Monday, June 13, 2011

Received In Good Order At Saint-Gaudens; A Brief Art Shipping Chronicle

It’s all about networking.
If I hadn’t attended a recent opening at the part-time, artist studio exhibition space The Big & Small/Casual Gallery in Long Island City I still wouldn’t know who the heck Saint Gaudens was.
A few weeks earlier when I first met contemporary sculptor David Henderson at B&S/Casual we discussed transport of his biomorphic, tree hugger of a sculpture from the Pratt campus in Brooklyn to the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Site in New Hampshire, I thought why not?  A chance for a woodsy sojourn up I 91 along the Connecticut River.
Due to my glaring lack of formal art history studies I thought perhaps Saint Gaudens was some kind of French Canadian explorer on his way to Lake Champlain.
I hadn’t yet grasped the significant irony of delivering a sleek piece of recent Brooklyn sculpture to the magnificent palatial estate of this preeminently classical, Victorian era art tycoon.
In fact, it wasn’t until Jeanne and me were halfway to New Hampshire in my truck that she mentioned something about were we going to that famous 19th century American landscape sculptor’s old digs. I do take some solace from acknowledging that the Gilded Age was just never my thing.
After getting some good advice from Annette Compton, the curator at Saint Gaudens about dodging the old low overhead bridges crossing the river from Vermont, we arrived at the secluded locale.
Aspet, the main house near the visitor’s center, overlooks acres of sprawling field and lawn. (once a 9-hole golf course, no wonder I’d wished I’d had my clubs!) 
The sculpture was going to be installed on the other side of the property, so I got to drive around on the grass. I love driving on grass; it makes me feel agrarian, like I’m driving a tractor.  Someone should figure a way to make a grass interstate, quieter, a lot less glare, much easier on the eyes.
The crew of Park Service rangers quickly helped off-load the two disassembled sections of the relatively lightweight ”Skylark”. While David and his National Park Service crew got started installing, Jeanne and I got a quick guided tour from Annette.
The sweeping view west out past the Connecticut River towards Ascutney Mountain is spectacularly serene. Complimented by a foreground dotted with gardens, hedges, and sculpture, Saint Gaudens evokes the splendor of art and nature, each patting the other on the back.
At the end of a long hedgerow sits the “Little Studio” (which I guess it might seem, situated in that expanse of sun drenched greenery), that was St Gaudens’ primary studio. There is a spacious, inviting porch with Doric columns, and a pleasingly pink stucco façade with casts from the Parthenon. Theres a certain symmetry to parts of the Hearst Castle, which also utilize architectural elements (“acquired” shall we say?) from indigenous locations.            
There is a kind of romantic association with this robber baron decorating scheme. Perhaps the allure of far away places, and saintly idols that Saint Gaudens embraced was fostered by his “Cornish Colony” crowd that included Maxfield Parrish’s saccharine saturated sensibility.
However overbearing his oeuvre may have been, Saint Gaudens was a dedicated craftsman. His meticulous and finely tuned figures gain a stately and dignified demeanor that imbue a narrative credibility to their idealized stature.    
His gasp of profound historical moments is epitomized by the Shaw Memorial on view to great effect in its own hedgerow niche. This monument to the 54th Massachusetts regiment made up of former slaves is a compelling piece of public art that captures the drama and momentum of the march to war.
The gold coinage commissions were also intriguing. His strong allegorical abilities are put to good use in these tiny tondos. Saint Gaudens’ allegories were earnest, non-ironic tributes to the virtuous moral rectitude of the day. Combining detailed etching with nuanced contour, these tour-de-force miniatures employ dramatic visual metaphor helpful for conveying a “gold standard” to currency.     
Since the capitalist ethos demanded devotion to greed, what better way to profit as an artist than to design valuable money? Talk about conceptual art!
Spying my white beast of burden shimmering by the distant tree line, we headed back. I wondered what previous generations of art conveyers had used to bring precious objects de art to this pastoral pasture. Donkey carts no doubt.
As David hoisted Skylark into its final position, we bid adieu to Aspet and hit the road. In a little while we were back by the non-grass interstate, with it’s attendant strip mall rude awakening.

View of the Little Studio (left) and Aspet.    

Could it be? The great White Elephant On Wheels!


Shaw Memorial.

Little Studio.

View of Mt Asctuney


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