Here, Now: Contemporary Art at the Thomas Cole
National Historic Site
By Kate Menconeri
Imagine visiting Thomas Cole at his house in 1840 and standing eye-to-eye with one of his original paintings such as “The Architect's Dream.” Cole, who spent years exploring the Catskill landscapes that inspired his art, hung his own paintings, still wet from the studio, on the walls of his home. Patrons and fellow artists traveled from all over just to see the latest work by the artist who would go on to change the face of American painting. It was not until 2016 that the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, a member of the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program, discovered that not only did Cole carefully select the colors of the walls where he hung his work but he also painted exquisite friezes directly on the walls, creating the perfect backdrops for his artworks.
Today the Thomas Cole National Historic Site is simultaneously a historic house, an artist's studio, and an art museum. Given this layered identity, we face a unique set of questions. How do we engage with the vision of the artist, who is now long departed and whose paintings no longer hang on the house walls, but in museums and collections across the globe? How do we activate the ideas and creative momentum that lived here? And why does this artist matter now? At the Cole Site, rather than tell audiences why we think Cole is important, we engage them through the artist's own works and words—culled from his journals, letters, and essays—allowing him to tell his story directly to visitors.
We also consider the relevance of Cole's work through the lens of today’s artists and thinkers. Artistic exchanges, within and beyond the confines of time, can spark remarkable and unexpected things. Cole, who inspired a generation of artists now known as the Hudson River School, was recently in the spotlight when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City presented an exhibition of his work in 2018. Contemporary artists continue to engage with his works, wrestling with some of the same ideas and issues that mattered most to Cole—for example, how to balance the natural and built worlds. Cole advocated for living in harmony with nature and for thoughtful development. He took up his pen and paint brush to speak out against the deforestation that cleared the way for railroads and expanding industry, such as the tanneries that were quickly proliferating throughout the Catskill mountains.
Artists in Conversation Across Time
In 2016 the Cole Site launched “Open House: Contemporary Art in Conversation with Cole,” an annual series of exhibitions featuring contemporary artists. The program seeks to activate conversations among artists across the centuries and explores the continued resonance of Cole’s art and ideas. It sheds light on the connections between 19th-century American art and the present through exhibitions that specifically speak to the historic environment. Each year we invite an artist to create a project—such as a site-specific installation, performance, or guided walk—that engages with Cole’s art, writings, home, or story. Installations and artworks have ranged from those that literally reference Cole’s iconic works to those that expand on the themes with which he wrestled in his own art and writing, such as landscape, environmental preservation, time, history, color, and the sublime.
When we begin planning a project, I ask the artist to consider what they want do here, in Cole’s home, that they can’t do anywhere else. Not only do we want artists to think about Cole and the site’s history but we also want to offer them a chance to create something in this unique context that isn’t possible in a white box or conventional museum gallery. And while we carefully develop each project with the artist, it is often not until the works are physically situated alongside Cole’s original furniture, paintings, and collections that unexpected connections and new conversations come to life.
This was the case in our first installation in the series, Jason Middlebrook’s "Nature Builds / We Cover,” which ran from August through October 2016. We filled Cole’s home with Middlebrook’s hard wood plank paintings as well as an oversized work on paper, “Log Jam on Hudson.” Middlebrook’s work explores the relationship between nature and culture and often blurs lines between landscape and architecture, art and object. Like Cole, he is inspired by a deep interest in time, history, and our inextricable relationship with nature. Middlebrook draws and paints his plank paintings on American hardwoods that are salvaged from a local lumber mill. He paints both with and against the natural grain of the wood, alluding to the complexity of human intervention in the natural environment. The artists’ works prompt questions: How do we harness nature? How do we control it? How do we honor and protect it?
