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Judson Smith: Woodstock Explorer in the Arts

By Bruce Weber

Andrew Dasburg (1887-1979)

Portrait of Judson Smith, 1923

Dallas Museum of Art

Judson Smith was born in Grand Haven, Michigan in 1880.(1) The family moved to Grand Rapids when he was an infant. In his late teens he ran away from home and bummed his way on freight trains to get to Detroit and study at the Detroit Art Academy, where his teachers included Joseph Gies and John Wicker. He worked as an elevator boy, janitor, and at other odd jobs to afford to get through school, and received a scholarship to attend the Art Students League in New York, but was financially unable to take advantage of this opportunity for more than a brief time.

Edward Steichen (1979-1973)

Charles Lang Freer, 1916

Frick/Sackler Archives

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

Untitled, 1898

Wash on paper

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

My Father-In-Law, 1897

Soon Smith became a protégé of the great art collector Charles Lang Freer, who sent him on to New York along with instructions to many of his artist friends. Through Freer he became acquainted with the artist John LaFarge, who took him into his studio as an apprentice, and trained him as a stained glass designer. With Freer's support in 1902 he signed up for classes at the Art Students League with John Twachtman, Kenyon Cox, and Charles Courtney Curran.

Detroit Free Press Building, c. 1917

By 1903, Smith’s student days had ended. He returned to Detroit and found work at a large decorating firm. Over the course of approximately the next 15 years he worked as a consulting architect, interior decorator and mural painter, especially of local churches and theaters, as well as several large halls at the University of Michigan, including the Hill Memorial Auditorium. For a period he ran his own decorating business in nearby Bloomfield Hills. In 1917, Smith painted five murals for the Detroit Press Building. Following this he suffered from health problems and purchased a farm, where for the next few years he rested and painted when able. He also became involved in local real estate at a time of sky-rocketing land values, and made a small fortune.

Unknown Photographer

View of Artist at Work on Woodstock Town Green, c. 1925

Historical Society of Woodstock

George Bellows (1882-1925)

The Violinist (Lila Kalman), May 1924

Exhibited at Woodstock Artists Association in 1924

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Glass Jar with Summer Squash, 1919

Woodstock Artists Association

and Museum

In 1921, Smith and his wife Mary traveled abroad. On returning the next year to America he made the acquaintance aboard ship of someone who told him about the Woodstock art colony, and assured him that the mountain town in the Catskills was the right place for him to go as an artist. After arriving in New York City he traveled to Woodstock and was impressed by the works he saw on view at the Woodstock Artists Association. Smith later related to a reporter that the paintings he viewed by George Bellows, Eugene Speicher, Andrew Dasburg, Henry Lee McFee, Charles Rosen and Konrad Cramer “convinced him, although he knew none of these artists at the time, that the community would be stimulating to him.”(2)

Mary D. Smith (1877-1967)

Hollyhocks, 1923

Graphite on paper

Historical Society of Woodstock

Judson Smith's wife Mary also found the Woodstock community stimulating. She was an artist and craftsperson, and became one of the founders of the Woodstock Guild of Craftsmen. As early as 1918, Mary began producing batiks, an Indonesian technique of wax-resistant dyeing. She continued to produce these designs on fabric, which she called table pieces, for her entire career. In 1948 she was one of the founders of the Crafts Cooperative in Woodstock, a shop located in what is today Woodstock Wine & Liquor on Tinker Street. At the Cooperative craftsmen sold their goods to help fund their work. Graphite drawings of flowers by Mary are in the collection of the Historical Society of Woodstock, including the work pictured above, which dates from 1923.

