One of the highlights of the New York City gallery season was the early summer exhibition of new work byJacob Collins at Adelson Galleries (May 11–July 28, 2011). A superb painter and draftsman, he has served as a mentor to a generation of talented artists in the contemporary realist movement—first at his Water Street Atelier and now at the Grand Central Academy of Art, a traditional atelier affiliated with the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America. For the last few years, he has been administering a program of workshops in the Catskills, the Hudson River Fellowship, which, according to its mission statement, is modeled “after the artistic, social and spiritual values of the Hudson River School painters” and aims to bring “back the skills and spirit of the pre-impressionist landscape painters.” Looking at Collins’s own work in the context of this philosophy is enlightening.
Deeply committed to the rigors of the classical Beaux-Arts method of skill-acquisition, he clearly finds the process liberating rather than confining. His own painting style has little to do with the tight rendering and licked surfaces we associate with nineteenth-century academic art. He often seems to be rediscovering—in an original, twenty-first-century way—the excitement of the classically trained avant-gardists. Take, for example, two small still lifes, Pink and White Roses (2009) and White Roses (2011). These are simple compositions that show off the artist’s relaxed brushwork. The mottled, dark-neutral backdrops let the flamboyant, silky flowers shine. Light catches the furled edges of the petals. The silver cup in one picture, with shadows holding down its sheen, and a clear, square vase in the other provide secondary sources of luminescence. If these works have an art historical antecedent, it might be in still lifes by William Merritt Chase in his smoky brown phase, before he abandoned his German academic training for a bright Impressionist palette.
In other still lifes, Collins recalls the work of the Spanish old masters. A series of horizontal paintings (all 2011) have an austere dignity. Glasses is a study in white, with a carafe and wine glass partially filled with water and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses on a white cloth against a rough plaster wall. But the range of greys and yellowish undertones makes the picture seem anything but monochromatic. Red Wine and Study for Red Wine are more richly furnished: a dark red, patterned rug has been thrown over the table, the wine creates a purplish base line through a goblet, a green wine bottle and a silver-capped cut-glass decanter. The shadow from an overhanging shelf molds the space. Autumn seems more conceptually ambitious. Two dry leaves, an acorn and a miniature pumpkin are laid out across a wooden shelf. A large, dry leaf partially obscures the gleaming orange of the pumpkin. In the iconography of the seasons, Collins emphasizes the melancholy rather than the color and plenty of fall.
The air of melancholy continues in Collins's landscapes. The brightest of them, Labor Day Beach and Labor Day Beach II (both 2010) have, despite their blue skies, an end-of-summer feel, with a vast expanse of empty sand in the foreground and dots of bright color, signs of human pleasure, pushed far into the distance. His Catskill scenes build on his love of the Hudson River School, but they are smaller in scale and have their own modern sensibility. The days of epic grandeur and all-encompassing pantheistic faith are past. Still, there is a sense of grace in Catskill Trees, Grey Sky (2010) and Catskill Trees (2011), in which he contemplates the same stand of trees on an overcast day and a day freshened by blue sky and crisp white clouds. In Algae Pond Catskills (2011), much of the vertical space of the canvas is devoted to the murky green water, which blurs and breaks up the reflection of the far shore and blue sky. Catskill Sunset II and Catskill Sunset III (both 2009) are the most radical of Collins’s landscapes. With their orange-red slashes of paint in the sky and already-night-enveloped brushy fringe of trees along the lower edge, they look almost modernist. But then the Romantics, especially Turner and Friedrich and, working in this very region, Frederic Church, sometimes took the landscape to the verge of abstraction. Like them, Collins is painting organically, using classical methods but not completely defined by them.
Collins’s classical skills are most readily apparent in his figures, but he rarely approaches the nude from a coolly idealized perspective. We often think of drawings as feats of line, savoring the way Ingres or Matisse can conjure up a figure by sinuously, confidently manipulating an outline. There are contemporary realists who have some of this legerdemain when they draw, Steven Assael and Greyon Parrish, for example. But Collins’s drawings are as much about how light shapes a body in space as they are about pure line. The drawing Reclining Nude Morning (2011) creates a fully realized figure through shading. The principal light source, on the right, and deep, rich shadows give volume and weight to the almost-sculptural body. In the painting Reclining Nude Morning (2011), the personality of the redheaded model—aware of her own physical beauty yet wary and vulnerable—gives the picture heart. At the same time, the boldness with which she sprawls across the rumpled white sheets—a marvelous drapery study—is reminiscent of Courbet, although Collins’s paint-handling, especially in flesh tones, has a different luminosity.
The history of art matters to Collins, whose own work demonstrates how complex the interactions are between the present and the past. Revivals of traditional methods and philosophies, however reverent, are rarely immune to what the literary critic Harold Bloom has called the “anxiety of influence.” But, for many centuries, artists found their own way forward by first learning the lessons of the masters. Collins is continuing that important work. Adelson Galleries, 19 East 82nd Street, New York, New York 10028. Telephone (212) 439-6800. On the web at www.adelsongalleries.com