Drawing on the Susquehanna :
Four Centuries of Artistic Inspiration and Commerce
Lore Degenstein Gallery, Susquehanna University
 
(an online exhibition in lieu of the exhibit planned for April 18 - May, 2020 - cancelled due to Covid 19)

 

Curated by Rob Evans

Page 1:
Curator's Statement
Page 2:  
1600 - 1830
Page 3:  
1830 - 1850     
Page 4:  
1850 - 1899
Page 5:  
1900 - present

A New Century: Susquehanna Dams and the Rise of Modernism

 

The expansion of railroads, mining and timbering operations in the Susquehanna Valley in the latter half of the 19th century gave rise to rapid industrial growth in the cities and towns along its shores.  As the need for electricity grew in the first decades of the new century, major hydro-electric projects were initiated in the river valley. Between 1905 and 1910 the Holtwood Dam was the first major dam constructed on the Susquehanna River. Two decades later the Safe Harbor Dam and Conowingo Dam followed suit, built above and below Holtwood. These massive structures had a significant impact on the river valley both visually and geographically. The vast scale of their construction attracted artists at the time who were interested in the construction of these huge architectural marvels which symbolized American engineering and industrial might. 

One such artist was German born emigre Otto Kuhler, who came to the United States in 1923. Partly due to the advice of his friend and prominent artist Joseph Pennell, Kuhler took up etching as an artistic medium. Kuhler's industrial themed etchings sprang from the same optimistic response to technology that led to his long and successful parallel career in industrial design, including his colorful designs of streamlined steam locomotives such as the acclaimed "Hiawatha" built in 1935. Kuhler's prints bridge art and industry, as demonstrated by the two dramatic images he created documenting the construction of the Safe Harbor and Conowingo Dams. Interestingly, based on the layout of construction cranes and scaffolding, Pennsylvania Dutch born artist Harry Martin Book seems to have visited and painted the Safe Harbor Dam construction site at nearly the same time as Kuhler.

 

Otto Kuhler (1894 - 1977)

Harnessing the Susquehanna, Conowingo Dam

etching, circa1929

 

Otto Kuhler (1894 - 1977)

Harnessing the Susquehanna, Safe Harbor Dam

etching, 1930

 

Harry Martin Book (1904 - 1971)

Construction of the Safe Harbor Dam

oil on canvas, 1930

For many artists, the possibilities of the industrial and urban landscape were more alluring than the bucolic landscapes created by their predecessors in the previous century. While artists like Cropsey and Mifflin continued to crank out romantic Susquehanna landscapes for a shrinking conservative audience in the first two decades of the new century, the winds of modernism began to blow in the art world, ushered in by European modernist trends displayed at the 1913 New York Armory Show, transforming the cultural landscape. Modes of representation shifted from romanticism, descriptive realism and naturalism to impressionism, precisionism, surrealism and other stylized modernist modes of interpreting reality. The Ashcan School of painting set new trends with a focus on the gritty realism of urban scenery and factories interpreted in a more painterly and direct style.

Born out of this new momentum, the New Hope School of American Impressionism began to take shape in the Delaware River Valley, spearheaded by renowned artist Daniel Garber. While most of his work was inspired by the Delaware River region, Garber visited the Susquehanna Valley in the late 1920's to complete a large work commissioned by the Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) depicting their newly constructed Conowingo Dam. Instead of turning his romantic gaze toward the landscape, Garber instead focused on the impressive structure of the dam, its bold elegant shapes, intricate grid of power equipment and intriguing infrastructure. By this time, photo-mechanical reproduction had made the inexpensive postcard extremely popular, and PECO had postcards and offset lithographic prints made of Garber's painting which were distributed widely to their employees and admiring tourists. 