Middlebrook’s intentional use of trees as the canvas itself challenges conventional expectations of what we might consider a landscape, a painting, or a sculpture. The installation of his work in Cole's historic home was towering and awe inspiring, as if a luminous forest had grown overnight. We knew that the installation would offer a space in which to consider the balance between the built and natural worlds, but we were surprised to see how Cole's 180-year old friezes and Middlebrooks painted planks, when juxtaposed together, not only mirrored each other, but offered direct visual connections to nature, as could be seen in the sinewy lines of the honey locust tree just outside the window.
Imagining Catskill Creek and A Spectrum of Color
Artists’ voices and visions are a vital part of the Cole Site’s history as well as its future. Kiki Smith is an artist whose practice crosses mediums. In a visionary approach to art and history, she has created site-specific installations at sites across the world, including at palaces in Italy and in the period rooms of the Brooklyn Museum. Smith's installations are works of art in themselves, with layers of meanings that shift and expand in response to their context. We were thrilled when Smith—who had participated in “River Crossings,” a 2015 group exhibition—decided to create a new multidisciplinary installation in Cole’s home in 2017 for the second annual exhibition in the Open House series. In “From the Creek,” Smith filled the artist’s family home with, among other things, saplings; crystals; and a wild kingdom of animals—deer, bats, owls, turkeys, wolves, and doves—many of which can be spotted roaming the Catskill terrain or the inside of a Cole painting. Smith and Cole, residing “about a mile, and two centuries apart” along Catskill Creek, both made work that is directly inspired by this waterway, which flows from the Hudson River to the Catskill Mountains.
Smith’s work resonates with Cole’s paintings of Catskill Creek as well as his cyclical series, such as “Course of Empire” and “Voyage of Life.” The artists share a fascination with life cycles, the natural world, history, and the fragility and power of the environment. While Cole’s landscapes are epic and sweeping, Smith's focus is on the iconic elements within the natural world and their role in an interconnected whole. Smith deftly integrated her tapestries, prints, sculptures, and sound work into the artist’s home, offering visitors an opportunity to consider these relationships, as well as the regenerative power of nature and art. Through her intentional arrangement of artworks and objects throughout Cole’s home, Smith transformed every space, as if she was awakening something that had been dreaming.
Since her solo project, Smith has become an advisor on the Open House series, and it was from ongoing conversations with her that the third annual Open House project emerged. When artists visit the site, it is Cole’s color wheel, "Diagram of Contrasts,” that often gets the most attention. Cole was fascinated by color for, among other things, its expressive power and relationship to music. He even attempted to invent an instrument that could play the "sound of color". In 2018 we explored this in depth in “SPECTRUM,” an exhibition that brought together Cole’s works—and his extensive writing about color—with works by 11 contemporary artists: Polly Apfelbaum, Valerie Hammond, Ann Veronica Janssens, Anne Lindberg, Laura Moriarty, Portia Munson, Jackie Saccoccio, Lisa Sanditz, Julianne Swartz, Mildred Thompson, and Linda Weintraub. Each artist was invited to present existing artworks or to debut a new installation created for the exhibition. Like Cole, the artists grapple with color as uniquely situated between art and science, as something that speaks to our senses and our reason, and which can open up experiences within and beyond this visual realm. The works in “Spectrum” included everything from paint on canvas to glass optical viewers, a light installation, and a garden. We also displayed Cole’s writing about color, publications of his time, and new writing from artist and researcher Jesse Bransford about the color theories that Cole was exploring in the 19th century.
When Cole painted the walls of his home to be a “perfect backdrop” for art and ideas in 1836, he created a unique and lasting artistic setting. It is our hope to continue to animate his legacy and find meaning in our moment. It remains clear that the power of art and artists to initiate new thinking, complicate, and forge connections remains as relevant and urgent as ever.
Kate Menconeri is the curator and director of exhibitions and collections at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. For more on the Thomas Cole National Historic Site read "Two 19th-Century Artists’ Homes Shed Light on the Women Who Shaped Them" by Carson Bear on SavingPlaces.org