Detail of Wetterau Map of

Woodstock Artists Houses,

With Judson Smith House and Barns, 1926

Peter A. Juley and Sons

Woodstock School of Painting in

Barns of Judson Smith Property, c. 1934

In 1922, Judson and Mary and their four children settled year-round on the lower part of Ohayo Mountain Road following the purchase of the George W. Riseley farm, which had been cultivated by George's father James and grandfather Cornelius, and was located close to the center of the village. Riseley insisted Smith purchase his entire farm, and over time Smith sold off portions of the land, including to the artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi, who lived up the road.(3)

In 1930, Smith opened the Woodstock School of Painting, which he ran for 13 years in the barns on his property. The school aimed to provide training for the professional as well as a background in art for individuals of every sort. By 1940, Smith was the sole teacher at the school, and was taking only private pupils. The school closed in 1943 because of a lack of enrollment during the course of World War II when so many men were away in the service. During its 13 years of existence the institution offered classes in still life, composition, drawing, painting from life, portraiture, and landscape, as well as occasionally in sculpture. Among its faculty members were Kuniyoshi, McFee, Mattson, Rosen, Cramer, Smith, Warren Wheelock and Austin Mecklem.

View of Large Studio Barn and Former House of Judson Smith, 2019

Judson Smith Large Barn Studio, 2019

Judson Smith in Small Studio,

c. 1935

Former Small Studio of Judson Smith, 2019

View out to the Sawkill Creek, 2019

We see a contemporary view of Judson Smith’s home on Ohayo Mountain Road, and the barns that served as the smaller and larger of his two studios. The artist used the larger barn’s second floor to paint his bigger works, and a smaller studio at the back of the property with a view out to the Sawkill Creek for more modestly scaled pictures. Smith's daughters, Mary Dee and Gretchen, ran a kindergarten in one of the barns on the family property on Ohayo Mountain Road, which closed around 1997. Among the many local children who attended the school were those of Robert Carlson, son of the artist John F. Carlson.

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

Village Carpenter, 1928

Woodstock Artists Association

and Museum

George Bellows (1882-1925)

Mr. and Mrs. Philip Wase, 1924

Smithsonian Museum of American Art

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

The Blacksmith, 1933-1934

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Following the example of Eugene Speicher and George Bellows, Smith occasionally painted the local people he associated with in the area, bringing to this type of likeness a more reductive, planar, and cooler, more impersonal approach. Smith said of his fellow citizens: “City people might call them close mouthed . . . but to me they’re the finest. Really salt of the earth and able to teach a man a good many valuable lessons.”(4)

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

Woman with Tea Cup, c. 1920

Detroit Institute of Arts

Jean Metzinger (1883-1956)

Girl with Flowers, 1920

Little is known about Smith’s preoccupation with Cubism that began around 1919 and lasted for several years. Paintings such as Woman with Tea Cup are reminiscent of contemporary works by the French artist Jean Metzinger, whose book Du Cubism, written with Albert Gleizes and published in 1912, helped to promulgate Cubism as the leading style of avant-garde painting in Europe for more than a decade. Smith may have consulted Du Cubism to help him understand the theoretical foundation of Cubism, the abandonment of traditional perspective, the creation of geometric, pattern-linked compositions, the research into form, and the call for multiple perspectives of an object as a way of “truly” depicting reality.

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

Winter Window, 1919

Detroit Institute of Art

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

Still Life wth Oranges, 1920

New York State Museum,

The Historic Woodstock Art Colony:

Arthur A. Anderson Collection

In Winter Window of 1919, Smith continued to employ overlapping planes, and to emphasize flatness and transparency. Now his color is bolder and more decorative. In Still Life with Oranges of the following year, Smith’s treatment of form and space is reminiscent of Paul Cézanne. The curved back of the chair appears to merge into the background, and the space is even more tightly defined than in Winter Window, which was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art's landmark 1935 exhibition American Abstract Painting. The exhibition also included earlier abstract-oriented works by Woodstockers Cramer, McFee, and Dasburg.

