Tang and Albany Institute tell different tales of Hudson River

September 8, 2009 at 2:09 pm Leave a comment

The course of the Hudson River has defined American history, as two local exhibitions celebrating the quadricentennial of Henry Hudson’s 1609 voyage attest. Both exhibitions are organized into broad categories that speak of the river’s influence in terms of natural and human history, technological innovation and culture. Both highlight Hudson River School artists such as Thomas Cole and Sanford Gifford, as well as historical events, such as General George Washington’s blockade of the river and Robert Fulton’s steamboat run in 1807. Both also contain wonderful popular illustrations and maps, such as Wade and Croome’s 1845 panoramic map, blown up and lining the hall connecting the rooms of the Albany Institute of History & Art exhibition.

While both exhibitions are well-worth visiting, there are differences. If the Tang’s smaller “Lives of the Hudson” is like an elegant, prescient boutique that includes a number of thoughtful contemporary artworks, “Hudson River Panorama,” at the Albany Institute, is more like a large, somewhat outmoded but still fun department store, bric-a-brac with everything from Dutch earthenware to a grouping of Rip Van Winkle memorabilia. Where the Albany Institute takes a more neutral stance toward the legacy of European conquest and industry, “Lives of the Hudson,” curated by Ian Berry and Tom Lewis, Skidmore professor and author of “The Hudson: A History,” is more pointedly critical of that legacy.

At the Tang, we learn that representations of the Hudson often engage in elaborate myth-making, as in an 1866 engraving by Robert W. Wier showing American Indians welcoming Henry Hudson’s crew. In reality, theft and murder just as often defined early contact.

Thomas Cole’s “Storm King of the Hudson” and other paintings pay tribute to the image-making power of the Hudson River School, while “Forcing the Hudson River Passage,” by William Joy, paints the river as a glorious backdrop for British Revolutionary War ships.

The pilot wheel from the steamboat Mary Powell and a boldly geometric lithograph, “New Hudson Bridge,” from 1931 by Howard Cook, embody the river’s centrality to the history of transportation.

Contemporary artworks show the river’s vulnerability: Kysa’s Johnson’s remarkable chalk version of Cole’s “American Lake Scene” on blackboard captures the molecular torment of trees and water bubbling with the effluvia of pollution, while superb color photographs by Michael Light and An-My Le make clear the scale of industrial development along the waterway.

Maxine Henryson’s blurry photos taken from a train capture the river’s fleeting beauty. Margaret Cogswell and Matthew Buckingham’s videos meanderingly narrate river journeys. There is whimsy and skill in Bob Braine and Leslie C. Reed’s mounted fish made of, among other things, road salt and toilet paper, and humor in their “Murderers Creek Resist Curtains,” dyed using Dutch batik. Instead of a traditional floral pattern, poison ivy climbs the cloth, a reference to the plant’s increased vigor due to rising carbon dioxide levels.
The Albany Institute’s “Hudson River Panorama” doesn’t deal as frankly with the less-than-pretty aspects of life along the river, but it has many strong points, beginning with a copper and brass model of the Half Moon from 1927.
Four rooms display a trove of artifacts touching on everything from ice-harvesting and ironworks to the Art Deco 20th Century Limited passenger train and the underground railroad (but there is not much about slavery itself, nor about American Indians). Through a grouping of images and objects, we learn that bottom-feeding sturgeon once were so plentiful they were called “Albany beef,” but today, fishing them is prohibited.

While there are fascinating subsections on, for instance, influential landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, and on the development of modern environmentalism in the battle over the proposed hydroelectric plant at Storm King, linkages between sections aren’t strong, and with all this material, it can be hard to know where to focus. Do visitors really need to see a silver tray presented to an Albany wharf company clerk, and a pair of L.L. Bean’s stain-repellant chinos made with nanotechnology in a section on the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering that seems suspiciously close to boosterism? Contemporary artworks haphazardly thrown in don’t help.

Still, many objects speak volumes about regional history, such as a brick mold from Coeymans, which attests to the region’s clay soil and brick industries, and whale oil lamps and a parasol with baleen ribs made when Hudson was a whaling port. Taken together, these exhibitions establish that the river’s influence is pervasive, and its welfare is intimately tied to our own.

Meisha Rosenberg is a freelance writer who lives in Troy.
On exhibit

“Hudson River Panorama: 400 Years of History, Art and Culture”

Where: Albany Institute of History & Art, 125 Washington Ave., Albany

When: through Jan. 3

Cost: Adults, $10; seniors and students, $8; children 6-12, $6; children under 6, free

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday

Contact: 463-4478; http://www.albanyinstitute.org

“Lives of the Hudson”

Where: Tang Museum, 815 N. Broadway, Saratoga Springs

When: Through March 14

Cost: suggested donations for adults, $5; children over 12, $3; seniors $2; students, children under 12 and members, free

Summer hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday; noon-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Contact: 580-8080; http://tang.skidmore.edu/

 
By MEISHA ROSENBERG,
Times Union

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Entry filed under: Dive In, Get Wet, Natural Waterfront, Region. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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