River.

Whitehead, born November 4th, 1854, was more than a decade older than Brown, born November 27, 1865 and a year-and-a-day older than White, but it was most likely his British reserve which led to the nickname-on-the-sly of “Papa Whitehead,” which the younger men took to using. But it was Whitehead’s brittle sense of caste, wherein he was king, White and Brown hirelings and the harder work reserved for local “boors,” which more obviously became too astringent a factor in the trio’s chemistry not to sour the mix. When it was perceived that Whitehead’s drive for social reform was somewhat more limited in scope than his coventurers, the realization soon led Brown down the mountainside to Rock City Road, where he preceded to set up his own art colony. White soon followed Brown’s example by establishing his “Maverick” base on the other side of town, where he welcomed struggling artists, musicians, actors, writers and other bohemian types to settle in and create, all without a hint of Whitehead’s caste system.

Byrdcliffe struggled on under Whitehead’s rule with the well-known artist and writer Birge Harrison enlisted to conduct artistic instruction. But Harrison, who was affiliated with both the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League, also defected from Whitehead’s system and helped put in place yet another founding stone of the art colony.

The influence of the Düsseldorf tradition of painting (and later Münich) on the Hudson River School has long been noted by art historians and editor of the Hudson Valley/Catskill region’s most important arts periodical since 1984, Art Times, Raymond J. Steiner, astutely credits William Merritt Chase’s outdoor excursions during studies at the Royal Academy in Münich as presaging the plein air movement’s formal entrance to the Woodstock scene. Chase set example at Shinnecock, Long Island to proselytize the practice in New York and it caught on quickly. In his absorbing study The Art Student League of New York: A History (CSS Publications, 1999), Steiner notes that the Art Students League’s early efforts at plein air instruction, having met a somewhat stiff response from local citizens in Connecticut, moved to Woodstock for its summer sessions in 1906 and returned each year until 1922.

If the local folk of Woodstock were taken aback by an influx of artists before the League arrived, it hadn’t seen anything yet.

In Search of the Woodstock “Style”

Harrison, whose own work leaned toward tonalism, operated what has been described as the nation’s finest landscape school at Woodstock with John F. Carlson as his chief assistant. Carlson, whose guide to landscape painting is still considered a classic of the field, took over the school upon Harrison’s retirement in 1911, just in time to preside over the growing swells of influence which had begun to wash in along with new students from the League and started rocking the boat of the placid plein airistes with waves of Robert Henri and John Sloan’s Ash Can School of realism in New York and the impact of Fauve and other modernist perspectives drifting in from Europe. In particular, the Paris salon familiar Andrew Dasburg and the arrival of Konrad Cramer from Münich, mingling with artists like Henry Lee McFee and Eugene Speicher at Rock City, began dividing the scene into traditionists and modernists as the art revolution of the century’s early years swept through America.

Meanwhile, Hervey White’s Maverick colony moved on as a full-fledged social experiment in cooperative lifestyles as he installed a printing press and began publishing his own periodicals. The need to finance a community water well brought The Maverick’s benefit August full moon festivals to town in 1916 with costumes that could be danced out of, and sometimes were, as music played deep into the night for the more robust revelers; a zestful tradition which continued until 1931. White began a chamber music series which continues today at the site and staged plays by Shakespeare and other theatrical events. Edward G. Robinson and Helen Hayes would play their first roles at The Maverick. Even famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, folksinger Leadbelly and other national celebrities spent some time there. As the unconventional thinkers continued to gather, tourism flourished and market fairs held on the village green provided the outside world glimpses of a Woodstock lifestyle and fashion.

Carlson’s position at the Art Students League’s upstate branch was taken over by Charles Rosen in 1918 when the former had his fill of the invading modernist sensibilities and left to open his own school. In doing so, he joined his efforts with those of Frank Swift Chase and other devotees of Woodstock’s vital landscape traditions in keeping that honored spirit alive. The following year saw the formation of the forerunner to the Woodstock Artists Association and its centrally located gallery. By 1920, Alexander Brook, Peggy Bacon, Henry Mattson and other artists had added themselves to the scene and even Robert Henri himself appeared for a season in 1921 to join George Bellows, Leon Kroll and other notable artists in the countryside. Other art schools became active in Woodstock as well and stayed when the League pulled out in 1922 as the heyday of the era lasted through the 20’s and into the 30’s before the Great Depression drew the curtain.

If a characteristic style evolved in this period which exemplified the Woodstock School of painting, it would have to be seen as a kind of stylistic American modernism which combined elements of modern theory and landscape. But hard times in Woodstock effectively crushed the explorations of the movement despite the efforts of New Deal programs like the Public Works of Art Project and the Federal Arts Project of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.

