On January 29, my husband Eugene and I drove to Albany, NY where The Albany Institute of History and Art hosted a reception to honor the life and work of our friend, the artist Bill Sullivan, who died last fall. Five of Bill’s canvases fill a gallery on the museum’s third floor near rooms with paintings by Thomas Cole and Frederic Church. We’d stopped along the way to pick up Lee Musselman, who along with Eugene and Bill's partner Jaime Manrique had worked to settle the paintings in storage and to break up the house. Sullivan's paintings will be on view at the Institute through February 27, 2011. You should go if you can; they're not to be missed.
We arrived early at the museum, a compact and airy space between Elk Street and Washington Avenue in downtown Albany. Poet, artist, and photographer Star Black had already arrived, camera in one hand, coat in the other, having joined Jaime and Bob Ward on the train from NYC. Jaime, Star, Eugene, and I crossed the snow-lined avenue over to El Mariachi for colas and cafés con leche. Star was excited to learn that Gerrit Henry’s book, The Time of the Night, would be published in April. Eugene and Jaime talked about Bill’s memorial in New York City; how many people were there—Adele Alsop all the way from Utah, Michelle Spark in from Phoenicia, Bill’s cousin Pat and her family—and how much of Bill’s life, work, and generosity the speakers had remembered. And there had been letters, too: Jacob Burkhardt had written, Michael Lally posted memories on his blog, and Bill’s very dear friend Aurora Manuel had emailed Eugene and Jaime a poem to read that night.
The gathering was organized by collector Al Roberts and by curator Tammis Groft, an authority on the Hudson River School and New York State artists, who had the idea to time a showing of Bill’s work with the current show of Hudson River School artists. An 1856 sunset view by Church hangs around one corner a few steps away:
The landscape glows with the same intense reds and yellows that Sullivan magnifies in his gorgeous Twilight at Olana, looking southward over the great estate to the four-pointed stretch of river, the same attention to detail and spectacle of scope without the calming-down effect of a mid-nineteenth-century perspective.
We wandered into the back room to see more of Bill's work: La Vida is a 1993 tropical bucolic, a dreamy sunset. It couldn’t have been more of a contrast from a painting just one year earlier—the monumental Manhattan skyline in Bill's My Night with Lorca. The river is represented by two pieces, the twilight Olana of 1990, a gift to the museum by David Kermani, and the View of Albany from Route 9J, painted the year before Bill died. Last is a brilliantly colored Niagara scene, American Falls Illuminated, from 1990.
Christine Miles, the director of the Albany Institute, addressed the fifty or so guests who assembled by tables of champagne and cucumber sandwiches, scones and coffee. She had first met Bill in New York City, at The New Response: Contemporary Painters of the Hudson River, a 1985 exhibition of landscapes by young artists influenced by the Church, Cole, Asher Durand, Sanford Gifford, and their circle. One of Bill’s landscapes, a heroic sweeping view of the Palisades, was on the catalogue’s cover. At a later auction, she bid on and won one of Bill’s Olana views.
Al Roberts described meeting Bill at the Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson, where they began, “a chat that lasted eight years.” He was amazed by what he saw at Bill’s Hudson studio. The two met “several hundred times” at local restaurants—Nolita, Le Gamin, Swallow— for 3:00 coffee where Bill “held court” at the outside tables, greeting and being greeted by artists, gallery owners, shopkeepers and restauranteurs, long-time locals and newly-arrived New Yorkers; regaling the collector with art-world gossip; news of Jaime and his latest writing, especially his novel Our Lives Are the Rivers; and introductions to many other painters. Al owns many of Bill’s paintings, but he commissioned only one, a work intended for the Albany Institute: the best view of the city, from the southern approach on Route 9J. The work is one of the four of Al’s gifts to the museum now in the memorial show, and is featured on the museum’s website.
Tammis spoke last. She, too, had met Bill at the New Response show and visited him in his studio on Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street, where he’d shown her all of his paintings. They renewed their friendship when Bill moved to Hudson. She and Bill mounted the Institute's 2006 retrospective of his work. “I have never worked with an artist who didn’t love every painting he ever made,” she said. But Bill, who designed the show, “took three paintings out—I give him a lot of credit.” In a small foyer just outside the room of his canvases, we watched a film of Bill, leading a virtual tour of the retrospective, telling stories about each piece.
We lingered with friends and acquaintances until after four. I introduced Star Black to David Lee, who’s been recording the upstate scene these last two decades with images whose complexity he pares down till they’re nearly haikus. He’d lately photographed a new tattoo parlor in Hudson, and we told him about Bill’s recent show at the Carrie Haddad, a series of paintings of tattooed youth. Carter Ratcliff introduced us to his wife, Phyllis Derfner (“At my first poetry reading, on February 4, 1968, I met a woman named Phyllis Derfner, and, Reader, I married her,” he says in The KGB Book of Poems), and we discussed the name Ten Broeck, which belongs to a mayor of Albany, a lane in Hudson, and a racehorse in a bluegrass tune. Carter and Phyllis will miss Bill in Hudson: who will wave to them from the sidewalk, call out to them from the street? Nancy Hagin, who has a show coming in February to the Fischbach Gallery in Manhattan, told Mac Chambers about how Deli Alsop described a telephone call from Bill: “She got his voice perfectly.” Stephanie Rose is painting a portrait of Jaime: she took notes on the color of his eyes. Carrie Haddad was there, of course, and Lori Yarotsky, also an art dealer, with artist Randall Schmit. We met Gina James, who’d met Bill thirty years ago in Colombia. She was driving Jaime and Bob back to the train station.
A confession: sometimes I do not know which I prefer—the painted canvases to which admirers must travel; or the back-lit mini-stained-glass windows of a laptop’s digital display, that travel with me anywhere I go, “The blackbird whistling / Or just after.” But if you’re in or near Albany, you must go. Go for a taste of the real thing: for the Hudson River School and the New York School, for a view of that party that’s been cropping up, unstoppable, since 1845.
-- Rosanne Wasserman