I have had problems with megabytes. MB? Who knew what it meant? The annual summer show of the Housatonic Valley Art League necessarily becomes virtual this July, and I – and undoubtedly other technophobic painters of the group – have just spent hours trying to follow the instructions for the presentation of the works of art, certainly quite clear but not for my fellow men. Even though I wrote a book with one of the first Macs in the 80s, I easily feel drowned with this technology. For years, I walked hopefully into the Apple store on Prince Street in Manhattan and had an admirable, patient individual tutoring, and I forgot everything before I even got home. But bless YouTube, where a kind, kind and totally clear person has just taught me to reduce the MB of photos of my paintings for this new online show. And even so, for hours on this gloriously sunny day, when I wanted to paint (yet another painting of a woman in our beautiful green world, when I really feel like a woman in a world on fire!), On this adorable day, I’m struggling with megabytes and making sure to press the yellow button, the other button, the login, the file name, the upload, the save.
But the new system eventually worked, and I’m writing this to praise my longtime comrades in the HVAL who created everything, who, in their stubborn commitment to keeping alive this oldest of the artistic organizations in this area, are managed to work all this on. True, everyone is doing it: the Met, the Guggenheim, the Neue. You can check parts of their collections at your leisure on your computer, take a look at their Richters or Beckmanns on your kitchen screen. Chelsea galleries continue to send pictures and even the most recent addition to the Great Barrington gallery, the reputable Bernay Fine Art, has moved online with a number of interesting works by artists who regularly made it to my Mac.
Obviously nothing replaces the pleasure and power of being in front of real work and of wandering through the museums and galleries themselves: for me one of the most important joys of a long life. The way other people remember their first kiss, I remember the revelation of Cezanne’s recent show four decades ago at the MoMA, the Vuillard at the Brooklyn Museum even decades ago, the great Bonnard show at London’s Hayward and the most recent exquisite last Still life Bonnard show at the Met, a splendid show in Auerbach a few years ago in Pace, the wonder of Diebenkorn’s small portraits in Knoedler decades ago, the astonished time that I saw Peter Doig’s work for the first time – by chance in the kitchen Whitechapel in East London Fine – and so many others that I have been able to name and remember vividly, including some exhibition beauties at Clark that shed completely new light on familiar painters. And I’m not even mentioning important art events like the great 90’s MoMA Matisse show, the Vermeer in Washington, DC, or the huge stunner Munch recently at the Met, and so on.
There is definitely a leak on the HVAL summer show that goes online. But as Tina Chandler (president of HVAL) told me, for the artistic group it was a question of “making something happen that wouldn’t have happened in the usual way”, a question of “an old organization that wants to move forward in new conditions” , whatever they want the light of their art to keep burning. One could say that there is something tireless in the group. When, after many years of use, Dewey Hall was no longer available for summer shows, HVAL led a life nomadic, every summer he had to move to another new space and fight to re-adapt it to the purpose, creating partitions, lighting, adapting again and again. Its most recent location at the Masonic Temple – not too visibly in the center of Great Barrington – promised to to be a new permanent home, and planning began for the summer shows in January. Harvey Kimmelman, after hauling too much too long, this time accepted to preside over the summer shows only if he had a lot of help. Thus was formed the nine-person summer demonstration committee, which was planning well, and then the coronavirus and the need for another way to continue. All nine members offered new ideas and help, but the luckiest thing was the surprising discovery that longtime HVAL member Joe Baker is not only an artist but also a computer programmer and software creator who manages a company that helps artists submit online registration applications for shows. Luckily for HVAL, Joe contributed his skills, they made a difference and everything else fell into place with Tina Chandler as president, full of wonder that this old organization could learn new tricks so quickly.
Incidentally, just as the group has a venerable age, so are many of its members, not the population most likely to move operations on a penny and find technological solutions. HVAL is a non-profit organization and sees itself as there to serve its members, so it works hard to allow us to continue showing our work, some of us (like me) who paint with gratitude in old age, others even 90 and some year later. Unlike mathematicians or dancers, good painters come in all ages; there is no age when it peaks or fades. Many of the best have lived long and done their greatest job – or, if not that, at least extremely interesting – in their last few years. I naturally think of Matisse and his scissors, belly swollen after a cancer operation, undoubtedly joyful of having his life back, recreating himself, in his 80s by cutting the gouache paper in miracles of skipping joyful life and colored cornucopias brilliants that celebrate all kinds of leaves and vegetables. I also think of Michelangelo at the end of the 1980s, who does the hard physical work of sculpting one marble pity after another, the anguish of a broken Christ held by a loving and grieving mother. The most powerful and heartbreaking pity is his latest, now in a museum in Milan, which I sought a few years ago on a trip to northern Italy (the agony of crucifixion or old age? Merciless love and compassion of a great artist who he lost his mother at the tragically early age of 6): the indescribable blank forms; I will never forget how moving an experience ahead was.
Bonnard’s nudes lying in the bathtubs; magic fruit bowls; bright landscapes; honest self-portraits of old age: the work of his crowns in the late 70s (I think it surpasses) a life of brilliant results. He made this work in the 1940s after the death of his wife left him alone in a large house, probably not heated due to the war (in the photos of those years, he wears wool coats and hats in the house). The bright rooms of his previous paintings seem barely recognizable in those photos, neglected and lonely; and the painter, so elegant as a young man, now wears clothes that look old, too big, loose. Close friends like Vuillard are dead. But what I find so moving is that, despite all this, and before dying in 1947, he produced this great final corpus of works, he worked and reworked fruit paintings so sensual and richly colored (and of various shapes) that look like jewels but somehow they also convey something transcendent. Like Matisse, his good friend and admirer, he left an extraordinary song to life in those extraordinary still lifes. Edvard Munch is more difficult to heat, but he (as we recently discovered in a late show at the Met) made surprisingly wonderful, disturbing, revealing and even somehow beautiful self-portraits in his 70s until his death at 80 years. The painters blessed by longevity maintain it, and nothing is more rewarding than seeing them rewarded by a result that seems to take flight in the end, the glory of a final distillation of all those decades of life and total commitment to their art.
But even in our much more modest way we persist. We also do our work tenaciously and lovingly. Although there are no Matisses and Joan Mitchells among us, this sworn exhibition, entitled “Our Berkshires”, with 51 works by 32 artists, offers a wide range of good works, delicately controlled watercolors, bright oils, some local places that name (afternoon in Tanglewood, Lake Mansfield, Mill Pond, Salisbury Lake, MASS MoCA) but all drawing on the beautiful world we know here, in winter and summer, from artists who are your neighbors (or at least from this general area). We all would like to share what we create with others. And if you want to buy something, the prices couldn’t be more reasonable. The 2020 HVAL summer show will be live online Monday 6 July and will be online until Friday 31 July. You can find us on hvart.org under “Shows”.