Daniel Garber (1880 - 1958)

The Conowingo Dam

oil on canvas, 1939

Collection of Philadelphia Electric Company

(not in the exhibit)

 

Daniel Garber (1880 - 1958)

The Conowingo Dam (detail)

offset litho reproduction postcard, 1939

published by Philadelphia Electric Company

American Impressionism spread to other artist colonies in New England, Long Island and elsewhere and included such prominent proponents as William Merriot Chase, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, J. Alden Weir and  John Henry Twachtman to name a few. A number of artists under the influence of American Impressionism painted atmospheric imagery of the Susquehanna including Washington D.C. based artist August Herman Olson Rolle and New York State artist Fred Sydney Smith. Impressionism continued to interest artists into the later 20th century including John L. Lehman, who painted numerous views during his lifetime of the Susquehanna's scenic vistas, bridges and rivertowns .

 

 

 

 

Fred Sydney Smith (1903 - 1984)

Binghamton on the Chenango

oil on canvas, circa 1920

Collection of Roberson Museum and Science Center, Binghamton, NY (not in the exhibit)

 

 

John L. Lehman (1916 - 2012)

Columbia Wrightsville Bridge

oil on canvas, 1990

 

 

August Herman Olson Rolle (1875 - 1941)

Susquehanna River at Night Washed With Moonlit Skies

oil on board, circa 1922 -1930

Private Collection (not in the exhibit)

 

 

John L. Lehman (1916 - 2012)

Construction of the Route 30 Bridge

oil on canvas, circa 1970

At the same time, American painter Charles Demuth, a Susquehanna Valley native of Lancaster, PA, became one of the lead proponents of a new school of modernist painters know as the Precisionists. This group included Charles Sheeler and Georgia O'Keefe among others, and influenced a generation of artists including York, PA native Stephen Etnier whose painting of the bridges at Wright's Crossing clearly shows the stylistic influence of the movement. Although Demuth lived just a short distance from the Susquehanna, he seems to have produced only one known image referencing the river, focusing his attention instead on the possibilities of the urban and industrial landscape as it related to his explorations of the new and innovative Precsionist forms of expression.

 

 

 

 

Charles Demuth (1883 - 1935)

Landscape, Peach Bottom

oil on canvas, 1931

Collection of the Demuth Museum, Lancaster, PA (not in the exhibit)

 

 

Stephen Etnier (1903 - 1984)

Susquehanna River

oil on canvas, 1931

Private Collection (not in the exhibit)

 

Adolph Dehn (1895 - 1968)

The Susquehanna (or Winding River)

lithograph, circa 1946

The United States at this time was still a heavily agricultural nation, with a much smaller portion of its population living in industrial cities such as New York City or Chicago. As various modernist groups jockeyed for dominance in the American art scene, some American artists rejected the modern trends of abstraction emanating from the Armory Show and European influences, instead choosing to adopt academic realism in their depictions of American urban and rural scenes,  forming what would become known as the American Regionalist movement.

 

Partly due to the Great Depression, American Regionalism became one of the dominant art movements in America in the 1930s, along with Social Realism, and included such artists as Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Adolph Dehn. While most of these artists focused on the midwest for subject matter, Adolph Dehn's social realist and regionalist lithographs often featured New York City and east coast imagery including a portrayal of the Susquehanna River.

Responding to the need for recovery following the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal created a series of public works programs. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in expansive arts, drama, media, and literacy projects. As a part of this initiative artists were selected to create murals in rural post offices and public buildings across the nation. Some of the 20th century's greatest visual artists were employed by the WPA, including numerous Social Realists and Regionalists, along with many nascent Abstract Expressionists. Notable artists included Diego Rivera, Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood, Jackson Pollock, John Sloan, John Steuart Curry, Mark Rothko and Lee Krasner to name afew.  A number of these murals featured Susquehanna imagery including the Selinsgrove, PA Post Office mural by George Hickey (later famous for his kinetic sculptures), the Plymouth, PA Post Office mural by prominent Magic Realist Jared French, and the Columbia PA Post Office mural by Bruce Mitchell.

