In a 1986 Times Union article about the arts in the Capital Region, critic Ken Johnson (now of The New York Times) credits the University at Albany’s creation of an art department in the 1950s, under the direction of Ed Cowley, as beginning “a Golden Age of contemporary art, which has continued to gain luster up to the present.”
The exhibition now at Albany Center Gallery through Aug. 31, “Then and Now: Ed Cowley,” presents a wonderful survey of the career of an artist who has put an indelible stamp on the region.
The work in the show ranges from 1939, an oil painting Cowley made as a teenager showing a boy praying before bed called “Regular Fella,” to this century, including the 2002 Altamont Fair poster, celebrating the event’s 100th anniversary. The media used also include watercolor, pastels, stained glass, glass and metals in sculptures and jewelry.
The pieces that stand out strongest are the paintings. “Drogheda,” from 1956, for example, is a landscape of the town just north of Dublin that recalls both the post-impressionism of Cezanne, and the heavy lines of abstract impressionism. The center of the canvas is filled with blocks of muted blues and greens for walls, roofs, sky and land, their limits defined by thick black lines. A lamppost on one side and posts for power lines on another frame the town, and beyond that frame the painting becomes more abstract, the paint thinner and blotchy, the white of the canvas showing through in parts, and lines for some kind of architectural detail looking like an incomplete sketch, though a satisfying picture.
That combination of detail and abstraction stands out in his 1963 work, “Crossing,” which includes heavy lines in strong verticals in such things as utility poles and a raised railroad crossing arm.
The combination is perhaps most successful in the 1974 painting “Lincoln Avenue,” which foregrounds the thick black lines of shadows cast by tall, leafless trees over a street, which is bordered by small houses with white siding and green roofs. In a way, it is through the representational elements of houses, trees and light that Cowley puts the viewer’s focus squarely on the abstract, an abstraction that appears accidental and fleeting, created in a moment when the sun hits branches and turns the manmade street into a space not for cars or even people, but for art.
These paintings reveal a fascination with form and structure that show the stained glass — often of buildings — to be a continuation of Cowley’s art.
The exhibit as a whole works well to build a sense of the artist and his connections to places in Ireland and in Altamont, where he lives. This is especially true in a room devoted to fair-based works, such as the Puck Fair and the Altamont Fair.
Albany Center Gallery and its creative director, Tony Iadicicco, deserve a lot of credit for putting this together, not only to celebrate an artist while he can still enjoy it (Cowley is in his late 80s), but also to bring a bit of the Capital Region’s art history to younger generations of artists who may be indebted to the Cowley’s many accomplishments.
“Then and Now: Ed Cowley”
When: though Aug. 31; hours: noon-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Where: Albany Center Gallery, 39 Columbia St., Albany
Info: 462-4775; http://www.albanycentergallery.org