Albert Pinkham Ryder introduced my young mind to dark wonder with his painting titled “The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse).” This work planted a seed, even though I saw it in reproduction, that continues to germinate to this very day.
Ryder was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts but lived out most his adult life in New York City where he became increasingly less social, focusing on finding magic in paint. For the last nearly two-decades of his life, Ryder spent some of his days working and re-working paintings using techniques that turned many of his canvases into living things, reminding art conservators of their limits.
Ryder is perhaps best known for his seascapes, which he painted while living in NYC. One can imagine that memories of the whaling port of his youth helped contribute to the inner light one can only fully receive in person. Ryder’s paintings are not windows onto a view, they are more akin to relics celebrating the timeless wonders of the natural world and our tenuous and temporal place within it.
When I first moved to NYC c.1985, I spent every Sunday at the Metropolitan Museum, it was a walk across the park away, where I would roam through different parts of the museum guided by whim. But every visit was punctuated by a trip to see the Ryder’s in The American Wing tucked away, at that time, near a stairwell away from the larger and much more ordinary Hudson River School.
That same stairwell led down to the basement where huge glass vitrines displayed works deemed not ready for prime time including Ryder’s “Curfew Hours” which illustrates his problematic yet beautiful living canvases.
I’ve visited The Phillips Collection a number of times mainly to see the Ryders. Dead Bird is a tiny work, 4 3/8 x 10 in., and uncharacteristic in its near-sketch-like quality. The wood panel is allowed to show through acting as ground for the dead bird which appears to materialize and de-materialize before our eyes — its spirit hovering somewhere between the work and viewer, always just out of reach.
The Brooklyn Museum also houses a few choice lovelies including The Grazing Horse.
There are two important things to know about art — you have to see it in person to really see it, and seeing something in person isn’t always accompanied by an unencumbered view of the work. For example, some people feel they have to judge works and file them into one of two categories; I like that, or, I don’t like that. There is no better method of blinding oneself to a work than this approach.
To my way of seeing, Albert Pinkham Ryder embodies an American art I relate to in a deeply personal way. His work has been drawing me in for nearly 50 decades, sometimes whispering other times roaring with an undulating and frightening power.
If you ever have an opportunity to see a Ryder in the flesh, take it and let the work take you to places you’ve never dreamed of.