Women Reframe American Landscape: Susie Barstow & Her Circle/Contemporary Practices
min Read3 July 2023
Women Reframe American Landscape: Susie Barstow & Her Circle/Contemporary Practices is a two-part exhibition at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Hudson, New York. Occupying Cole’s house and two of his former studios, this event includes both long-undervalued Hudson River School painter Susie Barstow and a landscape-focused contemporary art exhibition featuring well-known female artists.
The idea seems to be that the two exhibitions – one a retrospective of a historical landscape painter and the other an ideologically-heavy contemporary art show – exist (loosely) “in dialogue” with each other, showing both historical and contemporary female perspectives on the American landscape.
Susie Barstow & Her Circle
Susie Barstow & Her Circle, the historic part of the exhibition, takes place in the New Studio – a stand-alone gallery inside a reconstructed version of Cole’s final studio. It celebrates the career of Susie Barstow (1836-1923), a prolific American landscape painter and adventurer who worked in the Hudson River School tradition. Barstow’s prowess in both landscape painting and mountaineering gained her widespread respect and admiration during her lifetime, but she has been largely forgotten since then. This exhibition argues that Barstow and her female contemporaries deserve a place of prominence in the Hudson River School canon.
It isn’t a hard sell. Barstow’s art is stunning – simultaneously poetic and meticulous – so her works make their case all by themselves. Even a handful of small sketches stopped me in my tracks and I couldn’t help but revisit each of the larger oils multiple times before leaving the gallery. The range of included artworks demonstrates Barstow’s strongly individual style within the larger Hudson River School milieu. The assortment of objects and text, including several photographs of Barstow, introduces the artist’s story and interests nicely. Curator Nancy Siegel (author of Barstow’s recent biography) also recorded several audio tracks for the show. A selection of works by six other female Hudson River School painters rounds out the exhibition and I would have liked to see even more by these artists.
Based on the all-around strength of the art in this portion of the exhibition, I recommend it to any landscape painting lover. You don’t need a particular interest in historical female artists to appreciate what Susie Barstow and her compatriots add to the iconic American genre.
The contemporary portion of Women Reframe American Landscape resides primarily in Cole’s main house. There are also a few pieces inside and outside the Visitor’s Center, though I struggled to locate some of them. The show includes works in a variety of media by thirteen well-known contemporary female artists, such as the Guerrilla Girls, Teresita Fernández, and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Each piece deals with the theme of the landscape directly or indirectly and quite a few were made specifically for this show. The exhibition as a whole tends towards strong socio-political critique, focusing particularly on the climate and Native American land issues. Most of the pieces are very effective in making their points, but I found a few to be derivative of what’s already been done on this very popular subject.
This is an idea-based exhibition where you must read the lengthy wall texts and take your time to process everything in order to get the full picture. Unfortunately, that isn’t easy to do within the historic house venue where lots of objects and ideas compete for your attention. Thus, although the contemporary exhibition has lots to recommend, I think it would have had more impact in a different space.
While the two halves of the exhibition are strong individually, the relationship between them perplexes me. For one thing, neither section makes much effort to intentionally connect to the other.
Furthermore, I can’t help but feel that the Susie Barstow portion is undercut by being paired with thirteen contemporary artists rather than allowing her a moment in the spotlight. An artist’s retrospective (which Susie Barstow & Her Contemporaries expressly claims to be) is by nature a solo show, so why does Barstow have to share hers with so many other people? This unusual choice really goes against the show’s stated goal of asserting this artist’s significance. In many ways, she’s still being overshadowed.
Furthermore, there’s a pretty big elephant in the room here – the fact that many of the artworks in the contemporary section are openly critical of the Hudson River School tradition that both Cole and Barstow personified. My tour guide confirmed to me that this Guerilla Girls piece, in particular, has already proved controversial amongst visitors.
De-romanticizing the Hudson River School isn’t really a groundbreaking perspective at this point, but the idea of featuring it inside Cole’s home and alongside Barstow’s retrospective is certainly gutsy. This juxtaposition makes for some uncomfortable moments. It’s up to every viewer to decide if it’s a productive kind of uncomfortable or just an awkward one. Either way, I don’t think anyone is likely to have neutral feelings about this exhibition and that alone makes it worth seeing.
Women Reframe American Landscape: Susie Barstow & Her Circle/Contemporary Practices was curated by Dr. Nancy Siegel, Kate Menconeri, and Amanda Malmstrom. It is on view at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Hudson, New York until October 29, 2023. It will then travel to the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, Connecticut from November 16th, 2023 to March 31st, 2024. There is also an exhibition catalog covering both parts of the exhibition. It is on sale in the gift shop and online for $39.95.
The Thomas Cole National Historic Site is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9:45 am through 5 pm. Up until July 1, you can only visit the main house (the site of the contemporary art exhibition) via guided tour. Since that wasn’t the best way to see the show in my experience, I recommend waiting until July when you will be able to browse at your own pace. The Susie Barstow retrospective in the New Studio building is already available to browse on your own.
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