Influential New York Artist Bolton Brown is Subject of Major Dorsky Exhibition

NEW PALTZ — Bolton Coit Brown printmaker, painter, renowned mountaineer and co-founder of the Byrdcliffe art colony in Woodstock was truly a Renaissance man, but he is perhaps best known as an innovator in the field of lithography. The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz presents a major exhibition, Bolton Coit Brown: A Retrospective, Saturday, April 5, through June 4, with a reception on opening day, from 2 to 4 p.m.

ImageCurated by Dorsky Museum Director Neil C. Trager, the exhibition at SUNY New Paltz includes 182 pieces, the most comprehensive collection of Brown’s work ever displayed. It contains a rare selection of oil paintings, as well as drawings, prints and ceramics, many of which have never been exhibited before. Prints by Brown’s many collaborators and students are also on display. An accompanying catalogue features essays on Brown’s life and works by art historian Thomas Wolf and Professor Ronald Netsky, a printmaker, as well Brown’s own memoir, Early Days at Woodstock.

Background and early career

Brown, who lived from 1864 to 1936, maintained a lifelong interest in mountaineering along with his creative work, and in all his pursuits, he was meticulous and single-minded whether inventing new artistic techniques or scaling the high Sierras. Much of his art was inspired by these sojourns into nature, particularly in upstate New York, where Brown spent most of his life.

He was born in Dresden, New York, studied art at Syracuse University, and in 1891 started the art department at Stanford University in California. An artist’s purest goal, Brown believed, should be reproducing nature as accurately as possible, and in his early years he created dozens of delicate, highly realistic pencil drawings, many of which are included in the Dorsky show.

Byrdcliffe Colony

In California, Brown also met wealthy Englishman Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, who enlisted the young artist in helping to find a site for his latest vision: a utopian community where like-minded people might work together creatively in a natural setting.

This turned out to be Woodstock. In 1902, Brown traveled east, arriving in Windham, N.Y., and on a trek through the Catskill Mountains, happened upon the small farming community. Others had suggested that Whitehead’s art colony be built in South Carolina, but after visiting the mountain village at Brown’s behest, the Englishman began buying up tracts of land. That property is today the Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony, and this year marks its hundredth anniversary.

Brown, recognized as a master art teacher and draftsman, now set about designing several of the buildings at Byrdcliffe. In an essay “Beautiful Color Does Not Come in Tubes,” which accompanies the Dorsky exhibition, art historian Thomas Wolf notes that early articles about the artist compared him to Leonardo da Vinci for his multifaceted abilities.

For all this, however, he showed his work infrequently. Brown is believed to have made 50 paintings, only a dozen of which are known today. The Dorsky exhibition includes six major works and a selection of smaller paintings done on panel board.

A life in lithography

Brown’s affiliation with Byrdcliffe proved to be short-lived. He remained in the area, however, working in his Woodstock studio and in 1915, traveled to England to immerse himself in the study of lithography, which would shape the remainder of his career. World War I raged around him, but Brown, studious and exacting as always, buried himself in the invention of some 500 lithographic crayons, created 50 unique graining techniques, built his own tools and rollers, and eventually authored two books on his lithographic investigations.

Back in America, he worked tirelessly to promote printmaking as the high art it was in Europe. By then a master of the form, he nevertheless struggled to make ends meet, and earned a living by printing works by other artists like Rockwell Kent, Arthur B. Davies, John Taylor Arms and George Bellows, with whom he collaborated on more than 200 editions.

“The impact of a first-rate printer cannot be overstated,” says printmaker Ronald Netsky, writing about the exhibition. In lithography, Brown’s love of nature and his dedication to process found “the perfect marriage of medium and message.”

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The State University of New York at New Paltz is an institution of nearly 8,000 students located in the Mid-Hudson Valley halfway between New York City and Albany. It offers undergraduate and graduate programs in the liberal arts and sciences, which serve as a core for professional programs in the fine and performing arts, education, healthcare, business and engineering.

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