You may not have noticed, but we’ve lately been seeing something of a revival of landscape painting. This isn’t a development that trend-setting museum curators are likely to be shouting about from the rooftops. For the most part, it doesn’t interest them. Their trustees, all agog over the latest post-Duchampian assault on our sensibilities, would probably be appalled if it did. And many of our critics, too, tend to regard landscape painting as a ho-hum subject. It’s painting, after all, and isn’t painting now regarded as, well, kind of passé? Many people who are alleged to have an interest in art now think so.
Still, it’s worth remembering that it was in landscape that many of the greatest achievements in modern painting had their origin. From Constable and Courbet to Manet and the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in the 19th century, to the major modern movements of the 20th-Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism-landscape remained an aesthetic imperative. The early abstract paintings of Mondrian and Kandinsky were similarly derived from landscape, as indeed many varieties of abstract painting still are today. Even the Surrealists had to take account of the centrality of landscape by turning it into a genre of the grotesque.
Far from having been marginalized or rendered obsolete by the antics of so-called postmodernism-a misnomer, in any case, since most of what passes for postmodernist art today owes its existence to the conventions of Duchampian modernism dating back to World War I-landscape continues to prosper as a source of artistic inspiration, and can be expected to do so, I dare say, as long as the sun persists in illuminating the face of the earth.
If you doubt that landscape is making a vital contribution to the life of art today, take a look at Tom Goldenberg’s latest exhibition at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries. Mr. Goldenberg is one of the most accomplished painters on the current scene, and landscape is now his principal subject. Like some other American painters of his generation (he is 53), he came to it after a period devoted to abstraction. Even if we didn’t know this, we might have guessed at such a course of development from the artist’s command of scale and structure, and the perfect “fit” achieved by all the formal elements in these paintings of landscape subjects.
Mr. Goldenberg brings to these subjects a classical rather than a romantic or expressionist sensibility, and he has naturally been drawn to the kind of terrain that lends itself to a classical order. This he has found in the countryside of Dutchess County, north of Manhattan in New York State. With its carefully tended farms, rolling hills and spacious woodlands, this is anything but an untamed wilderness. Yet it isn’t suburbia, either. If we sometimes glimpse a house or a barn or some other man-made structure in these paintings, it remains subordinated to the rhythms and divisions of the land and the changing light of the seasons.
It is not-in these paintings, anyway-a land of big skies. It’s a characteristic of Mr. Goldenberg’s landscapes that attention to the sky tends to be minimal. More often than not, these paintings take a distant, wide-angle view of a richly variegated terrain, transforming the contours of a neatly patterned countryside into elaborate pictorial structures that rise from a closely observed foreground in broad, irregularly shaped horizontal divisions of open space, punctuated by dense shrubbery and foliage and framed by the sturdy verticals of tall, slender tree trunks.
The season tends to be midsummer, with its rich palette of sunlit greenery, or early fall, with its autumn foliage turning red and gold. The weather is always fine, and the painter’s eye is as temperate as the climate: There are no tempests of the spirit here, but a rage for order and a lyrical impulse that makes itself felt without advertising its sentiments. This is nature viewed from a distance and deeply mediated by aesthetic reflection.
A somewhat different vein of nature’s poetry is explored in Mr. Goldenberg’s paintings of water subjects. These are close-up views of autumn landscapes in which the season’s chromatic grandeur is depicted as a pictorial dialogue between what we see in the objects of the natural world and what we see in the distorting mirror of their watery reflections on the surfaces of ponds and streams. These constitute some of Mr. Goldenberg’s most virtuosic painterly achievements-yet another reminder, if we still need one, that landscape remains a vital part of the art of our time.
Tom Goldenberg’s exhibition is on view at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, through Dec. 28.
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