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Artist as Environmental Activist

Artist as Environmental Activist
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I guess I must have missed Alan Gussow. Though he painted on Monhegan Island from 1949 until his death in 1997 and I have written about art in Maine since 1978, I’ve never seen a major Gussow show. Apparently, there was a ten-year retrospective at the Portland Museum of Art back in 1970, the year before he published his landmark A Sense of Place: The Artist and the American Landscape, but Alan Gussow remains a rather overlooked figure on the regional and national art scenes.

Babcock Galleries in mid-town Manhattan seems determined to change all that with Alan Gussow: A Painter’s Nature (Hudson Hills Press, 2009. $70 hardcover), a hefty six pound, 380-page tome filled with 250 color plates and a text by noted art critic and historian Martica Sawin. The beautiful Gussow book was published to coincide with a major Alan Gussow retrospective at Babcock in the fall, October 8 through November 25.

The Gussow paintings I have seen have tended to be painterly landscapes from the 1960s, but they already show the affinity for natural patterns and rhythms that characterize his mature work of the 1970s and later. In a recollection of Gussow, James Kiberd writes of Gussow’s work of the 1970s, “His inspiration now came from how he engaged with Nature rather than how it appeared. He painted verbs rather than nouns, events rather than pictures.”

As such, Gussow worked in an aesthetic line stretching from John Marin through William Keinbusch to Leonard Craig and William Manning, all painters of Maine more excited by the dynamic forces at work in nature than in its static forms. What you see in many of Gussow’s best paintings are abstractions based on patterns of rain, ice, snow, clouds, wind, bird song, and gardens.

Of course, Gussow was not just a Maine painter. He was born in the Bronx in 1931, graduated from Middlebury College in 1952, studied at Cooper Union, and lived most of the year in the Hudson River Valley. His fundamental influences were Abstract Expressionist and Action painters, hence the overall pattern approach to paintings even as he clung resolutely to natural phenomena as source materials.

Alan Gussow was ultimately an artist-as-activist, taking his passion for the environment beyond art by, among other things, helping to organize and direct the Artist-in-Residence program for the National Park Service, testifying against a power plant proposed for Storm King, New York, and bringing the greening of art to many college campus and art galleries as a visiting artist, teacher, and curator.

Though he made a few forays later in life into collaborative outdoor art projects, Gussow?s practice remained primarily that of a studio artist. As time passes and contemporary art moves in the direction of social and environmental activism and installations, Alan Gussow may come to be seen as a pioneer of the art of engagement. This big new book and forthcoming exhibition should help.

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Updated Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

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