​Celebrating the Hudson River School of art

Now for Something Old and Something New: Two grand homes from another time are currently hosting artworks that are very much of OUR time. Serena Altschul is our guide:

In New York State's Hudson River Valley this season, something old ... and something new. It's an exhibit of contemporary art called "River Crossings," set in the homes of two giants of American Art: Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School; and Frederic Church, his student, and one of America's finest landscape painters.

Church named the Moorish Victorian confection of a home he created Olana.


"People come to Olana on a kind of pilgrimage," said co-curator Jason Rosenfeld, who teaches art history at Marymount Manhattan College. "They want to see where the art was created that was the first movement in America.

"Now we put in it these works by artists who live around these regions, to kind of give you a sense of the continuity over 150 years."

At Olana, new works nestle comfortably among the art and curiosities Church collected.

The exhibit was the brainchild of artist Stephen Hannock, who enjoyed discovering the links between old and new.

"Sometimes, the connection is absolutely direct," Hannock said. "Other times, it's convoluted. And that's the fun of the show."

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"Question" by Martin Puryear.
Olana Partnership

In the grand entryway at Olana, an enormous wooden arch by sculptor Martin Puryear welcomes visitors, who have been lining up to tour these rooms since the show opened to rave reviews.

"It's called 'Question,'" said Rosenfeld. "It, on the surface, resembles a question mark. I take it as a directive, meaning question. Question authority, question the past, question tradition, question what you expect to see in art."

In the front parlor, a river of silver by Maya Lin, and a photograph of Niagara Falls by Lynn Davis, mirroring those Frederic Church painted a century and a half ago.

In Frederic Church's dining room, Valerie Hegarty's "Picnic With Downey Woodpecker." That's a copy of a Thomas Cole landscape those woodpeckers are pecking.

And across the river, in Thomas Cole's bedroom, tiny caps created by artist Charles LeDray.

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Stephen Hannock's "The Oxbow, Flooded, for Frank Moore and Dan Hodermarsky," oil and wax on canvas (2013).
Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery and Caroline and Tiger Williams

One of Stephen Hannock's paintings hangs in Thomas Cole's parlor -- not surprising, since Cole was a huge inspiration, to him and to many of these artists.

"Cole has always been something of a hero of mine," said artist Tom Nozkowski. "So the idea that I might be able to show here in his house was very exciting."

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"Untitled (9-25) (Sam's Point)," oil on linen on panel (2012).
© Thomas Nozkowski; Pace Gallery

Nozkowski's landscapes are, Altschul noted, "very abstract."

"Yeah, well, I think abstraction is a kind of a tool that allows people to kind of find their own systems and ideas and meanings. And I like that freedom. I think it's a real American idea, you know?"

An American idea -- "make it new," which is what Cole and Church were doing 150 years ago, when they created a new kind of art that was purely American.

"The big event that these artists were celebrating in the 19th century was, there's a new country here," said Hannock.

Rosenfeld noted, "We have a kind of autumn foliage which people in England and France had never seen. They thought the paintings were fake when they were shown in Europe."

And "River Crossings," he said, "is a kind of celebration, about continuity in American art."

Case in point: On the balcony at Olana, a miniature crumbling city is called "Empire," by Charles LeDray.

"He's built this myriad of sort of semi-constructed structures that are keenly reminiscent of one of Thomas Cole's paintings, 'The Course of Empire,'" said Hannock.

And then there are the grounds of Olana, a 250-acre landscape Church called his greatest masterpiece -- including a man-made lake, where Don Gummer felt his sculptures belonged. "When I decided which pieces were gonna go, then I started thinking, 'This one would look nice here with the water right behind it.'"

Altschul asked, "What would Church have thought of this show? What would his reaction be?"

"I think he would've been thrilled to see it," said Rosenfeld. "He lived in the house. But he didn't treat it as a museum. To have these kinds of things here probably would have delighted him."

Think of it as a conversation between the old and the new -- or a very lively family reunion.


For more info:

  • "River Crossings" at Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, N.Y., and at Thomas Cole National Historic Site, Catskill, N.Y. (through November 1, 2015) | Exhibition map
  • Featured artists include: Romare Bearden, Elijah Burgher, Chuck Close, Will Cotton, Gregory Crewdson, Lynn Davis, Jerry Gretzinger, Don Gummer, Duncan Hannah, Stephen Hannock, Valerie Hegarty, Angie Keefer, with Kara Hamilton and Kianja Strobert, Charles LeDray, Maya Lin, Frank Moore, Elizabeth Murray, Rashaad Newsome, Thomas Nozkowski, Stephen Petegorsky, Martin Puryear, Cindy Sherman, Sienna Shields, Kiki Smith, Joel Sternfeld, Letha Wilson and Elyn Zimmerman.
  • Exhibition Catalogue: "River Crossings: Contemporary Art Comes Home," by Jason Rosenfeld, with preface by Stephen Hannock, essays by Maurice Berger and Marvin Heiferman, and photographs by Peter Aaron (The Artist Book Foundation)