PRINT December 1990


— Marsden Hartley, “The Mountain and the Reconstruction,” 1928

WHEN I WAS in college in the Midwest, Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847–1917) was never mentioned. Coming to New York, my introduction to Ryder still took some time. I was in East Hampton visiting the artist Herman Cherry. That night there was a full moon with clouds racing overhead. I was sleeping in my truck and Herman came outside and said, “Oh, look, it’s a Ryder sky!” And I thought, “Oh, it does look like a horse and rider by the moon!”

One month later, I started my teaching job at the Brooklyn Museum, and after class, I would wander through the galleries. One day I rounded a corner and discovered five small Ryder paintings hung salon style. I felt as if I had been hit by lightning. I had never seen paintings that had such presence.

I was struck by a light that seemed to burn from deep within them; I was struck by the paintings’ intense drama; their emotional and intellectual gesturing of every shape, every mark, and every color to every other shape, mark, and color; their weight of immense density and in the next instant their weightlessness. There was a feeling in these paintings that time had been compressed; they had that slap in the face of reality that reveals powerful invisible forces in and around us. They seemed to be constructed of living tissue.

Ryder’s light seems to come from deep within the paintings. In comparison to one of his contemporaries, Ralph Blakelock, who seems to “put” the light in his paintings, Ryder’s light feels discovered and born within the paint itself. The paintings of his other contemporaries, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, and Frederic Church, seem in relation to Ryder to be no more than theater sets. Looking at their accurate pictures of the surface world, I wait for something to happen but it never does. Even within their heroic panoramas, nothing happens. Just stage sets waiting for the performance. In contrast, Ryder’s paintings are full of a powerful drama that goes way beyond their literary iconography.

In Ryder’s work there seems to be a weight, a density below the surface. He seems to have made the crucial “passage,” as the painter Guy Goodwin uses the word,1 from something felt and experienced into something we can feel and experience in paint. Ryder is able to embed his vision in the paint without the cumbersomeness of the self. It is a pure vision of a thing experienced. By “putting” the experience in, we are still left with the self; the ego is still there. In Ryder’s work, we purely see the thing experienced without the self. It is not “self-expression,” it is “selfless-expression.” It is the thing itself, experience, born into paint.

The Chinese do not regard nature from the outside. Instead, the artist acts like a medium to let the spirit through and to get beyond humanity and become one with it. This is the “Chi.” It is the first canon of Chinese painting, the Life Breath, the spirit that resounds in the work. It is not the spirit of the artist’s own self or ego. If a Chinese artist wanted to paint a mountain, he or she would go up and live on it and then come down and paint it.

When a young artist, Ryder tried to copy the colors of nature, but he could never do it. He could never get what was there. And then one day, wandering about the fields in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, where he was spending the summer with an aunt and uncle, he came upon this scene with some trees framing the space just like a painting: “The deep blue of a midday sky—a solitary tree, brilliant with the green of early summer, a foundation of brown earth and gnarled roots. There is no detail to vex the eye.”2 Ryder took out his paints and palette, threw away his brushes, and smeared on the paint with his palette knife. He painted all day long happy as a goat, jumping around, running through the fields. By just that activity, unbridled by details, he was able to express the forces he was seeing below the surface.

When I think of the emotion or imagination versus the intellectual or esthetic in Ryder’s work, I struggle to understand each of their properties and their actualities in paint. Marsden Hartley also struggled with these ideas. In his essay “Art—and the Personal Life,” he said that he “had changed old clothes for new ones.”3 The old clothes represent the imagination and the emotional. They are linked directly to William Blake (and indirectly to Ryder), while the new ones are the esthetic and intellectual ideas represented by Cézanne.

Hartley also said:

Underlying all sensible works of art, there must be somewhere in evidence the particular problem understood. It was so with those artists of the great past who had the intellectual knowledge of structure upon which to place their emotions. It is this structural beauty that makes the old painting valuable. . . . I would rather be sure that I had placed two colors in true relationship to each other than to have exposed a wealth of emotionalism gone wrong in the name of richness of personal expression. For this reason I believe that it is more significant to keep one’s painting in a condition of severe experimentalism than to become a quick success by means of cheap repetition.4

I agree with Hartley’s view of the importance of structure but disagree with his opinion that Ryder represents only the imagination or the emotional. Ryder’s is not an overt emotional gesture but a very subtle gesturing, just as glances between people are more revealing than words. It is a way in which these abstracted entities “speak” to one another in the painting. It is also not an arbitrary gesture, but a very specific one that builds throughout the painting like fireflies on a summer night or lightning in a storm. In Pastoral Study, for example, Ryder with cows, tree, and a pasture gives me the feeling of the slow movement of great bodies in space.

