Three paintings on display at Christie’s by Albert Pinkham Ryder were the draw to New York this weekend. It’s not often works by this artist come up for sale. The three were a disparate lot, one somewhat resembling a painting in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art (The Lorelei, lot 87), the only other place I’ve seen several Ryder paintings together, one entitled Night (lot 89) which showed significant deterioration, but that doesn’t seem to have much impact on the price evaluation, and the most attractive in my view, a small painting showing a horse and rider (the Lone Horseman, lot 88).
Before I headed to New York to view the paintings, I wanted to read something more about the artist and so I had ordered a book, Albert P. Ryder (The Great American artists series) by Lloyd Goodrich of the Whitney Museum published in the late 1950s. Ryder may not be on the tip of your tounge when you hear the word modernist–in fact his paintings are somewhat sentimental and even nostaligic. Many others may look at his paintings, particularly those that have deteriorated and wonder just what they are looking at.
As Goodrich explains it, Ryder pictured the inner reality of the mind, and out of this deep unconcious world brought forth the deepest poetic imagery in our art of the century. This fact is expressed quite clearly in the response to a question posed to Ryder on his painting in the Cleveland Museum of Art named The Race Track. Asked if it depicted night or day, Ryder responded tha he hadn’t thought about that.
The best quote in the book quoted the artist himself explaining his work. “Have you ever seen an inch worm crawl up a leaf of twig, then clinging to the very end, revolve in the air feeling for something to reach something?,” he asked. “That’s like me, I am trying to find something out there beyond the place on which I have a footing.”
The painting at Christie’s entitled Night demonstrates the fact that Ryder experimented with unconventional materials such as wax, painted very thick and had little technical knowledge of painting in a way that would assure stability. Experts say many of Ryders works are painted so thick they are still drying today. Ryder himself however explained that something great is still great in part or whole.
Ryder is an artist who did not believe in imitation. He said “the least of a man’s original emanation is better than the best of a borrowed thought.” And so with that he helped sew the seeds of modernism. It was well worth the trip to see these three paintings from an American artist able to forge a new path and help create not only modern art, but aide in the enabling of the creation of the first international art.
Another artist well-represented (six paintings) at Christie’s is George Inness. A brief stop in Philadelphia on the way to New York allowed for forty short minutes in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). Several works by this artist I hadn’t seen before were adorning the walls of this splendid building and institution. These are some of the best of works by Inness, and I have to say the ones currently up for auction in New York come at least very close to matching the quality.
When we see paintings and we know we like them, we may not immediately know why. I have stood in front of Ryder’s The Race Track in the Cleveland Museum of Art perhaps more time that with any other painting. It’s taken some years to begin to figure out why I like it. It was later in life I began to notice the work of George Inness. Yet while the works by Ryder may at times touch on being allegorical and the works by Inness may appear at first glance to be mere landscapes, they have in common their roots in the mind, in memory and the subconcious. In his prime, Inness was painting the place where the physical and spiritual worlds meet. The paintings are very personal and rooted in the impressions left by a time and place in his memory. As one of the labels at PAFA suggests Inness was painting nature as if he was nature.
These are personal qualities that tie an artist to a painting more than any subject or skill, and something existing for only a brief moment when considering the great span of things, that was lost as we moved into the age of modern art. These are images of something that is not there, was not there, but is none-the-less is very real.
Important American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture takes place at Christie’s December 1.