A passage from the town’s own honored historian Alf Evers’ monumental work The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock (Doubleday, 1972) sums up the scene succinctly as, across the nation, the “Bohemian way of life was seeping into many levels of society. In urban art colonies like New York’s Greenwich Village and in similar colonies in Chicago, Minneapolis, and and Boston, Woodstock was being talked about more and more and with growing enthusiasm. It was being said that here was a remarkable small town set in the midst of beautiful mountain scenery- a town that actually welcomed artists, writers, musicians, and people with unconventional ways. Not that the town’s older residents approved of the newcomers- not at all. But they found them an irresistible source of profit. Once the new kind of people began flocking to Woodstock, property values rose, and men thrown out of work by the closing of the bluestone quarries or the decline of farming could get work at good wages. Farmers learned that if they put a large window in the north wall of an outbuilding, however ramshackle, they could rent it as a studio, and artists began displacing chickens, sheep, and cows as tenants. Shopkeeping and control of churches and politics remained in the familiar local hands; most of the new people seemed bored with all three. They were willing to provide the town with a healthy economic base as long as they were permitted to live in their own way with a minimum of interference. Older Woodstock people stifled their disapproval and usually treated ‘the artists,’ as they called all the newcomers whether they painted or not, with polite consideration lest they scare them off. But a strong current of dislike flowed steadily beneath the surface and erupted from time to time in displays of open hostility.”

The economic crash struck the art-producing world a devastating blow, creating further divisions among artists in Woodstock contending for FAP assignments and quickly wearing through the veneer of tolerance displayed by local merchants and older residents as the flow of tourist dollars dried up. Mystery novel author Hugh Pentecost, covering events for the local press under a pseudonym, found occasion to report violent threats and cross-burnings on the part of the locals in the wake of a quiet artists union protest against the loss of regional FAP jobs. Throughout the crisis, artists drifted away in a steady stream and, with them, so did the distinction of a Woodstock style.

Post-War Phoenix

While the slow revitalization of the colony following the Second World War half-heartedly acknowledged various artistic trends of the time, the movement was thereafter carried by the energies of individual visions. The Art Students League reinstalled their summer school at Woodstock in 1947 with an assortment of instructors which included Paul Fiene, Fletcher Martin, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Arnold Blanch and Paul Burlin. They soon added Philip Guston, Karl Fortess, John W. Taylor, Sigmund Menkes, Nathaniel Kaz and Sidney Laufman to the roster as the flame rekindled and a new generation of artists began feeding the heritage with an abandoned regard for category.

In his history of the League, Steiner finds this attitude closer to the natural order of things; “Certainly there have been cliques and ‘schools’ and ‘movements.’ Some have even gotten together long enough to write a manifesto or position paper. But artists are rarely comfortable with ‘groupthink.’ Art is too personal, too irrational to lend itself to intellectual theory. Whatever order is imposed on their art comes from inner promptings, from their own nature, and not from written manifestoes. American painter Philip Guston, when he was criticized by his friends for abandoning realism for abstraction, one retorted, ‘What the hell are we? A baseball team?’” Yet, while the League was clearly not a baseball league, some Woodstock artists, like Eugene Ludins, could certainly play the game and the analogy to team spirit has found its place in the history, as in Karla Ann Marling’s reference to George Bellows as “the mainstay of a baseball team whose motto might well have been ‘Bellows to Rosen to Speicher’” in an essay introducing an exhibition of Woodstock art at Vassar College in 1977.

The point to be scored here is that the day of regional competition in the arts which might have pitted Münich against Paris or New York in a contest for prominence as an art center has been dissolved by the blur of moving numbers on a digital clock. Circumstances created by the state of technology and communications have erased any need for a ‘unity of vision’ to define an arts community. All artists whose work can be viewed upon a widely distributed page or a computer screen in Houston and Vienna in the same instant have joined free agency. The terms of vision have become the perspective of a shortstop versus that of a right-fielder or, for that matter, flute to bass fiddle.

These developments, while not to slight the physical presence in galleries and collections of the real thing, have increasingly shifted the boundaries of art since the Second World War back into the margins of the individual artist exposed, potentially, to every kind of influence. This is easily evident in the reassembled art scene of Woodstock.

Woodstock Today

While idealistic, countercultural and utopian thought rose in the culture of the Sixties and little weekend “soundouts,” which preshadowed the Bethel event and featured local musicians like Tim Hardin and imports like Soft Machine on a small farm near town in 1968, an occurrence of some importance to the survival of the colony was being marked by the formation of the Woodstock School of Art as a full-time, year-round facility by Robert Angeloch, Eduardo Chavez, Franklin Alexander, Lon Clark and W.J. Jerominek. The school was in place and thriving when the Art Students League again withdrew from its mountain nest in 1979 and continues today as a highly respected center for study and wherein two of our contributors, Mary Anna Goetz and Elizabeth Mowry, are members of an impressive staff of instructors.

