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A Neglected American Artist : Play pays homage to painter Albert Pinkham Ryder.

June 03, 1994|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes about theater for The Times

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Albert Pinkham Ryder may be the most famous American artist you've never heard of.

"I found it impossible to find anything about him in Los Angeles," Michael Holmes said. "There are no books in the libraries, nothing in the County Museum. So I went to New York, where there was also nothing on display, no prints available. He's not at the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney, the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art. Really, he's quite neglected. But during his time, he was considered the foremost American painter, second only to Winslow Homer."

So how did Ryder (1847-1917) fall into such obscurity?

"Fashion," Holmes said with a sigh. "Also, his paintings are very small--he often painted on the backs of cigar boxes, because he liked the glow of cedar. But he never signed them, so after he died, there were a lot of forgeries; it was difficult to tell which were the real ones. Also, he had training as an artist, but no proper technique. He would shellac a painting before it dried--and it would run, the paintings would begin to shift or crack. So it limited his output."

Holmes discovered the artist as a child in Texas, coming upon a reproduction of Ryder's painting "The Racetrack" in one of his parents' art books.

"It really stuck in my head," said the actor-writer-director-teacher, who founded the 30-seat Chandler Studio Theater in 1987. "He was a sweet man, a genius, and his were poetic, visionary works. They changed the face of American painting." Holmes pays homage in his new five-character play "Ryder," which will have two previews, Saturday and Sunday, as part of this weekend's NoHo Festival, before settling into its regular run next Friday.

Holmes has assembled the show's dialogue from imagination and from Ryder's own words in correspondence with friends, art dealers and family. "A lot of the play has to do with internal monologue," Holmes said.

The action takes place in a variety of locales: in Ryder's squalid New York apartment, on a steamer in the middle of the Atlantic, at a Manhattan art gallery, in a hotel, at the docks.

"He rarely went out, except for midnight walks to the docks," Holmes said. "He grew up in New Bedford, (Mass.), and his brothers were whalers; most of his paintings were seascapes. But his abilities started to go in his 40s."

Joseph Dean Vachon, a longtime acting student of Holmes, is playing Ryder.

"At the time he was painting, Europe was the center of the art world," Vachon said. "America was new, as was the art scene--working in the shadow of the Europeans, trying to meet their standards and be accepted. Ryder was not interested in that. His only responsibility was to the canvas, and to his inner vision. Most of his paintings came from that inner life. As time went on, they came more and more from his mind, what he considered the truth. I think he's a real find, a real gem. Somehow through history, he just got lost."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Ryder."

Location: Chandler Studio Theater, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: Previews Saturday and Sunday. Opens June 10 and plays at 8 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. Ends July 17.

Price: $12.50; $6.25 for previews.

Call: (818) 780-6516.

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