HUNTINGTON, NY – In the early decades of the 20th century, things happened in the New York art world when painters like Walt Kuhn, Florine Stettheimer, and Wood Gaylor took matters into their own hands. They founded clubs and professional associations and organized exhibitions – including the Armory Show of 1913, which brought American modernism to life with intoxicating contact with European art.
They met weekly to draw on the model and founded schools, particularly the National Academy of Design. They worked together on public art, costume balls, and performances. They held banquets in honor of artists and auctions to raise money for their organizations, and often bought one another’s works. They found and gathered new sources of inspiration, including 19th century American folk art, its simple shapes and bold colors, which, with native precedents, inspired them for some of the signal experiments of the modern era.
Gaylor, a little-known American painter (1883-1957) who is only now finding his place in art history, took part in all of these developments, recording many of them in bright, antique, faux-naive oil paintings with carefully outlined figures and settings. About a century after their creation, these lively, densely populated scenes – a mixture of folk art, modern art and documentation – form the heart of the artist’s first retrospective at the Heckscher Museum of Art.
And at Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts in Manhattan, a second Gaylor show rounds off his subject with a portrait of boxer Jack Johnson in a red robe, views of a movie theater and cabaret on 14th Street, and large pencil drawings that he works with to accurately delineate his pictures and in actual size. And don’t miss the noir painting “Evidence” from 1934, in which a suspicious woman, accompanied by her mother and a lawyer, catches her philandering husband in the act. A large part of this show can also be seen online from January 22nd at the Goldberg stand of the Winter Show.
Gaylor was a man of genius with a knack for organizing things. He worked well with others and didn’t mind working behind the scenes. He was born Samuel Wood Gaylor in Stamford, Connecticut, and survived a somewhat rocky childhood. His father was a saloon keeper who tended not to keep his saloons; The family often changed cities or addresses. Gaylor recalled one of the happiest periods of his childhood – when he was 5 years old and his parents ran a hotel and bar on Stevens Point in Darien, Connecticut – in the 1929 painting Stevens Point in Goldberg. It shows a large, busy bar room whose diverse residents (including the young artist holding a dead duck) all seem fixated on us: a large puddle at the bottom of the picture suggests that someone is from was blown into the house in a storm.
In 1901, when he was 17, Gaylor left home and found work as a designer for New York’s model companies – starting with Butterick. Like composer Charles Ives and poet Wallace Stevens, he kept his job for most of his life.
But his evenings and weekends were free for art, and from the early 1910s to the mid-1930s he had a finger in many pots. A key event occurred in 1912 when, while studying at the National Academy of Design, he happened to meet the American artist and impresario Kuhn (1877-1949) who was organizing the Armory Show. Gaylor submitted his paintings in the Impressionist style of the time and two were accepted. He and the other Kuhn acolytes helped their mentor with the installation. Gaylor became a lifelong friend and go-between for the more volatile Kuhn – who apparently liked performing live as much as he did painting – and helped him lead the Penguin, an artist group that remained active until the early 1920s.
In the Heckscher, Gaylor’s teeming, sociable depictions of life in and around Penguin 11 by the artists sketching near a wood stove (in a lively little gouache from 1917) capture elaborate panoramas of costume balls and auctions in oil on canvas. We see an ambitious event in “Arts Ball 1918”, for which the penguin members put on hobby horses designed by Kuhn or disguised as Pierrot. In the excellent “posters” from 1920 he captured members of the group who worked on a series of huge painted posters for a Red Cross Bond Drive in 1918. The scene is a mixed bag: the large pictures of heads put the artists in the shade.
In between, a banner of a real penguin hangs over the fireplace. Kuhn, wearing a hat, seems very responsible. Gaylor and two other men pick up one of the posters. Kuhn also keeps his hat on in “Tanzstunde mit Walt Kuhn” (around 1919) while he oversees the footwork of a number of scantily clad women. He seems to be teaching them an insignificant step that Twyla Tharp might envy.
While progressive as artists, the penguin men lived up to the misogynist standards of their time: there were no female members, although women sometimes exhibited in their shows, and anyone who bought a ticket could attend an art ball. But the women in the louder pictures like “Bob’s Party, Number 1” (1918) are more of a role model. A wonderful exception is “KHM’s Birthday Party” (1933), where a cheerfully dressed couple dances the tango in the middle of a large yellow room with buttercream (it seems). The label identifies the dancers as the painters Isabel Bishop and Reginald Marsh.
Gaylor’s flat figures reflect his attention to the styles of Europeans like Gauguin and Puvis de Chavannes, as well as the folk art he collected during the Maine summer in the 1920s. His work also has a lot to do with the art of Florine Stettheimer, his better-known faux-naive contemporary. Both derived their styles from academic approaches, but there are telling differences. Most obvious is Gaylor’s love of line and design, nurtured by his work with patterns that are opposed to Stettheimer’s more intuitive painting style. Stettheimer’s color is jazzy, unconventional and is stirred up by its juicy surfaces and curved shapes. Gaylor’s surfaces are matte and smooth, his figures exude a caricature classicism, and his saturated palette of red, green and singing blue is reminiscent of Renaissance painting. While Stettheimer was interested in personalities, her pictures are, above all, only loosely bound to reality. Gaylor focused on current events.
Gaylor has had a relatively long period of darkness. He was neither part of the Alfred Stieglitz Group nor of the Soignée Salon von Stettheimer and her sisters. It may not have helped that he and his wife, Adelaide Lawson Gaylor, also an artist, moved their three children to Glenwood Landing on Long Island in 1934, or stopped painting for a decade in the early 1940s. There was a posthumous solo show in Manhattan at the Zabriskie Gallery in 1963 when pop and minimal art were on the rise, and it was unsurprisingly that it wasn’t.
Fast forward through more than half a century of almost invisibility to 2020, when the Goldberg Gallery showed two Gaylors at the winter show. At this point the Heckscher exhibition was underway. The original exhibition was organized by Andrea P. Rosen of the Fleming Museum of Art at the University of Vermont, Burlington (where it was created last February with the help of art historian Christine Isabelle Oaklander). The curator of the Heckscher Museum, Karli Wurzelbacher, added 16 works of art by Gaylor’s colleagues to the exhibition.
Ours seems like a much better time for Wood Gaylor’s quietly dazzling performance to finally step in.
Wood Gaylor and American Modernism
Until May 23, Heckscher Art Museum, 2 Prime Avenue, Huntington, NY; (631) 380-3230, heckscher.org. Timed tickets are required. The show will travel to the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, Ogunquit, Me.
Prepare the stage: Wood Gaylor, beguiling modernist
Until May 23, Bernard Goldberg Gallery, 1067 Fifth Avenue, 212-813-9797; personally only by appointment; firstname.lastname@example.org. Online at bgfa.com.