 

 

George Rickey (1907 - 2002)

Susquehanna Trail

tempera on canvas, 1937

WPA mural painted for the U.S. Post Office, Selinsgrove, PA

Jared French (1905 - 1988)

Meal Time with the Early Coal Miners

oil on canvas, 1938

WPA mural painted for the U.S. Post Office, Plymouth, PA

Bruce Mitchell (1908 - 1963)

Columbia Bridge

oil on canvas, 1938

WPA mural painted for the U.S. Post Office, Columbia, PA

 

When World War II ended, Regionalism and Social Realism lost status in the art world. While the end of the war ushered in a new era of peace and prosperity, the emerging Cold War with Russia brought a change in the political perception of Americans, allowing Modernist critics to gain power. Regionalism and Social Realism also lost popularity among American viewers due to stagnation within the movement and the narrow constraints of the artworks' primarily agrarian subject matter. Ultimately, this led to abstract expressionism becoming the new prominent and popular artistic trend within the American Modernist movement.

Postwar: Abstraction, Environmentalism and the Resurgence of Realism

 

For the first two decades following World War II, the Abstract Expressionist movement dominated the American art scene, pushing representational art and any interest in realistically depicting the rural landscape off to the fringes of what was considered relevant. Modernism's focus on the urban aesthetic and industrial might of America, led to a decline in landscape painting, as did interest in the Susquehanna River. As a result, few prominent artists of this period created work relating to it - once a centerpiece of the American art movement in the previous century, the river now faded into obscurity. 

The Susquehanna would still occasionally show up in the commercial art of popular culture, particularly through imagery relating to Pennsylvania's railroads, which boasted some of the nation's most prolifically used freight and passenger lines. One of the best known painters of the railroad culture was Grif Teller, whose large wall calendars, mass produced by the Pennsylvania Railroad, were big sellers with a broad public appeal.

In the 1960's, as Pop Art displaced abstraction from the limelight, an interest in popular culture, mass production and performance began to captivate artists. The social revolution of the 60's also brought with it a new environmental movement, a reaction to the ecological devastation incurred by decades of unchecked industrial expansion and urban sprawl. By the 1970's, a renewed interest in protecting natural lands once again brought the American landscape into the spotlight, spurring a new generation of young realist painters to emerge, reviving the art of landscape painting with a new vigor that continues today. Artits such as Neil Welliver, Rackstraw Downes, Paul Resika, Wayne Thiebaud, Wolf Kahn, April Gornick, Sylvia Mangold, Diane Burko and Richard Diebenkorn brought landscape painting to the forefront once again in the 1970's and 80's.  

 

 

 

 

Grif Teller (1899 - 1993)

Crossroads of Commerce

offset lithograph, 1950

Calendar published by the Pennsylvania Railroad

Influenced by the great Romantic landscape painters of the past (with their large formats, dramatic light, and sublime subject matter) and the bold compositions and brushwork of modernism, a new school of painters, printmakers and photographers  expanded on the tradition through a wide and inventive variety of approaches to the subject. For these artists, the landscape became a vehicle for presenting a multitude of perspectives and commentaries on culture, ranging from simple reverence and lyrical narratives of nature, to social criticisms of environmental decay, nuclear energy and urban sprawl. For the last three decades of the 20th century artists utilized the Susquehanna as a vehicle to explore these concepts in a wide variety of realist stylistic modes, media and approaches.

 

 

Hope Meryman (1931 - 1975)

Susquehanna Storm

woodcut on paper, 1962

(not in the exhibit)

 

 

David Brumbach (1948 - 1992)

View of the Susquehanna From the Haversticks

watercolor, 1978

(not in the exhibit)

Diane Burko (b. 1945)

Susquehanna #3

Colored Pencil on Arches, 1982

(not in the exhibit)

Stephen Hannock (b. 1951)

Flooded Marsh at Dawn

oil on panel, 1993

Private Collection (not in the exhibit)

Rob Evans (b. 1959)

Migration

mixed media on paper, 1997

Private Collection

So too, the Susquehanna regained international visibility resulting from two unfortunate events which occurred along its shores in the 1970's: the devastating Hurricane Agnes flood and the near meltdown at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. The latter incident continued to fascinate artists for decades, including renowned photographer John Pfahl who created an iconic image of the island and its shuttered nuclear stacks (without their signature plumes of steam) a few years following the accident, and New York based painter Paul Caranicas, whose bird's eye image of the plant seems to be viewed through its steam.

