June 2008


Rediscovering the American Landscape: The Eastholm Project (Jacob Collins)
Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York City
May 8 - June 13, 2008

Painting Landscapes, Then and Now

by Louis Torres

Readers are urged to view images of works in this exhibition prior to reading what follows.

As a traditional realist painter and teacher based in New York City, Jacob Collins is most fortunate. Though ignored by critics at the New York Times and the New York Sun (except for one trashing review a couple of years ago), he is represented by one of the leading galleries in Manhattan, Hirschl & Adler Modern. In the past five years, he has had four mostly sold-out exhibitions of his work there: Recent Paintings (which I missed), Figures (reviewed in these pages in December 2006), Still Lifes, and now Rediscovering the American Landscape: The Eastholm Project. Nor has it hurt his career that editors of the New Criterion (which, ironically, has historically championed the abstract movement that long ago consigned such painters to obscurity) have anointed him their Classical Realist painter of choice. (See my "Muddying the Waters of Classical Realism," Aristos, December 2006, and more below.)

The "Project" in the current exhibition title refers to a two-year period in which Collins did little else but make studies of land, trees, leaves, sky, and water, and smaller and mid-sized landscapes, on and from the island of Vinalhaven off the coast of Maine--all preparatory to the completion of a single monumental painting (4 x 10 ft.), The Hen Islands from Eastholm [more ]. Regrettably, I found this work disappointing. Though technically proficient, even virtuosic, it was just there--did not come alive for me, did not draw me in or back and forth, did not, in the end, take my breath away. Much more satisfying were smaller works like Eastholm Study (almost 5 x 10 in.) and a few of the drawings and oil studies, especially the wonderfully atmospheric Field Study, Foggy View from the Ice House (6 x 8 in.).

Other small works were appealing as well. The tiny Maple Leaf (leaves, really--5 x 7 in.) was richly satisfying, notwithstanding its simplicity, and merited repeated viewing. So much nature crowded into this small surface! Even more compelling was the more substantial White Pine in Sunshine (8 x 6 in.)--my favorite--which I went back to repeatedly, willing myself into the scene each time. (See also Thomas Cole's lovely, even smaller, Tree by a Pond [4.50 x 3.8 in.] [more].) Reflecting upon White Pine again after returning home, I was reminded of British psychiatrist Anthony Storr's observation that "maintaining contact with one's own inner world [is] facilitated by solitude," as noted by Michelle Kamhi and me in What Art Is in discussing the appeal of landscape painting.

Collins is ill-served, however, by the exhibition catalogue essay by David Dearinger, who is Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings at the Boston Athenaeum and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the history of art at the Fashion Institute of Technology (State University of New York). He proclaims at the outset (parenthetical text is his; bracketed links following painter's names are to examples of works selected by me):

It is all here [in The Hen Islands from Eastholm]: the geological and botanical specificity of rocks and trees (á la Asher B. Durand [In the Woods]); the recognition that a single site looks different at different times of day and in different seasons (Thomas Cole [Sunrise in the Catskills] [The Clove Catskills ], Jasper Cropsey [Autumn Landscape with Boaters on a Lake], and Martin Johnson Heade [Lake George]); the ground-level, close reading of plants and rocks (John William Hill, Charles Herbert Moore, and William Trost Richards [Atlantic City Shoreline]); the almost obsessive study of water (Alfred Bricher [The Landing at Bailey Island, Maine, c. 1907] [more] [At the South Head, Grand Manan [more] [various] and Frederick Edwin Church [Niagara ] [more]); the careful rendering of various types of clouds (Church and Durand again); the exploration of light--direct, reflected, clarifying, or glaring (Sanford Robinson Gifford [Morning in the Hudson, Haverstraw Bay] [more] and John Frederick Kensett [ Eaton's Neck, Long Island] [more]); the classically composed landscape with its framing repoussoir and depth-defining expanse of water (Cole and Albert Bierstadt [Mountains Out of the Mist]); and the sweeping panoramic view (Fitz Henry [Hugh] Lane [View of Coffin's Beach] and the American Luminists).
[See the ArtLex entry on Luminism, the Gallery of Paintings (by American Luminists and others), and American Landscape Painting (the first dozen or so works) for further information and images.]

Whew! All that in Collins's first monumental landscape? As a mere checklist, yes. But Dearinger, after dropping that baker's dozen of names, and alluding to yet others by his reference to "the American Luminists" (having just cited many if not most of its members, including the most prominent among them), concludes that Collins's "majestic view from Eastholm on the island of Vinalhaven in Maine embodies all of those historic and compositional legacies." Does it? Not qualitatively. By associating Collins with this stellar group in such a detailed manner, however, Dearinger seems to imply (perhaps unwittingly) that Collins is in the same league as these painters--"It is all here."

What of the New Criterion critics? Writing in the journal's "Gallery Chronicle" (June 2008), managing editor James Panero calls The Hen Islands from Eastholm an "awesome achievement." Yet he rightly concludes that the painting "does not reach the level of great nineteenth-century landscape." As even the limited sampling of works cited above suggests, countless nineteenth-century landscape painters were superior to Collins (not to mention to anyone else painting landscapes today). Painting in this manner at that level was "in the air" back then. Now it is not, and it may never again be (on which see my forthcoming article "The Interminable Monopoly of the Avant-Garde").

Nonetheless, Panero soon lapses into the sort of extravagant praise that I objected to in his previous writing on Collins (see "Muddying the Waters"). To wit:

We are in the first moments of a renaissance. Anyone who sees "The Eastholm Project" will recognize that they are witnessing the founding of something vital. . . .

Not quite. As I've pointed out before, that "founding of something vital" of which Panero speaks in fact considerably predated Collins--as Panero would discover if he were to read Realism in Revolution: The Art of the Boston School (see my review, Aristos, March 1986)--copies of which can be obtained from The Atelier. Edited by Richard Lack, who coined the term "Classical Realism," the book is a manifesto by some of the leading Classical Realist painters of the day--most of whom are still active. In particular, Panero would do well to read Don Koestner's essay in that volume, "Landscape Painting: The Artist's Perspective." He might also want to become acquainted with Koestner's work (the Atelier carries Don Koestner, American Impressionist). As Koestner--a true "pioneer" of Classical Realism--recounts, he began "sketching landscape elements" as a youth during the Depression. Painting for a lifetime in relative obscurity, he is one of today's finest landscape painters (see, for example, his Rattlesnake Bluff (1982) and April Evening (1983). (Koestner lives and paints--he does not teach--in the northern Minnesota lake country.)

New Criterion co-editor Roger Kimball--who, like Panero, has not written about the work of any other Classical Realist painter since he lately embraced the movement, tends to refer to Collins and his work in exaggerated terms that often make little or no sense. See, for example, his recent comments (regarding, in part, Rediscovering the American Landscape) in the Wall Street Journal ("Classical Realism: Antidote to 'Novelty Art,'" May 29, 2008):

[a] cynosure of the new figurative art . . . bravura technical mastery . . . works of keen aesthetic expressiveness . . . [The Hen Islands] a quiet masterpiece . . . art that requires no excuses, no alibis, no apologies . . . art that is confident, accomplished . . . an artistic pioneer . . . has the wit to know that the most demanding mysteries are those that are inseparable from our fragile, human nature . . . Jacob Collins is the real thing.

None of my remarks here are meant to detract from Collins's considerable accomplishments as a painter or as a teacher, or from the promise his future may hold. But there are other traditional painters in America at least as worthy of serious critical attention, a few of whom have been cited in these pages, and in our past print incarnation as well. Collins ought not be charged with single-handedly bearing the standard for the entire traditional movement in painting.