AN AMERICAN VIRTUOSO OF URGENT VISIONS

By: TIMOTHY CAHILL Staff writer

Sunday, August 15, 2004

``To walk with nature as a poet,'' wrote Thomas Cole, ``is the necessary condition of a perfect artist.''

Ralph Albert Blakelock met this condition, and his finest paintings approach a level of expressive excellence one might call perfection. His life was beset with trouble, however, and it is the turmoil of his private nature that was the artist's most constant companion.

In the history of American art, Blakelock's place is small but worthy of attention. An exhibit of 32 paintings and a number of drawings and sketches now at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill demonstrate he was a visionary whose best landscapes strike with the force of a depth charge.

The show is a brief introduction to the artist, and a welcome one. I mostly knew his paintings from reproductions, which is not to know them at all. Several of the works here come from the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries in New York City, augmented with seldom-seen paintings from local museums and private collections.

Elizabeth Stevens of Salander-O'Reilly assembled the exhibit, which also includes historic objects including Blakelock's leather-covered sketchbook, his palette and a dinged metal paint box, crowded with smeared, half-used paint tubes. Some of the items were supplied by Blakelock's descendants, who still reside in Greene County, and have never been displayed before. Most remarkable is a hand-drawn map of the Western states the artist Blakelock visited; written on the back is a long list of the towns he stopped in.

A fitting location

The Cole home Cedar Grove is a fitting location for the exhibit, since Blakelock's first inspiration came from the Hudson River School. He was born in 1847, the year before Cole died, and grew up in New York City. Blakelock taught himself how to paint, emulating first the meticulous and reverent styles of Cole, Asher B. Durand and Frederic Church. In his 20s, at an age when other artists looked to Europe for training and refinement, Blakelock traveled alone on his first of three trips out West.

In the 1870s, Blakelock found his artistic voice, abandoning the tidiness of the Hudson River painters for an expressive style built on color and energy. An untitled painting from 1870 shows a log cabin in a mountain glade. It isn't the scene that captures the artist's attention, but the brilliant clash of crimson and fading orange of the fall foliage.

Blakelock used color the way certain composers use percussion, to set his art in violent motion. His ``Indian Encampment,'' of a single tepee in a woodland setting, glows a restless ocher. In a nearby untitled landscape, the evening sky resembles a lava flow. And an undated ``Sunset'' is a raucous solo of russet beneath layers of blue-gray and pale yellow glazes.

Artistic slang

Blakelock was admired by painters Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock for the expressiveness of his paint. He often laid on pigment thick, as if he couldn't get it out of the tube and onto the canvas fast enough. He was speaking in an artistic slang that time would catch up with eventually. Had Blakelock lived 50 years later, he might well have been a pioneer of abstraction.

The arc of his career moved Blakelock away from representation to realms of memory and emotion. Look at ``Indian Ocean,'' from 1919, the year the painter died. It's an almost minimalist composition, with a still, hard-edged horizon. Above, the blue-gray sky looks rubbed on with rags, while the moonlight in the waves is almost pointillist in its juxtaposition of color. You can't see the moon itself in the painting; it's somewhere above the frame.

Nocturnes were a common motif for Blakelock. One of the show's masterpieces is on the stairway leading up to the second-floor gallery, titled simply ``Moonlight.'' Dated uncertainly between 1880 and 1899, the painting shows a full moon in a blue-green sky. The moon is bright, but, except for the reflection on a small pond, the landscape in it is thrown into an opaque murk. Why isn't there more light on the scene? Can we read it as a metaphor for that tumultuous time in Blakelock's life, when money to support his nine children was scare, and he was sometimes forced to paint trinkets in a factory, or mass-produce banal landscapes?

Whatever the reason, the darkness of the earth only accentuates the brilliance of the moon. Blakelock, like Robert Frost, was ``one acquainted with the night.'' He understood the cold, mesmerizing lunar light. Only van Gogh painted moons with as much melancholy ardor.

The moon is the lantern of eccentrics and the beacon of madmen. In the 1890s, Blakelock began to manifest mental illness that eventually institutionalized him for most of the rest of his life. The end of the show has several paintings made during his confinement at the Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital for the Insane in Middletown, Orange County rough, quick oil sketches that seem at once to be a collective wail and refuge. One, a nighttime idyll with two figures, suggests a wistful longing for youth.

Like his more famous contemporary Albert Pinkham Ryder, Ralph Blakelock spoke in the indigenous voice of the soul. His paintings have the primal urgency of seekers who never quite find what they're looking for.

Timothy Cahill can be reached at 454-5084 or tcahill@timesunion.com. FACTS:ART REVIEW ``RALPH EDWARD BLAKELOCK'' Where: Thomas Cole National Historic Site, 218 Spring St., Catskill Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday Closes: Oct. 31 Admission: $5 (includes tour of the Cole house)Info: 943-7465; http://www.thomascole.org

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