Ryder’s work has been said to have great “design.” The word “design” may have had more importance in art in the late 19th century than it does now. To me, design in art is something that is “put in” to seduce the eye. Ryder is not a seducer or a designer. His great design is really his great structure, and this together with his great color and mark-making add up to a powerful emotional and intellectual gesturing.

Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens shows this structure. The trees even seem alive in their obviously gargoylelike gesturing. We tend to think of ourselves as possessing souls and of trees as not. But Ryder didn’t separate things like that. He saw the world in a very pure vision—and a rock was alive. Yet he never anthropomorphized nature. Somehow he just saw everything around him as quivering, electric.

Another example of intellectual and emotional gesturing is in Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation. Even with Piero’s smooth Florentine surface, we still find the same specific gesturing—of every shape, every color, to every other shape and color. Piero uses geometry the way Ryder uses rocks, trees, sea, and sky: not for their own sake but for what they can do to intensify the concept of the whole. Piero’s geometry is used to intensify the vision of the most barbaric act—the flagellation of Christ—enacted under the eyes of a refined, civilized society. He uses geometry not as an exercise in perspective but for its emotional and intellectual gesturing to everything else in the painting.

There’s another similarity to Ryder’s life in that Piero’s work was uncelebrated for centuries after his death. Only in recent history has Piero’s artistic merit been rediscovered, and once again he is celebrated as a great artist. It seems to me that the reason for his rediscovery is the fashionable appropriateness of geometry and art. Yet to me, Piero is great not only because of his geometry, but because of the way he used his geometry to reveal his content.

The art experience involves an encounter with time. Ryder could compress this time like just about no one else. There is, in his work, the impact of a present time—not past time, not future time, but the exact moment, the awesome present. To compress this present time is to split it like an atom, and to intensify the experience of that time. In this compression powerful forces are revealed.

These are the same forces that Arshile Gorky tried to see and paint when he said that “abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes.”’ During World War II, Gorky wanted to form a camouflage unit of artists. He said that because an artist’s job was to make the invisible visible, artists would be best at making the visible invisible. If Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, etc.,enlisted and formed this unit, Ryder would have had to be elected commander. After all, he would be the oldest and would have experimented the most with paint. He had wanted to expand the possibilities of paint in ways it had never been done in the great past. And he, too, had the power to make the invisible visible. Hartley called Ryder “the painter poet of the immanent in things.”6

While teaching at Skowhegan Summer School in Maine, I told the landscape painters that every time their paintings looked like the art in books no forces were revealed. Only when something else came into the paintings would this happen. These forces are of a greater intelligence and realm of emotion than those of human experience. They are of the macro- and microcosm in nature, and this nature is human energy and natural energy combined. There is no separation. We mannerize these things when we see them, for we only allow ourselves to see what we can comprehend. A great artist is one who not only has glimpses of this other world, but is able to embed paint with its vision. Ryder was one who could. As Hartley said, “At all times in [Ryder’s] work one has the feeling of there having lately passed, if ever so fleetly [sic], some bodily shape seeking a solitude of its own.”’ For me, that bodily shape would be the container for the forces I am trying to discuss.

Ryder has been called a painter of dreams. This is a misleading statement unless one understands that dreams are reality condensed. Ryder may use biblical or literary story lines but only as a starting point to reveal his vision of reality. At the turn of the century, ideas regarding dreams and the unconscious began to have a special impact on Modern art. Abstractionists struggled to express the unconscious in the modern world; and they are as much painters of dreams as Ryder is a painter of dreams. They are as much painters of reality as Ryder is a painter of reality. It is the reality of the forces below the surface. It is the thing experienced directly. Their paintings have that same slap in the face of reality as Ryder’s have. Pollock said, “The only American master who interests me is Ryder.”8

In the 1920s artists used Ryder as a flag to be waved against the modern influences in art coming from Europe, a reactionary and misleading notion, for as the French artist Maurice Vlaminck said, “Intelligence is international, stupidity is national, and art is local.”9 Hartley’s answer to the question, “What is American Art?” was “the creative spirit is at home wherever that spirit finds breath to draw. It is neither national or international.”10 He also said that “if America is to have a great tradition, it will begin with the great and lasting name of Albert Pinkham Ryder.”11

It is not the size of the painting that makes it American. Europe, with its great frescoes and murals, has a more indigenous tradition of grand size. America has no tradition of large church murals or of art used for political purposes. Iconography, whether literary or biblical, and concepts are international not national. Stories travel around the world.