Andrew Dasburg (1887-1979)

Portrait of Judson Smith, 1923

Dallas Museum of Art

Warren Wheelock (1880-1960)

The Harmonica Player, c. 1927

Undated Newspaper Clipping, The New York Times, Woodstock Artists Association Archives

Pinchos Horn (1880-after 1966)

Warren Wheelock at Work on

Lincoln Sculpture, 1939

Gelatin silver print

Archives of American Art

The Whitney display included a still life of 1923 by Dasburg that was lent to the exhibition by Smith. This loan underlines the close relationship the two artists formed in the early 1920s when Dasburg painted his portrait of Smith. Their friendship continued even after Dasburg moved permanently to New Mexico in 1927, as is documented in the correspondence between them at the Archives of American Art. Dasburg considered Smith to be one of the persons best qualified to discuss his Woodstock days. In addition to Dasburg, in the 1920s Smith was also close to the Woodstock painter and sculptor Warren Wheelock, who employed him as the model in his painting The Harmonica Player.

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

Dancer Waiting for Her Cue, 1926

Andre Derain (1880-1954)

Pierrot, 1919

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

Untitled (Water on Sawkill), c. 1930

Woodstock Artists Association and Museum

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

A Deserted Mill, 1931

Woodstock Artists Association and Museum

View from Former Judson Smith Property of Sawkill Creek

By the second half of the 1920s, Smith returned to working in a more realistic style under the inspiration of the contemporary figurative works of the French painter Andre Derain, though he did retain some of the planar forms of Cubism. Now Smith felt Cubism limited what he was striving to accomplish artistically. In around 1920, the former Fauvist Derain seriously began to look to the Old Masters and painters of the early Italian Renaissance for inspiration. He was acclaimed as the leader of a renewed classicism, and an upholder of tradition.

Under the influence of Derain, Smith’s works take on a new sense of weight, gravity and order, which is witnessed in his figurative and portrait paintings as well as in his more dynamic landscapes, such as Untitled (Water on Sawkill) and A Deserted Mill, the latter of which received first honorable mention and a prize of $300 at the Carnegie Institute’s 30th Annual International Exhibition of Paintings in 1931. For these works the artist was inspired by his views of the Sawkill Creek at the rear of his property.

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

Tug Boat (Detail), 1939

United States Treasury Department Mural

for Post Office, Albion, New York

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

Sugarloaf Mountain, 1940

United States Treasury Department Mural

for Post Office, Rockville, Maine

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

Lake George, 1942

United States Treasury Department Mural for Post Office, Lake George, New York

Charles Rosen (1878-1950)

Judson Smith, 1930s

Historical Society of Woodstock

During the course of the 1930s Smith served as the director of the Woodstock office of the Works Progress Administration, and as the regional supervisor of the Ulster County Federal Art Project. During the decade, Smith also was extremely busy as a muralist, creating murals for post offices in Albion, New York; Rockville, Maine; and Lake George, New York, as well as for Kingston's Governor Clinton Hotel. Smith lost out on the Beacon, New York, post office commission to Charles Rosen. At this time it was not uncommon for local friendships to be broken up over such commissions, but this does not appear to have been the case for Smith and Rosen, who painted Smith’s portrait and inscribed it “Just a Fan.”

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

Sunday Morning on the Docks,

Rondout Creek, 1944-1945

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

Landscape, 1944

Charcoal on paper

New York State Museum. The Historic Woodstock Art Colony:

Arthur A. Anderson Collection.

