From striking landscapes to colorful abstracts, there’s a wide range of artistic styles and mediums on exhibit at the New York State Museum. But the artwork in “The Historic Woodstock Art Colony: The Arthur A. Anderson Collection,” is only half the story.
“It’s as much about the narrative of the Woodstock Colony as it is about the art.
The art is a vehicle for telling a story,” Anderson said. In 2017, the collector donated over 1500 works by over 200 artists to the New York State Museum.
Anderson hopes that “The Historic Woodstock Art Colony,” which features around over 100 of his donated works, is the first exhibit of many aimed at bringing the Colony back into the American art canon.
The Kingston-based collector, who has spent the last three decades studying and collecting art from the Woodstock Art Colony, actually started out in the fields of American history and organic chemistry.
“I had no knowledge of art history,” Anderson said. But his interest in it was sparked at a young age. Growing up in West Michigan, his family owned a cottage and the family that had owned it before the Andersons had left this one landscape that Anderson was always drawn to. Over the years it became worn, so he promised his mom that he would restore it once he had the means.
He fulfilled that promise and along the way discovered the Woodstock Art Colony. In the 1980s, while he was living and working in New York City, he bought a home in Woodstock. During a vacation, he went to an antique shop nearby where he found his first Woodstock painting.
“I saw the most beautiful painting, a portrait of a woman with red lips,” Anderson said.
He spent almost everything in his bank account to buy the piece. It’s the painting that starts off the exhibit at the New York State Museum. It certainly is striking, between the woman’s ivory skin, dark hair and her heavy-lidded glance. But the artist, Norbert Heermann, isn’t one that anyone outside of the Woodstock circle really remembers today, said Anderson.
When he bought the painting, Anderson was determined to make good on his investment and learn more about the artist. It turns out that Heermann was a friend and neighbor of George Bellows, a famous artist during the 1900s, whose name is still well known today.
“I’d always done American history research in college, so I started to research and that’s what got me into the artists of the historic Woodstock Colony,” Anderson said.
The Colony was founded at the turn of the century when Byrdcliffe Colony was founded by artists Jane Byrd McCall, Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and a few others. It developed and morphed over the years, at first it was focused on the arts and crafts movement. Then a progressive art school called the Art Students League of New York moved its summer school to the area, so the works produced there reflected that style. Then, in 1919, the Woodstock Artists Association was founded and things only grew from there. Unlike most artistic colonies, it’s year round, drawing artists from New York City and from around the country. Over 100 years after it was founded, the colony is still thriving today.
Anderson’s collection mostly focuses on the early 1900s through the 1950s, ranging from sketches by George Bellows to oil paintings, sculptures and lithographs from artists of varying degrees of fame, like Birge Harrison, Konrad Cramer, Rolph Scarlett and Yasuo Kuniyoshi.
Beside “The Lady with Red Lips,” hang landscapes that remind one of the Hudson River School style. Further on, there are these small but wonderful illustrations by the likes of Peggy Bacon, who is known for her caricatures of powerful figures and for her humorous illustrations.
The exhibit is heavily focused on Bellows and what it calls his “circle.”
Anderson collected many of Bellows sketches over the years, some which the artist used in preparation for his paintings.
Oftentimes, when he would purchase the sketches, and many of the other works in the collection, the seller wouldn’t know the full story of the piece. But Anderson built up a library on the Woodstock Art Colony so that he could dig around to discover each piece’s story. He would trace the sketches to their paintings or a larger work, always looking for the story behind it.
“For me, it was never just about the art,” Anderson said, “It was about the culture, the community, the relationships.”
In an interview with the Gazette, Anderson quoted Julio De Diego, a Woodstock artist who once described working in the colony as such: “Everything is very close between the artists of this colony. All of them are friends in small concentric circles.”
Through his research, Anderson discovered that the artists would often gift one another paintings and many remained friends well after they’d moved on from the colony.
One of the most remarkable relationships for Anderson to research was between neighbors Eugene Speicher and Bellows. Speicher and Bellows were both successful artists during the first half of the 20th century and they grew very close in Woodstock, to the point where Bellows named his daughter “Jean,” in honor of Speicher. Bellows died relatively young when Jean was just a child. But Speicher remained friends with the family, as evidenced by a portrait of Jean created by Speicher a few years after Bellows died.
Through his collection, which Anderson calls a study collection, he hopes to continue to make these sorts of connections and help to bring together the history and art of the colony.
“I have a scheme or a vision of what the study collection can be so it really allows a curator like Karen Quinn to tell the narrative of the Historic Woodstock Art Colony,” Anderson said. Quinn, a senior historian and curator at the museum, was able to condense the Colony’s history in the exhibit’s label copy that made it both interesting to adults and readable for young students, said Anderson.
He considers “The Historic Woodstock Art Colony: The Arthur A. Anderson Collection” the first in many narratives that can be told through his collection.
Although he’s donated much of it to the museum, he hasn’t stopped collecting. He continues to look for pieces that he feels can fill in any gaps or holes in it.
When he spoke with the Gazette, he had just purchased three more works on paper for the collection days before. But he’s quite happy to have the collection at the New York State Museum and in the hands of a curator like Quinn, who can highlight the history of the Woodstock Art Colony as well as the art that it produced.
“I think it’s important to bring this colony back into the American art canon,” Anderson said.
“The Historic Woodstock Art Colony: The Arthur A. Anderson Collection” is on exhibit at the New York State Museum until December 31, 2019. For more information visit nysm.nysed.gov.