It is not light that distinguishes American painting. Though a darker light seems to be more natural to American (East Coast) painting, Europe also has its dark light in Rembrandt, the Venetian School, Velázquez, etc. American art seems to have less need for a narrative or a conceptual basis. Its tradition seems to involve a more flatfooted, groping way of letting the content be born into the paint. This is not a criticism of European art, only a subtle difference between them. The difference between American and European art may be as subtle as the difference between eating with your fork facing up or facing down.

Ryder used literal and biblical scenes only as a starting point. Then the long process of working and reworking the painting, sometimes for ten years or more, would begin. Ryder was seen working on a painting at a craft shop where he was also painting leather screens. At the end of each day, he would scrape down his work and then apply a quick-drying light wash of color. The next day he would sit and stare at the ghost of marks and forms from the day before and then, responding to those ghosts, would begin to paint—only to repeat the same process day after day. Through this process a kind of “seepage” would begin to occur. The experience would begin slowly to work its way out of the depths of Ryder’s subconscious, and, in this way, every mark would become at some time electrified, or as the artist Myron Stout defined it: “Atomic painting . . . every bloody atom has to be painted individually.”12

This groping would allow the painting to have a life of its own. During this process of pulling “experiences” from the corners of his subconscious, Ryder must have felt that he was being dragged by a team of wild dogs, or like a miner deep in the earth with only a little light on his head and the chirp of a canary to keep him going. By repeating this process over and over again, by letting the light arrive, by letting it emerge from the paint, the paint transcended its material realm and became living tissue.

Ryder’s groping for meaning represents our need and love for the mysterious. It is the spirit of adventure and terror of the unknown. It is this search for meaning that may have led artists like Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, and Mark Rothko to express the murkiness of the modern world in abstraction. Theirs was not the action of an artist in front of a painting, but a flatfooted groping for content. Such subtlety may typify the American tradition. The first American artists were probably shipbuilders and then portrait painters. Ryder was our first and one of our (or anyone’s) greatest gropers. He was, as Hartley called him, “among the first citizens of the moon.”13

Bill Jensen is a painter who lives in New York. An earlier version of this article was given as a lecture at the National Museum of Art, in Washington, D.C., and at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The lecture was edited for publication.



1. Guy Goodwin, “Statement—April 1987,” Guy Goodwin: Paintings and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Stockholm: Heland Thorden Wetterling Galleries, 1987, n.p.

2. Elizabeth Broun, Albert Pinkham Ryder, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1989, p. 20.

3. Marsden Hartley, “Art—and the Personal Life,” 1928, in On Art, ed. Gail R. Scott, New York: Horizon Press, 1982, pp. 71–73.

4. Ibid., p. 73.

5. Arshile Gorky, “Artist’s Statement,” 17 February 1947, in Melvin P. Lader, Gorky, New York: Abbeville Press, 1985, p. 111.

6. Hartley, “Albert P. Ryder,” 1917, in On Art, p. 96.

7. Hartley, “Albert P. Ryder,” Adventures in the Arts, New York: Hacker Art Books, 1972, p. 38.

8. Jackson Pollock, “My Painting,” 1947–48, in Pollock Painting: Photographs by Hans Namuth, ed. Barbara Rose, New York: Agrinde Publications, 1980, n.p.

9. Maurice Vlaminck, cited in Hartley, “Modern Art in America,” Adventures in the Arts, p. 59.

10. Hartley, “Is There an American Art?,” ca. 1938, in On Art, p. 200.

11. Hartley, “Albert Pinkham Ryder,” 1936, in On Art, p. 268.

12. Myron Stout, “Excerpts from the Journals of Myron Stout, 1950-1965,” quoted in Affinities: Myron Stout, Bill Jensen, Brice Marden, Terry Winters, exhibition catalogue, Cambridge, Mass.: Hayden Gallery, MIT, 1983, n.p.

13. Hartley, “Albert Pinkham Ryder,” 1936, p. 261.