Artists of Modern Life
Winslow Homer and Andy Warhol at The Hyde
At first blush, artists Winslow Homer and Andy Warhol could not be more unalike. Homer (1836-1910), whose art aimed for naturalist precision, painted frothing waves pounding the cragged rocks of coastal Maine, or reclusive woodsmen angling in the Adirondacks. Warhol (1928-1987), the prince of Pop, is the artist who emphatically replaced nature with culture in the visual arts, recycling images of Coca-Cola and Campbell’s Soup.
But according to Erin Coe, former curator and current director of The Hyde Collection, where two exhibitions, “Homer’s America” and “The Late Drawings of Andy Warhol,” recently opened, there is plenty that unites these American artists.
“I see a lot of parallels between the two because both began their careers as illustrators, and both became very well known and successful because of their illustrations,” Coe said, referring to both Warhol’s early work as a commercial artist, and Homer’s for illustrated magazines, such as Harper’s Weekly. “Even though you might think Homer and Warhol are on opposite ends of the art historical spectrum, there are actually a lot of affinities between the two,” she said.
“Both,” she added, “are looking at modern life.”
The Late Drawings of Andy Warhol
“The Late Drawings of Andy Warhol” consists of 50 large-scale drawings the artist produced between 1973 and 1987 (the year Warhol died from a heart attack following a routine gallbladder operation). A traveling exhibition that originated at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Coe arranged to have the show visit the Hyde early last summer, and it represents an important first for the museum. “The Hyde Collection has never had a show devoted to Andy Warhol in its 63 year history,” Coe said. Some of the sketches have not been previously displayed before now, and since the Hyde is the first stop for the exhibition, the works are in actual fact debuting in Glens Falls.
For more reasons than one, the Hyde is perhaps a felicitous venue for Warhol. Watching the paper mill directly behind the museum belch out plumes of smoke, you are reminded that Warhol’s childhood was spent in the shadow of Pittsburgh’s steel mills.
Generally, Warhol’s sketches are spare and direct. The artist typically used a curious mishmash of lines: brittle and saw-toothed, wavy and fluid. Those drawings from the late ‘70s and ‘80s in particular refer to an important, if still underemphasized period in Warhol’s career. Racked with doubts at that time, Warhol began to interrogate some fundamental premises of his earlier work. As a result his art became somewhat more personal, abstract and painterly. He returned to drawing with a renewed vigor, a medium that had always been integral for him, but that acquired fresh importance as he allowed his art to become more outwardly expressive.
“We think of Warhol as this artist who broke once and for all from the tradition of authorship in art, and establishes the depersonalized mechanical hand of the artist,” Coe said. “But he’s putting his hand back into it.”
As the wild range of subject matter attests, Warhol was a sponge for everyday culture: “The Late Drawings” includes sketches of dollar signs, cats, Beethoven, wig advertisements, a cabbage patch doll, bullets, an Absolut vodka advertisement, and canned tomatoes. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, some of the most distinctive pieces pertain to Warhol’s most successful late works, such as the “Skulls,” the silkscreens of Chairman Mao, and the hammer and sickle series. In the latter drawing, Warhol very simply, and with a splatter of pink color, transforms the hammer and sickle—the Soviet Union’s official symbol and the one that emblazoned its flag—into a homey agrarian still life.
Several drawings depict celebrities, from Grace Kelley and John Lennon to the painter David Hockney. Warhol produced a hoard of society portraits, so many that the art historian Robert Rosenblum once called Warhol the “Court Painter to the Seventies.” For Coe, it is the economy of these drawings that is particularly commendable, such as Warhol’s sketch of the Rolling Stone’s frontman Mick Jagger.
“When you look at that drawing there’s minimal lines in it, minimal contours, and yet it captures the very essence of Mick Jagger: his attitude, his persona, with just a few lines. It’s really remarkable,” she explained.
Other works in the show are gloriously cheeky. The coke drawing, for example, consists of a brown blotch of high fructose corn syrup on paper—a spoof of the kind of painting gesture associated with Abstract Expressionism (which Pop Art reacted against), such as Jackson Pollock’s drips. Here, that mighty and manly personal gesture becomes a mass-produced sugary drink.
The Hyde’s in-house summer exhibition, “Homer’s America,” is comprised of some two dozen works—primarily engravings, plus a couple of watercolors and a small oil painting—from its permanent collection, which collectively illustrate Homer’s sharp-eyed record of American life in the 19th Century. Charlotte Hyde, the museum’s founder, collected most of the works in the show in the 1930s, when Homer’s critical reputation was revived. According to Coe, around that time Charlotte Hyde stepped back from the Old Masters to focus on American ones.
The wood engravings point to Homer’s critical work as an illustrator. In 1854, at the age of 18, Homer became an apprentice at a lithographic studio in Boston. He later embarked on a freelance career, submitting drawings to publications, mostly Harper’s Weekly, that became wood engravings. (He produced the final drawing on the woodblock and worked closely with the engraver, but did not personally create the engraving.) Homer mastered the practice. From a French engraver, Charles Damoreau, he learned to draw in a strong linear style that was best suited for the printmaking process.
“Homer is not your garden-variety illustrator. He really wanted to understand the engraver’s art, and the reason he became one of the most successful illustrators of the nineteenth century is because of this understanding,” explained Coe.
The engravings were often produced in tandem with oil paintings, with sometimes slight variations between the two. “Homer’s America” includes the Civil War engraving “The Sharpshooter on Picket Duty” (1863), which ultimately became one of Homer’s first mature oil paintings. According to Coe, Homer communicated with two different audiences, and reserves most of his social commentary for the illustrations. He may have also used the engravings to test the reception of a subject he intended to paint. But Coe stresses that the process was never formulaic (she will deliver a lecture on the topic at the Hyde on July 23).
That most penetrating observer of American society in the 19th Century, Alexis de Tocqueville once noted of America’s vanishing wildernesses, “One feels proud to be a man, and yet at the same time one experiences I cannot say what bitter regret at the power God has granted us over nature.” Homer’s Adirondack work shares some of this ambivalence. The artist first visited the North Woods in 1870 and returned periodically until his last visit in 1910. In Keene Valley and Minerva, Homer occasionally recorded man’s disfigurement of the land, but without explicit comment.
“Is he celebrating it or is he critiquing it? Is he embracing it or is he repelled by it? I don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer to that,” Coe explained.
Nevertheless, Coe finds less ambivalence in Homer’s Adirondack watercolors, such as the Hyde’s angling scene, “A Good One, Adirondacks” (1889). Homer adopted the medium in 1873. It allowed him to work freely outdoors directly from nature. Coe observes that within Homer’s watercolors, the human figures often recede into the landscape. In “A Good One,” the angler is completely immersed in the wilds, united with the water, the trees, and the mountains, rather than waging battle against them.
“He had to accept that change was coming, hence the need perhaps to capture it on paper, to preserve that sense of oneness with nature,” Coe said of Homer.
Tocqueville registered those same feelings about the vanishing “solitudes of America” when he wrote, “One sees them with a melancholy pleasure; one is in some sort of hurry to admire them.”