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The Hudson River School's Nature Show : Hudson River

December 13, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

NEW YORK — It was frankly fall. Trees in Central Park were red and yellow and nobody--especially an out-of-towner--went anywhere without an overcoat, although you didn't always have to wear it. East Coast weather is tricky for a Southern Californian. It does weird things, like being colder at 5 o'clock than at 10. California may be crazy, but there is a certain predictability to the weather. The evenings just get cooler and cooler, they don't fool you.

It's colder in the park than on the streets. They say it's because the wind blowing off the Hudson hits the buildings on Fifth Avenue and swoops back across the park, doubling the chill. It's like the great court of Paris' Louvre in winter, colder than a headwaiter.

If you walk to the Metropolitan Museum from the West Side you crunch along on a blanket of dead leaves--all the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray; I went for a walk on a winter's day. Occasional kids in kapok vests bustle by quickly with short steps, but the park is pretty deserted. When you get inside the Met's Great Hall you wonder where everybody came from. There's a big line at the coat check. Easterners have to fiddle with a lot of gear all winter, but there is something comforting about having the museum take care of your coat--it's free, and it seems gracious, like the big banks of fresh cut flowers under the vaulted ceilings.

The Met is like a vast railway depot where tracks lead off to every corner of history. Metroliner now departing on track three for Ancient Egypt. All aboard. It's smart to know your destination or you wander around and get a bad case of art-lag. Today it's the American wing with its marble neo-classical bank facade and glassed-in court where you can smoke and look at architectural bits from Louis Sullivan, stained glass by John Lafarge and nude sculpture by Bill MacMonnies, who was saucy and French, or Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose "Diana" is like one of those streamlined gorgeous iceberg New York preppies in the dignified buff.

The main show is "American Paradise," which deals with the birth of the Hudson River School, the first native landscape movement. Before the Civil War it grew to eminence, then finally fizzled out, only to be resuscitated in the '60s. By now its leading lights are once again well known thanks to noble scholarship, Post-Mod taste for the traditional and the smarmy standard of auction prices. Frederic Church's great "Icebergs" set a record price of over $2 million in 1980 and other pioneers like Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole are firmly back in fashion, along with the group now called the Luminists, who were yanked from historical oblivion by a great exhibition at the National Gallery. The present show, conceived by Met American experts John Howat and Lewis Sharp, is a broad survey in some 80 pictures, on view to Jan. 3.

It's curious to watch exhibition viewers paying such avid attention to pictures that seem to depict landscape they could look at by just going outdoors. The Hudson itself is only a half-hour hike away, and there are beach views you could find by taking a drive toward New England. A lot of familiar East Coast real estate here. Why look at pictures?

Why indeed. Partly it's the magic of paint that everybody

senses, the fun of seeming to see reality when you know in your heart it's all just a bunch of sticky colored mud transformed by artistic sorcery. Partly it's the reality of change of course--we've wantonly destroyed great swaths of what's depicted here. Mostly, however, we want to look at the way people felt about the American landscape. These artists painted with an attitude of optimism and reverent wonder about American possibilities that has long since guttered into the flickering candle-nub of a vague dream, half recalled. Here is the real stuff that Reagan-era optimism tried to revive. We just substituted shopping on the mall for searching for the dream.

Here is a rightly famous painting by Durand called "Kindred Spirits." It shows the heroic landscape painter Cole in conversation with the transcendental poet William Cullen Bryant. They are tiny figures standing on an outcropping overlooking a Catskill mountain gorge. The Catskills are nobody's idea of a grandiose range but here they look sublime, and somehow pose a question as to whether the two thoughtful figures are equal to their setting. Early landscape art indicates that our forefathers felt intimidated by the magnificent oversize country they had invaded, and continued to do so until they could tame Old Faithful into kitsch and turn Niagara Falls into the butt of dirty honeymooner jokes.

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