Kay Bell Reynal (1905-1977)

Bradley Walker Tomlin, 1952

Former House of Bradley Walker Tomlin, Ohayo Mountain Road,

Next Door to House of Judson Smith

In the mid-1940s Smith began to incorporate ambiguous spatial effects in his compositions, including complex patterns of reflections or blurry foregrounds and middlegrounds. Soon after this his work changed radically. His art now embraced complete abstraction. At this time Smith’s friend and next door neighbor, the first generation Abstract Expressionist painter Bradley Walker Tomlin, who helped inspire this new development, remarked “It is . . . the late work painted in very recent years that one turns to in amazement. . . . It is specifically the painting which has evolved in and around New York since 1940. . . . Working more or less in isolation Smith had little direct touch with the new painting of the last decade which in large part centered in New York. . . . A vigorous painter throughout his life his work stands with that of the present avant garde.”(5)

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

Ad Astra, 1949

Woodstock Artists

Association and Museum

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

Untitled, 1949

Collection of Ira Brandes

Bradley Walker Tomin (1899-1953)

Maneuver for Position, 1947

National Gallery of Art

Smith explained that his new motifs or themes were “composed sometimes of geometric patterns, another time a diagram of another shape or the telescoped image of diverse shapes. But all at the root are ideograms of movement in nature.”(6) He further advised that in his works of the late 1940s, such as Ad Astra (a Latin phrase meaning “to the stars”), or the closely related untitled painting above, the viewer should “not look for scenes set before your eyes but for organisms through which you travel; of the first you are a spectator, in the second you are a participant – you move with lines continually changing in plane and direction free from the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, or myth . . . . A world of space-time.”(7)

Richard Diebenkorn in U.S. Marine Corps, c. 1943-1945

Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)

Untitled, 1947

Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Walter Rosenblum (1919-2006)

Ad Reinhardt, 1953

Gelatin silver print

In addition to Tomlin, Smith developed a close friendship in Woodstock with Richard Diebenkorn, during the young artist's ten-month stay in the town from approximately November 1946 through October 1947, on an Albert Bender Grant-in-Aid fellowship from the San Francisco Art Association (which enabled young artists to travel east and be exposed to the art in New York). Diebenkorn came with his wife and child, rigorously devoted himself to painting, and availed himself of Smith's art library. He also became friendly with the Maverick art colony sculptor Raoul Hague and the Kingston-born artist Melville Price, both of whose work was linked to Abstract Expressionism. Outside of his Woodstock orbit Smith was friendly in New York City with Ad Reinhardt.

Judson Smith (1880-1962)

Untitled, 1952

Watercolor on paper

Historical Society of Woodstock

In the late 1940s and early 1950s Smith also created a series of watercolors with flat squared-off brushes, which feature grid-like structures that are primarily made up of vertical and horizontal geometric shapes that appear to hover on the surface. In these watercolors Smith favored a palette of blue-grey-white or black-grey-white. For reasons that remain unknown, Smith stopped painting entirely in 1952 after executing this abstract series of works on paper. Perhaps the decision was based (at least partially) on his age and energy level.

Sal Sirugo (1920-2013)

C-140, 1949

Casein on paper

Gwen Davies (1889-1976)

Untitled, 1955

Judson Smith Files, Woodstock Artists Association Archives

Ralph Wickiser (1910-1988)

Eros, 1960

Agnes Hart (1912-1979)

Untitled, n.d.

Woodstock Artists

Association and Museum

Smith did not remain idle. For parts of the 1950s and early 1960s he had a gallery on his property in Woodstock. Among the exhibitions held there was a show titled “New Group 1951,” which featured a mostly younger group of artists working in Woodstock in abstract directions, and included Rollin Crampton, Sal Sirugo, Gwen Davies, and Rosemarie Beck (the 100th anniversary of her birth is now being celebrated at . Smith continued to support younger as well as older abstract artists working in town or the immediate area till his death in 1962, and was instrumental in organizing the Kaaterskill Group, which exhibited in Woodstock and around the region. Among the artists in this group were Woodstockers Ralph Wickiser, Agnes Hart, Eleonore Lockspeiser and her sister Florence Weinstein (the mother and aunt of contemporary Woodstock artist Mary Frank). During his later years Smith reportedly experimented with metalwork, but examples have yet to surface.

