Kari Adelaide reflects on the site and exhibition at the New York Public Library that explores Frederic Church’s art and life through photography.
As we slowly near summer, many of our gazes will be set on the Hudson Valley. Outdoor highlights from last summer include Jack Hanley’s ferry runs on the river and Cleopatra’s 24-hour satellite performance, Eye in the Sky, with barnyard camping to accommodate revelry beneath the night sky. The New Art Dealers Alliance will again host NADA Hudson (on July 28 and 29). But even in the dead of winter, there are ample opportunities to contemplate landscape and consciousness in the Hudson Valley.
The Hudson Valley’s appeal includes Frederic E. Church’s idyllic home, Olana, which beckons all year round with 250 acres of bucolic grounds that are open daily from 8 AM to sunset. As an ecstatic mid-19th century landscape painter of the Hudson River School, Church may be considered a maestro of terrestrial revelation not only in his paintings but also in his landscaping for Olana, a collaboration with Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, designers of Central Park. The exhaustive plotting of nature that is Olana allows us, much like Church’s paintings, to perceive heavenly beams of light that seem to emanate from bygone fantasies: volcanoes, icebergs, rainbows and double rainbows, mountains, rivers, meteors, and aurora borealis. The sublimity of nature, painted or planted, had no separation in Church’s art and life. His vision remains at every turn of Olana.
Now a National Historic Landmark and a State Historic Site, Olana offers a golden environment in which to engage with Church’s lasting practice of observing, in his words, “nature in all her various appearances.” On January 18, the Frederic E. Church Award Gala at the New York Public Library included the fundraiser exhibition, Letters of Olana. The work was derived from 11 artists who captured Olana’s mood and site through photography. Three of the included artists—Carmen Molina, Inga Moren, and Saana Wang—worked together to organize the photography exhibition with The Olana Partnership. Wang notes, “Following with Church’s vision of light and time, we created letters to him written with light that speak about a personal experience of his legacy in the present time.” The artists’ immersion in Olana included researching archival materials, such as Church’s letters and correspondence, to inspire their photographic work. The sense of distance and longing within the photographs perhaps illuminates the extent to which Church’s sublimity is most truly experienced through nature itself. The curator of Letters of Olana, Stephen Frailey, asserts that, “However much photography, by its nature, is of the immediate present, it is forever located in the past . . . Their conversation articulates a pictorial theater, both ghostly and alive, luminous and enchanted, that inspires in its indelible presence.” Through these photographers’ lenses, Olana once again becomes a welcome historical antechamber to the Hudson River Valley’s ineffable light.
Go to lettersofolana.com for more on this exhibition and project.
Kari Adelaide is a curator, writer, and doctoral student living in New York City.