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Seaworthy: J.M.W. Turner’s Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight.

 

Mastering the Elements
By David Brickman

Frederic Remington: Illustrator, Sculptor, Painter
The Hyde Collection, through Aug. 24

Turner: The Late Seascapes
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, through Sept. 7

Summer is a time of blockbusters. Museums around the world are unashamed to ply tourists with big-name exhibitions aimed at rattling the turnstiles, and our region is no exception. Two billboards facing opposite directions along I-90 represent this year’s entries: a review of the career of Frederic Remington at the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls and a major show of seascapes by J.M.W. Turner at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.

The former, titled Frederic Remington: Illustrator, Sculptor, Painter, was organized by the Frederic Remington Art Museum in Ogdensburg and guest curated by independent consultant Kevan Moss. The Hyde will be the show’s only venue.

Frederic Remington was born in upstate New York in 1861, and by the time he came of age, the Wild West imagery that typifies his work was already nostalgic. In effect, he made a career out of extending the myths associated with the cowboys, Indians, soldiers and scouts he depicted, much as Hollywood movies did a generation or two later.

And, like John Huston and other great directors, he did it exceedingly well. This exhibition does a good job of documenting the early and middle era of Remington’s career as an illustrator for mass-media publications and as a sculptor of action-oriented collector bronzes, both of which dealt exclusively with the Wild West theme.

But the show does not stop there. Remington eventually outgrew his boyish fascination with manly activities and began to reinvent himself as an artist in the more romantic mode: a painter of light and color, primarily as seen in landscapes. Unfortunately, an infection contracted after surgery for appendicitis cut Remington down at the age of 47, just as he was starting to really get somewhere. His late works, from about 1900 to his death in 1909, showed the kind of promise that gives this exhibition a raison d’etre and supports the idea that he was much more than a skilled maker of myths and money.

Relying heavily on the holdings of the Remington Art Museum plus a few loans from private collections, the show has excellent examples of Remington’s early work, when he produced drawings and paintings exclusively in black-and-white for the purpose of reproduction. This technique, known as grisaille, is exquisitely represented in the 1891 My Second Shot Sent Him Lining Out After His Brother and Captain Grimes’s Battery Going Up El Poso Hill from 1898.

Both paintings are large and impressive, full of dramatically frozen figures and perfectly rendered horses. But they lack feeling—not due to the absence of color but to the fact that they are intended to tell stories, to entertain and inform, rather than to express something beyond the surface.

In the latest paintings, such as the 1908 Pete’s Shanty, Remington has added color (having had to teach it to himself from scratch) but, more important, he has added his own feelings about the place, his passion for its serenity and the dappled sunlight that envelops it, his desire to capture the mood. Based on this 12-inch-by-16-inch canvas alone, one could assert that Remington was a great American impressionist.

The last painting in the show is a mystery; it was found in Remington’s studio after his death, probably unfinished, very possibly abandoned, and it now bears a signature that some believe was forged. Untitled, but generally referred to as The Cigarette (based on a reference in a letter), this canvas fits into a group of later Remington works called the Nocturnes, in which he depicted some of the same subject matter as in his best-known work, but in a different light (both literally and figuratively). As it happens, another major exhibition of Remington paintings, titled The Color of Night, is now on view in Tulsa, having just been transported there from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and it comprises the Nocturne paintings—except The Cigarette.

While the Hyde show is clearly proud to boast inclusion of The Cigarette, it is probably not the best example to prove the show’s thesis, and it leaves one feeling a little flat in the end. The show’s strength is in the illustrations (from an academic viewpoint), the five bronzes (all excellent examples of this important phase of Remington’s career) and in the little late landscapes that were almost certainly dearest to his heart.

Turning to the Clark, but continuing with Remington, it is worth noting that an 1890 example of his Wild West painting better than any in the Hyde show is part of the permanent collection there and currently on view. Titled Dismounted: The Fourth Trooper Moving the Led Horses, it shows how quickly and well Remington mastered color while staying within the genre of his earlier (as well as contemporary) grisaille work. Also part of the Clark’s collection, but on loan to the Color of Night exhibition, is an even more impressive Remington painting from 1900 to 1905 titled Indian Scout. Just remembering it from previous visits, I can say with confidence that it is as great as The Cigarette is not.

And speaking of greatness, there’s Turner: The Late Seascapes. Not only was J.M.W. Turner quite arguably “Britain’s greatest landscape painter of the 19th century” (as per the exhibition wall text), he was one of the most important painters—of any subject, of any place—of all time. Aside from a brilliant level of mastery over his medium, augmented by constant technical experimentation, Turner deserves credit for inspiring the impressionists to reinvent painting, and himself invented abstraction more than a century before it was to become the dominant mode.

The exhibition at the Clark features numerous masterpieces from such places as the Tate Britain in London and the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, as well as many watercolor sketches, some of them from private collections and not likely to be seen in public again soon. It is built around the Clark’s own Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water, a tour de force of luminescence that has been extensively restored and looks wonderful for it.

Covering the period from the mid-1820s to Turner’s death in 1851, curator James Hamilton has organized the show into sections as much by theme as by chronology, and it is beautifully installed, with sufficient but nonintrusive wall text and labeling, and a supplementary short video detailing the restoration of Rockets and Blue Lights. This fall the show will travel to Manchester, England, and then on to Glasgow, Scotland, in 2004.

Highlights of the exhibition are many. Some of the watercolors are so fresh as to appear to have been made just yesterday—they are a revelation in contrast to the heavily worked and occasionally huge oils on canvas. One, a study of a carp, has the ease of brushwork characteristic of Asian art. Another, painted on Turner’s final trip to Venice in 1840, is aptly described as being “as atmospheric as it is topographically accurate.”

Another Venice painting, this a large canvas from 1834, hangs with its paired opposite, a moonlit view of keelmen loading coal into sailing vessels in an unnamed British harbor. Both glow with the light that would eventually permeate, then dominate, Turner’s later work.

And that’s where you find the core of the show. The period 1840 to 1845 was crucial to Turner’s development, and it is generously represented here. Among the best works shown is a near-complete abstraction titled Sunrise With Sea Monsters, in which acid yellow and pale green combine with white and bits of red to simply dazzle the viewer. As do so many other pieces here.

To quote from a guest book at the Clark, “The Turners were well worth the trip from Luxemburg.” Whatever else you do this summer, don’t miss them.

Hourlong gallery talks on Turner: The Late Seascapes are offered daily at 11 AM and 3 PM at the Clark.


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