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Practical Art: George Eggers’ Chest with Winter Landscape.

Utopia Lost
By David Brickman

Byrdcliffe: An American Arts and Crafts Colony
The Albany Institute of History and Art, through Feb. 27

Before there were hippies, long before the summer of love, way before Woodstock (the concert), there was Byrdcliffe.

Founded in 1903 by a collaboration of idealists with a vision for an artistic, communal life, Byrdcliffe was spearheaded and financed by Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, a wealthy native of England, who found inspiration in the writings and teachings of William Morris and John Ruskin. Together with his wife, Jane, the writer Hervey White and the painter Bolton Brown, Whitehead established this colony near Woodstock, and maintained it until his death in 1929. It remains there today as a summer residency program for artists that reflects its founders’ ideals, though it fell short of its utopian goal for a year-round community long ago.

The exhibition Byrdcliffe: An American Arts and Crafts Colony now on view at the Albany Institute of History and Art celebrates the heyday of this experiment and the artists who thrived there in those early years. It was organized by Nancy E. Green of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, from where it traveled to Albany. (Before that, the show was at the Milwaukee Art Museum; it will move on to the New-York Historical Society and then the Winterthur Museum in Delaware later this year.)

Incorporating nearly 200 objects in a broad range of media, including furniture, weavings, books, photographs, ceramics, paintings, metalwork, enamel and even toys, the installation focuses on two goals: to evoke the philosophy and lifestyle of the Byrdcliffe colony and to showcase the work created there. It meets these objectives handily.

Along with the many gorgeous drawings, prints, pots, paintings and pieces of furniture, there are artifacts of a historical nature and media kiosks that show video or provide soundtracks that bring to life the joyous, creative atmosphere that the Whiteheads strove to foster on their campus. One sees pictures of family life smoothly integrated with craft-guild-like factory work and healthy farm production; one hears voices reading letters that extol the rewarding work and sexy fun of summers at Byrdcliffe; and one revels in the beauty of the scenes these artists painted, and the sturdy, graceful furniture they designed.

Closely tied to the turn-of-the-century arts-and-crafts movement (reflected in various parts of the United States by, among others, Stickley in Syracuse, Hull House and Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, Roycroft near Buffalo and the architectural firm of Greene and Greene in Los Angeles) this was a powerful artistic style combined with a lifestyle—health was emphasized by outdoor living and farm-fresh foods; children were nurtured in schools that taught creative skills; and a nostalgic yearning for practical but beautiful home décor designed and built by happy worker-artists was indulged.

Though Whitehead had the means to support the colony (and did), his intention was for it to support itself with the sales of furniture, pottery and rugs. However, this was not to be. Other, more businesslike practitioners such as Stickley had more productive factories and better prices, and the craftsmen of Byrdcliffe never made much of a profit. In effect, it was proven that esthetically beautiful furnishings made by and for the working class were an impossible dream—only the relatively rich could afford such things, and the furniture operation was dropped in 1905.

What was left behind, however, has enduring value. There are many fine pots of various sizes, decorated with a eucalyptus motif as designed by Jane Byrd Whitehead (clearly a very talented artist) or left plain in simple glazes. The furniture, though square, stolid and in heavy oak, is invariably decorated with delicate carved or painted panels. All of it shows the classic combination of form and function that typifies the style of the era, with clean lines and pretty flourishes making for gorgeously understated elegance. I’d be overjoyed to take any of these pieces home with me—and I’ll admit it wasn’t easy to obey the “do not touch” labels prudently placed near each one.

Many of the exhibits are accompanied by working drawings and source materials by the designers, and many of these are very lovely in themselves. In addition to Mrs. Whitehead, the designs of Zulma Steele, Edna Walker and Bertha Thompson (all of whom studied at Pratt Institute in New York) are showcased. It is no accident that they are all women—equality of the sexes was one of the ideals of Byrdcliffe’s founders, and they encouraged women to work in media not traditionally within their purview, such as metals and architecture.

Of these, Steele appears to have been the most productive as well as the most talented. Her geometric patterns based on natural subjects exemplify the art deco style at its best, while retaining the consistency of an original artist. Whether drawing, painting, making woodcuts or designing furniture, Steele showed easy mastery of her medium. It is an asset of the show that it has a great many examples of her work.

Thompson is profiled in a special display that also shows her designs in silver for table service and, with gems, for jewelry. The metalwork, both practical and precious, exemplifies the challenge of balancing the highminded philosophy of Byrdcliffe; quotes from the spirited young woman reveal the social aspects, as she chortles about summer lovers falling in and out, but leaving no hearts broken.

Another woman who left her mark on the colony and in this show was Eva Watson-Schütze, a very fine portrait photographer whose platinum prints show the Whiteheads and their friends at work and play. Ralph Whitehead also has a few photos on view, of landscapes or flower studies. There’s even a print by Elliot Landy, known for his Woodstock concert pictures, of Bob Dylan at the colony in the ’70s—slick, large and contrasty in the style of its time, it looks out of place here, and really plays up the subtle beauty of the earlier platinum prints.

Along with all the wonderful furniture and other artifacts of Byrdcliffe, the exhibition has quite a few paintings done by artists who stayed there, but the paintings were not necessarily made there or then. Mostly landscapes, among those that stand out are two by Carl Eric Lin-din and one in an American impressionist style by Leonard Ochtman. There are also two fine seascapes from 1896 by Lowell Birge Harrison and two fauvist landscapes from two decades later by William Schumacher. Any of these would serve to support the contention that the artists hosted at the colony were of the highest quality.

In addition to the main exhibition, a one-room display with a local component has recently been added in a gallery on the museum’s third floor. Researched by AIHA Chief Curator Tammis Groft, Albany & Troy Arts and Crafts: 1907-1918 documents two schools that fostered art in the craftsman style in our region. The exhibition features some strong work by the likes of Henry Albright and Dorothy Lathrop, both local natives who had significant careers. It will run through Aug. 13.


Reality Show

The Arts Center of the Capital Region, through Feb. 27

Arts Center curator Gina Oc chiogrosso has put together a fairly diverse group of eight artists who “study, capture and comment on the real world.” Not surprisingly, photography is a significant presence, but painting dominates this selection.

In usual ACCR fashion, there is a combination of artists from near and far (including Chicago and Los Angeles)—and, as usual, the hometown team more than holds its own. Hudson Valley painters Deborah Zlotsky (Delmar), James Dustin (Coxsackie) and Phyllis Palmer (Tivoli) each apply sound thinking and consummate technique to their respective series of a child’s drawings; architectural space and light; and back-view portraits. All three are first-rate bodies of work.

Also in usual ACCR fashion, there are pedantic exhibit notes written by the curator that attempt to instruct the viewer in how to interpret the art. I suspect I am not the only one to find this practice particularly annoying.

Yet another fine local painter, Dave Austin, is represented in a sidebar solo exhibition in the President’s Gallery as 2003’s selected Fence Show artist. Austin’s prodigious 2004 output shows he’s growing into an intriguing and skilled interpreter of paranoia and alienation in contemporary America. Definitely one to watch.

—David Brickman

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