Claverack Library artist series closes with Bill Sullivan

April 15, 2010 | Register-Star

By Francesca Olsen

Bill Sullivan’s work has taken him to Colombia, to Times Square, to Niagara Falls, to Olana, and more.

A current resident of Hudson, it’s been said that Sullivan “has painted the Hudson River with such assiduity and inventiveness that he has earned the right to be called the painter of the Hudson River in the 20th century.”

Sullivan is the final featured artist in the Claverack Free Library’s “Local Art and Artists” series April 18 at 3 p.m. Admission is free and the event will take place in the lower level of the A.B. Shaw Firehouse, adjacent to the library on the corner of Routes 9H and 23B in Claverack.

Sullivan was born in 1942 and decided he was going to be a painter at age 12. In 1958 he took a summer job in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he met Claes Oldenberg, the first of a long series of artists, writers and academics who would enrich his life and shape his career.

“I made up my mind and just never looked back,” he said. “When people don’t know what they want to do, they become victims of circumstance.”

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Sullivan has said he used to “hang around” Yale Art School, and later attended Silvermine College of Art in New Canaan, where much of the faculty was made up of former Yale students who worked under former Yale art department head Joseph Albers.

Through school at Silvermine, Sullivan and a handful of other students were given an opportunity to study privately with Albers’ wife, Anni, at their home.

Anni, who Sullivan has referred to as his “guardian angel”, recommended he study with Neil Welliver. “He used to say he was my father,” Sullivan said.

“Working with these two people was life changing for me in a lot of ways,” he continued. Thanks to the influence of Albers and Welliver, Sullivan was admitted to the MFA program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Living in New York City in the 1960s and 70s, Sullivan came of age “with people who were kind of bringing realism back. I came up with some very good artists and painters.”

Sullivan’s biography was written by Jaime Manrique, originally from Colombia, who was recently named the official writer of the Caribbean. They met in New York City in 1977. “The first night we met each other all we talked about was Frederic Church,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan was an early admirer of Church’s work, and has to date painted landscapes at Olana, and other landscapes painted by Church, hundreds of times. Olana didn’t become an accessible historic site until the late 1960s, and viewing Church’s work in the United States before then was nearly impossible.

The first major Church show wasn’t held until 1966, at an exhibition at the National Collection of the Smithsonian Institution and the Albany Institute of History and Art. Consequently, a retrospective of Sullivan’s work was featured at the Albany Institute in 2006.

Church painted landscapes in Colombia, and Sullivan and Manrique traveled to Bogota together in 1978, where Sullivan painted what Church painted. Manrique’s first-person chapter in his biography of Sullivan reads: “(Bill) was embarking on a great adventure, determined to follow the tracks of Frederic Church around South America.”

In the 1980s, Sullivan returned to New York City and rented an apartment on 43rd Street near Times Square; he lived near Times Square for 22 years and frequently visited Olana. He also painted Niagara Falls, which Church had painted.

“I found two things there no one in the 19th century could have seen,” he said. Those things were aerial views and multicolor night lighting, which inspired landscapes of Niagara in striking, loud colors, “a pretty bizarre take on what had been a classic 19th century thing.”

Sullivan said for most of his career, “people found my paintings a little disturbing.” After a landlord dispute, he moved to Hudson in 2001.

“Hudson was the last place I was thinking of,” he said.

When asked what he thinks of the changes on Warren Street since then, Sullivan said, “it’s not as different as it was 20 years ago. At one point, Warren Street was just closed up. Now it’s a rather unique little place. It’s got some really surprising things to it.”

The multiple award-winning poet John Ashbery, who is also a Hudson resident, is a long-time friend of Sullivan’s. On Sullivan’s Web site, the first biographical piece is by Ashbery. “With only a tinge of irony, Bill Sullivan makes new the vast spaces and swooning optimism of nineteenth century Luminist painting,” it begins.

Ashbery “says my paintings look unreal because I choose to paint things that don’t look real in the first place,” Sullivan said.

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