Unknown Photographer

Judson and Mary D. Smith, 50th Anniversary Party, Nov. 7, 1953

Judson Smith People File, Historical Society of Woodstock

Smith’s support of younger artists was highly commendable at this time, when the colony’s artist population was aging, as is revealed in this photograph of 1953 picturing the attendees at the celebration of Judson Smith and his wife Mary’s 50th wedding anniversary, which includes, among others, the elder Smith, Earl B. Winslow, Margaret Goddard Carlson, Florence Ballin Cramer, John H. Striebel and Arnold Blanch, mixed in with the young artist Marianne Appel, and comparatively younger Doris Lee.

In 1981, Helen S. Serger organized an exhibition of Smith’s abstractions of the late 1940s and early 1950s at her gallery La Boetie on East 82nd Street in Manhattan. Helen and her husband, the artist Frederick B. Serger, had acquired Tomlin’s house next door to Smith on Ohayo Mountain Road, and then resided across the road. Helen was assisted in organizing the exhibition by Smith's daughters Mary Dee and Gretchen, and Sam Klein, a major figure in the Woodstock art world in the 1970s and 1980s, who played a crowning role in furthering our understanding of the historic art of the colony,

The managing salesman for a leading wholesale-retail firm in the millinery district on the West Side of Manhattan, as well as an engaged art collector, Sam Klein began coming to Woodstock in 1950, and following his semi-retirement to the town in 1972, started curating exhibitions for the Woodstock Artists Association, the Woodstock Post Office, the Historical Society of Woodstock, and the Work of Art and the Petrucci Gallery in Saugerties. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he was responsible for building much of the historical archives of the Woodstock Artists Association, and in the 1980s he was the leading force (assisted by Matthew Leaycraft) in building the fine arts collection of the Historical Society of Woodstock.

In her essay for the catalog of the Smith exhibition at La Boetie, the art historian Katherine Janszky Michaelsen categorized the adventurous directions that Smith explored in his later abstract work, noting that he simultaneously created “emblematic abstractions . . . gestural abstractions . . . all-over paintings . . . and stark compositions of tightly woven verticals and horizontals.”(8) Michaelsen also compared the work of Smith and Tomlin, and related that both created “a shallow space with a grid like structure that hovers close to the surface of the canvas,” and employed flat, squared-off brushes which imposed a restriction as they “exactly determined the width of the flat ribbons of color that make up the surface lattice. The result is a controlled calligraphy rather than the free, seemingly accidental brushstrokes typical of the Abstract Expressionist.”(9) A major unsung hero of the historic Woodstock art colony, the sweep of Judson Smith’s artistic career and range and depth of his involvements was remarkable, and long overdue for contemporary attention.

(1) The artist's middle name appears with various spellings, among them De Jonge, DeJonge, Dejonge and deJonge.

(2) "'Artists Are Not Darlings of the Gods,' Says Judson Smith," The Sunday Press, Kingston, February 20, 1938, otherwise unidentified newspaper article, Woodstock Artists Association Archives. The artist's early career in Michigan is deserving of special investigation.

(3) Tom Wolf, "Tomlin in Woodstock," essay in Bradley Walker Tomlin - A Retrospective (New Paltz, New York: Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, 2017), p. 111.

(4)"'Artists Are Not Darlings of the Gods,' Says Judson Smith."

(5) Judson Smith, "[In viewing these paintings]," Judson Smith Exhibition (Woodstock, New York: Woodstock Artists Association, 1949), n.p.

(6) Judson Smith, "[To paint not merely,]"Judson Smith Retrospective Exhibition (Woodstock, New York: Woodstock Artists Association, 1952), n.p.

(7) Bradley Walker Tomlin, "[Judson's Smith's retrospective]," Judson Smith Retrospective, n.p.

(8) Katherine Janszky Michaelson, "[untitled introduction]," Judson Smith 1880-1962 (New York: Helen Serger LacBoetie Inc., 1981), p. 4.

(9) Ibid., p. 4.

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