I’ve been struggling with megabytes. MB? Who knew what that meant? The Housatonic Valley Art League’s annual summer show is of necessity going virtual this July, and I — and no doubt other tech-phobic painters in the group — have just spent hours trying to follow instructions for the submission of artwork, certainly clear enough but not for the likes of me. Though I wrote a book with one of the earliest Macs in the 1980s, I easily feel like I’m drowning around this technology. For years I trudged hopefully to the Apple store on Prince Street in Manhattan and had admirable, patient one-on-one tutoring, and forgot it all before I even got home. But bless YouTube, where some kind, gentle and totally clear person just taught me how to reduce the MBs of the photos of my paintings for this new online show. And even so, for hours of this gloriously sunny day, when I wanted to paint (still another painting of a woman in our beautiful green world, when I’m really feeling like a woman in a world on fire!), on this lovely day, I am struggling with megabytes and with making sure to press the yellow button, the other button, login, file name, upload, save.
But the new system finally worked, and I’m writing this to commend my longtime comrades in the HVAL who created it all, who, in their stubborn commitment to keeping alive this oldest of art organizations in this area, have managed to work all this out. True, everyone’s doing it: the Met, the Guggenheim, the Neue. You can check out parts of their collections at your leisure on your computer, take a look at their Richters or Beckmanns on your kitchen screen. The Chelsea galleries keep sending images, and even Great Barrington’s most recent gallery addition, the estimable Bernay Fine Art, moved online with a series of interesting artists’ work arriving on my Mac regularly.
Of course nothing substitutes for the pleasure and power of being in front of the actual work and wandering around the museums and galleries themselves: for me one of the major joys of a long lifetime. The way other people remember their first kiss, I remember the revelation of the late Cezanne show four decades ago at MoMA, the Vuillard at the Brooklyn Museum also decades ago, the big Bonnard show at the Hayward in London and the more recent exquisite late-still-life Bonnard show at the Met, a gorgeous Auerbach show a few years ago at Pace, the wonder of Diebenkorn’s small portraits at Knoedler decades back, the amazed time I first saw Peter Doig’s work — by accident at the Whitechapel galley in London’s East End — and so many more I could name and remember with vividness, including some exhibition beauties at the Clark that shed a whole new light on familiar painters. And I’m not even mentioning major art events like the great ‘90s MoMA Matisse show, the Vermeer in Washington, D.C., or the huge Munch stunner recently at the Met, and on and on.
There’s certainly a loss in the HVAL summer show’s going online. But as Tina Chandler (president of HVAL) told me, for the art group it was a question of “making something happen that wasn’t going to happen in the usual way,” a question of “an old organization that wants to keep going under new conditions” no matter what, wanting the light of their art to keep on burning bright. You could say there’s something indefatigable about the group. When, after many years of use, Dewey Hall was no longer available for summer shows, HVAL led a nomadic life, each summer having to move to yet another new space and struggling to re-make it to fit the purpose, setting up partitions, lighting, adapting again and again. Its most recent venue at the Masonic Temple — not too visibly in the center of Great Barrington — promised to be a steady new home, and planning work started in January for the summer shows. Harvey Kimmelman, after carrying too much for too long, only agreed to chair the summer shows again this time if he had a lot of help. The summer show committee of nine was thus formed, and planning well underway, and then the coronavirus and the need for yet another way to continue. All nine members offered new ideas and help, but luckiest of all was the surprising discovery that Joe Baker, longtime HVAL member, is not only an artist but also a computer programmer and software creator who actually runs a business that helps artists submit entry applications online for shows. Happily for HVAL, Joe contributed his skills, they made all the difference, and everything else fell into place with Tina Chandler presiding, full of wonder that this old organization could so quickly learn new tricks.
Incidentally, just as the group is of venerable age, so are many of its members, not the most likely population to shift operations on a dime and work out tech solutions. HVAL is a nonprofit and sees itself as there to serve its membership, hence working hard to enable us to continue showing our work, some of us (like myself) gratefully painting into advanced old age, some even 90 and a few some years beyond. Unlike mathematicians or ballerinas, good painters come in all ages; there is no age at which you peak or fade. Many of the best lived a very long time and did their greatest work — or if not that, at least extremely interesting work — in their very last years. I think of course of Matisse and his scissors, belly distended after a cancer operation, no doubt joyous to have his life back, re-creating himself, in his 80s cutting gouached paper into miracles of leaping joyful life and brilliantly colored cornucopias celebrating every kind of leaf and vegetable. I think also of Michelangelo in his late 80s, doing the demanding physical work of carving out one marble pieta after another, the anguish of a broken Christ held by a loving, grieving mother. The most powerful and heartbreaking pieta is his very last, now in a Milan museum, which I sought out some years ago on a trip to northern Italy (the agony of crucifixion or of old age? Boundless love and compassion from a great artist who lost his own mother at the tragically early age of 6): The indescribable rough-hewn forms; I will never forget how moving an experience standing in front of it was.
Bonnard’s nudes lying in bathtubs; magical bowls of fruit; glowing landscapes; honest old-age self-portraits: the work of his late 70s crowns (I think surpasses) a lifetime of brilliant achievement. He made this work in the 1940s after the death of his wife left him alone in a large house, probably unheated because of the war (in photos of those years, he wears wool coats and hats indoors). The glowing rooms of his earlier paintings look barely recognizable in those photos, neglected and lonely; and the painter, so dapper when young, now wears clothes that look old, too large, baggy. Close friends like Vuillard have died. But what I find so touching is that despite all this, and before he died in 1947, he produced this large final body of work, he worked and reworked paintings of fruit so sensuous and richly colored (and varied in form) that they look like jewels but somehow also convey something transcendent. Like Matisse, his good friend and admirer, he left an extraordinary song to life in those remarkable late still-lives. Edvard Munch is harder to warm to, but he (as we recently discovered in a late-life show at the Met) made surprisingly wonderful, disturbing, revelatory and also somehow beautiful self-portraits in his 70s right up to his death at 80. Painters blessed with longevity do keep at it, and nothing is more gratifying than to see them rewarded by an output that seems to take wing at the end, the glory of a final distillation of all those decades of living and of total commitment to their art.
But we in our much more modest way also persist. We also do our work tenaciously and lovingly. Though there are no Matisses and Joan Mitchells among us, this juried exhibition, titled “Our Berkshires,” with 51 works by 32 artists, offers a wide range of good work, delicately controlled watercolor, ebullient oils, some naming local places (Tanglewood afternoon, Lake Mansfield, Mill Pond, Salisbury Lake, MASS MoCA) but all drawing on the beautiful world we know here, in winter and summer, by 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, prices couldn’t be more reasonable. HVAL’s 2020 summer show goes live online Monday, July 6, and will be online till Friday, July 31. You can find us then at hvart.org under “Shows.”