As can be seen in the profiles which accompany their work, most of our selected local artists were drawn to Woodstock from other areas. While Elizabeth Mowry grew up in nearby Kingston, she was moved to return to the area to pursue her career. Mary Anna Goetz migrated from the Midwestern United States and Karen Whitman came north from New York City, as did Jerry Kaufmann. Alexey Krasnovsky originated in Russia and frequents the Woodstock colony from other favored international perches. Much the same can be said of other current local artists, permanent or part-time residents, drawn by the lure of Woodstock’s century-long legacy.

This is the legacy and the Woodstock which we would prefer our readers to reflect upon as they consider the pages from the artists cited in above paragraph. These are the artists of Woodstock today who continue to proudly bear the community’s mantle of fine art. And this preference is not to pronounce negatively upon the musical artists that performed at that indelible event any more than we wish to ignore the many honored names of visual artists associated with Woodstock in the past century who can not be mentioned in so brief a review. But Woodstock the Colony is not Woodstock the Concert as townspeople so tirelessly continue to point out. In fact, town authorities went to legal lengths to prevent the concert from being staged in Woodstock but could not deprive it of the name it adopted. Now, it is an association which threatens to live forever just as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein became better known than her husband’s poetry.

On May 24, 1989, Life magazine pulled a photograph of a couple at the festival from its special issue commemorating it and blew it up for a full-page ad in the New York Times which bore the headline WOODSTOCK- WERE YOU THERE? The barefoot male in the picture, with frizzy hair, headband and pendant, epitomized the public view of “hippie.” It is not likely that Life knew in selecting the photo that this hippie actually lived and worked in the town of Woodstock. He did and his name was Robert Depew Reynolds. He was an artist, a poet and a social reformer. In the photograph, although tattered and barefoot, he assumes an air of quiet dignity. A far cry, perhaps, from the starched collar respectability of dapper Birge Harrison; more like Hervey White, certainly, who always appeared a bit disheveled in pictures.

Reynolds espoused many causes of social justice and often proved a thorn in the side of town officials. His oratory style was booming and lyrical as he exercised his own “Muhammad Ali School of Oral Poetry” to right the wrongs of the land and once caused lasting commotion by hanging an enormous banner out of his apartment window on the corner of Rock City Road and Tinker Street which quoted the words of Joe Hill “Don’t Mourn, Organize!” That alone would have endeared him to the likes of Hervey and company. Reynolds belonged in his era of Woodstock.

Born in Westport, Connecticut, son of the Art Director for the New York World Telegram & Sun, Reynolds studied religion and philosophy before becoming a photographer’s agent in Chicago and New York. Descended from a painter who headed the British Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, he started to sketch in Korea and Japan while in the U.S. Marines and developed a portraiture style with pastels which resembled oils and produced a very popular series depicting Native Americans. He was running a hot dog stand in New York City when he wasn’t painting in 1963 when he was written up by the Daily News as a “freelance, philosophizing artist.” Unhappy with his suburban home and his ulcer, he walked away from his former life to focus on his artistic vocation in Woodstock. There he blossomed until struck by a van on the street in 1984. He died the following year.

Although in some eyes Robert Depew Reynolds was an “undesirable,” he stood heroic in others and would have fit neatly into the colony in earlier times. In some respects he calls to mind a Woodstock landscape painter associated with the National Academy of Design who died in 1855, Montgomery Livingston. Alf Evers writes that “A miniature portrait of Montgomery still preserved by his brother’s descendants suggests that if he were to have walked down Woodstock’s Tinker Street during the late 1960s he would have seemed very much part of the scene. For he favored the look and manners of the French Bohemians of his day: his hair hung to his shoulders, a blond beard ornamented his chin, and his eyes looked out upon the world with a message of peace and goodwill.” Reynolds came with a tide of individuals with like messages on their minds.

Needless to say, the renewed invasion of unconventional types in the 1960s (i.e. “Hippies”) also renewed hostilities between townsfolk and the newcomers with an equally fresh flood of new homeowners fleeing an urban sprawl into their suburban retreats weighing in on the side of the perturbed. False arrests and beatings became the order of the day. Repressive measures instituted in that era also notched their place into the history of the town with increasing success over the years and, in combination with other social factors, have changed the bohemian atmosphere drastically. Today, if one arrives on a Saturday summer night expecting throngs of celebrants and seekers or artists bend over their cups in discussion at all-night cafes will find instead deserted streets. In daylight one sees highway arteries filling with malls and a relentlessly continuing flow of tourists that might come to any country town with a bit of a reputation for the weekend.

This brackish mix of country and city folk remind us that the proximity to Manhattan which once made Woodstock an ideal artist haven still exists. Woodstock still maintains some fine gallery space to show work which is not being displayed in the city and a strong resident body of artists drawn by the town’s lingering rural beauties.

Woodstock the Concert has reincarnated twice thus far in other locations. Woodstock the Arts Colony has reincarnated in place with the “Art Spirit” Robert Henri spoke of so many years ago undampened and ongoing....

G. Alexander Irving


2007 Book Art Press