Frederick Edwin Church: Romantic Landscapes and Seascapes
Essays by Gerald L. Carr, Lisa Bush Hankin, and Warren Adelson
Published: Adelson Galleries, 2007
Hardcover
135 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9741621-7-1
Art in Traffic
On a hot August afternoon in 2003, Adelson Galleries (then at the Mark Hotel) was open when there was a blackout in New York City. Our first response was concern as to why there was no electricity in all of New York; the attack on September 11 was still fresh in our minds. Within a short time, the fear was abated by a news report that we had heard on our battery-operated radio, informing us that an important grid failure had shut down New York and environs. It was not due to any malicious act, just a technical glitch! Cell phones were dead, air conditioning was off, traffic lights were out, and the streets were filled with cars and pedestrians on the move.

On this particular day, we had relatives and friends visiting from Miami. My sister-in-law had been at the gallery with her girlfriend, and they had gone on to shop at a favorite store in lower Manhattan. When the blackout struck, we were consumed with anxiety for their welfare and imagined these two tourists lost in a maze of downtown chaos. We decided to take our car and drive to where we thought they would be to ”rescue” them.

With none of the traffic lights working, the streets were jammed, with everyone leaving work and on the move. The ride from Seventy-Seventh Street and Madison Avenue to First Avenue in the East Thirties (fifty blocks) took nearly two hours. We finally arrived at the building and, of course, the girls were nowhere to be seen amidst the thousands of milling bodies. We drove back to the gallery, which took another two hours. Altogether we had spent four hours in the car in the slowest moving traffic I had ever seen. The first bit of the ride I was mostly angry. “Damn New York…what a horror…truly traffic from hell…why aren’t these lights on a backup system?” As we crawled along bumper to bumper, I became aware of a strange phenomenon: it was quiet. You did not hear a car horn, no voices were raised in anger, people in the car next to you let you ahead of them when you changed lanes, and a sentiment of goodwill was in the air.

Camaraderie enveloped the crowds; New Yorkers were courteous. More than that, all sorts of people were directing traffic at the especially difficult intersections. It was a diverse mix of people: there were men in business suits, well-dressed women, doormen, constructions guys, office workers, many cops, some firemen, emergency medical technicians, and a host of others in unusual uniforms – memorably, several boy scouts standing in the thick of traffic giving signals and trying to direct the flow. No one was panicked; it all moved along. By the time I returned to the gallery, it was dark and we found our girls sitting at the curb at the Mark Hotel, hot, tired and a little teary, but otherwise just fine. They had walked there from Lower Manhattan. The hotel staff had lit candles and produced a buffet in the dining room that was open not only to the hotel guests but to the general public as well. We ate a snack and drove home to Westchester, which was not nearly as harrowing as navigating through midtown that day.

That was a memorable journey in New York City. I consider the experience as a metaphor for understanding art, and I could not resist this opportunity to draw the comparison. I have been looking at American paintings for more than four decades and have read and written a good deal of art history. My hope has been to gain a greater understanding of why artists did what they did when they painted, and I have attempted to comprehend what their paintings meant beyond what appears on the surface. In 1980, I thought I knew something about the work of John Singer Sargent. Now, a quarter of a century later, I feel that only just recently have I begun to understand him as a painter. Art is complicated and confusing, and it is easy to get stymied, lost, discouraged, and sometimes even disoriented when you look at it. Keeping with it – that is, looking at art often – has taught me that is does eventually reveal itself in ways that often cannot be predicted.

Gerald Carr has written three essays for this catalogue, based on his deep intimate acquaintance with the art of Frederic Edwin Church, arguably the greatest American landscape painter of the nineteenth century. The essays are on diverse aspects of Church’s oeuvre and open different windows to understanding the artist. Carr’s approach as an art historian has been described as “holistic.” Herein, with great attention to detail, he has set Church in the context of his time, but more than that, has presented him as the complex man that he was: scientist, theologian, geographer, tourist, showman, husband, and father. Most of all, he describes Church as a painterwho loved his craft passionately – a man of his time who had boundless curiosity about the natural world around him and the courage to wander to far-off places to see it. Lisa Bush Hankin has written a thoughtful biographical sketch to help place Church within the framework of his time.

In planning this exhibition, we agreed that rather than attempt a comprehensive monograph of the artist, we wanted to create a portrait of the artist through some of his most compelling works of art. Gerald Carr has captured that sense of Church, in all his complexity and passionate commitment to everything he pursued. We see the artist traveling in the world, enthralled by the places he saw, and recording them not as a journalist, but as an artist in love with both the physical act of painting and the wonder of the myriad effects of light. It is like my day in New York, watching the variegated crowd moving in harmony and conveying to us who they were by how they acted. Seeing the throng may have seemed confusing at first, but overall it was glorious and uplifting. It was art in traffic.

Warren Adelson
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