 

 

 

 

John Pfahl (b. 1939)

Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant, Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania

chromogenic print, 1982

(not in the exhibit)

Paul Caranicas (b. 1946)

Energy Sources 4: Three Mile Island - 2000

oil on canvas, 1993

Collection of Susquehanna National Heritage Area

Rob Evans (b. 1959)

Ice Flow

mixed media on paper, 2004

Private collection (not in the exhibit)

R. Scott Wright (b. 1946)

Release

oil and pastel on linen, 2011 - 12

(not in the exhibit)

The 21st Century - The Susquehanna in Contemporary Art

 

The Susquehanna River Valley, its scenic vistas, flora and fauna, human infrastructure, and the various environmental issues it faces, continues to engage artists today. Utilizing a wide variety of media including fiber, printmaking, painting, drawing, digital media and photography, artists continue to explore the Susquehanna as subject matter through a post-modern inclusive lens, incorporating a broad spectrum of stylistic approaches, borrowing or combining elements or conventions from past artistic movements such as Precisionism, Modernism, Romanticism, Impressionism, Tonalism, Photorealism and folk art, and yet bringing to it a decidedly contemporary aesthetic.  

 

 

Mark Innerst (b. 1957)

Old Shakey (Walnut Street Bridge)

oil on panel, 2006

Collection of Susquehanna National Heritage Area

 

Matthew Daub (b. 1953)

Foundry

watercolor, 2006

Private Collection (not in exhibit)

 

Randall Exon (b. 1956)

Susquehanna

oil on canvas, 2012

 

Debra Bermingham (b. 1953)

Sunlight on the Susquehanna

oil and graphite on panel, 2006

Collection of Susquehanna National Heritage Area

 

Toby Richards (b. )

Bridges Over the Susquehanna in Winter

digital pigment print, 2013

 

Sue Reno (b. )

In Dreams I Found Utopia

fiber, 2019

 

Patricia Hunsinger (b. )

Cause and Effect

screen print, 2014

 

Patricia Hunsinger (b. )

The River Runs Eels

screen print, 2014

 

Mark Workman (b. 1960)

River Rhythms

acrylic on paper, 2014

 

Cecily Anderson (b. )

Housekeeping, Susquehanna River

oil, river mud, gouache on canvas, 2015

 

Peter Paone (b. 1936)

Agnes Susquehanna - Born 1972

acrylic onMDF board, 2006

 

Leonard Koscianski (b. 1952)

Red Fish

oil on canvas, 2003

(not in the exhibit)

 

Top: Mark Workman (b. 1960)

Susquehanna Panorama II

acrylic on paper, 2020

 

Bottom: Mark Workman (b. 1960)

Susquehanna Panorama I

monotype, 2020

 

Rob Evans (b. 1959)

Storm Clouds, Chickies

pastel on museum board, 2018

 

Michael Allen (b. 1972)

Fallen Tree on the Susquehanna

oil on canvas, 2006

 

Carol Oldenburg (b. )

Confluence: Winter

oil on canvas, 2019

 

Brian Keeler (b. )

December Moonrise - Susquehanna at Owego, NY

oil on canvas, 2019

 

Sue Reno (b. )

52 Ways to Look at the River

fiber, 2017

 

Robert Patierno (b. 1949)

Country Classic Quarry

relief print, 2016

 

Robert Patierno (b. 1949)

Wrightsville Bridge

woodcut, 2016

 

Phyllis Koster (b. )

Ice on the Susquehanna

fiber, 2006

 

Raoul Middleman (b. 1935 )

The Old Railroad Bridge at Deer Creek

oil on canvas, 1997

Collection of Susquehanna National Heritage Area (not in the exhibit)

 

John David Wissler (b. 1963 )

Bright Downpour

oil on canvas, 2001

Private Collection (not in the exhibit)

 

Robert Andriulli (b. 1948)

Susquehanna Expulsion

oil on canvas, 2006

Private Collection (not in the exhibit)

© 2018 by Rob Evans