He’s considered by many the father of American modern art, and yet I’d never heard of him until visiting the New Bedford Whaling Museum this October. I was stunned and mesmerized by what I saw, and astonished I’d never seen his work before. The exhibit “A Wild Note of Longing” was aptly named. The wildness of his images, the sense of mystery and romance, evokes a kind of longing of the spirit, of the heart, for something that lies just beyond our reach.
”Have you ever seen an inch worm crawl up a leaf or twig,” Ryder once wrote, ”and then, clinging to the very end, revolve in the air, feeling for something to reach something? That’s like me. I am trying to find something out there beyond the place on which I have a footing.”
Apparently I’m not alone in that feeling of being struck by lightning when I first discovered Ryder’s paintings so unexpectedly (in a whaling museum!). The Flying Dutchman was the first painting I saw walking into the gallery. Since coming home I’ve being doing research and came across a lecture given by artist Bill Jensen on his first encounter with Ryder’s work: “[I] rounded a corner and discovered five small Ryder paintings salon hung. I felt as if I had been hit by lightning. I had never seen paintings that had such PRESENCE.”
‘I was struck by a LIGHT that seemed to burn from deep within them. I was struck by the painting’s intense DRAMA: their EMOTIONAL AND INTELLECTUAL GESTURING of every shape, every mark, every color to every shape, mark, and color; their weight of immense DENSITY and in the next instant their WEIGHTLESSNESS. They had a feeling that time had been COMPRESSED. They had that “SLAP IN THE FACE REALITY” that reveals powerful INVISIBLE FORCES in and around us. These paintings seem to be constructed of LIVING TISSUE.’ [Emphasis his. You can read the rest of his lecture notes here.]
Of course I’ve always been drawn to images of ships at sea, and that’s part of the appeal. There’s so much drama here, so much movement, you can almost hear the waves beating against the hull, the shrieking of the wind in the sails, feel your body hefted by the waves as you grasp at the rails, mesmerized by the beauty and the wildness of it all.
I wrote a poem once called Night Howl about being on a hurricane watch aboard La Gitana one night in Pago Pago, Samoa. These images remind me of that poem and that night, and so many other moonlit nights at sea.
I wrote in that blog post: “Human consciousness is the mirror through which the universe sees and knows itself, and through which we see and know ourselves—the fullness of being, our primal past and present standing face to face.” That’s what I see in Ryder’s paintings, but it’s not just the sea images that move me. It’s also his use of color and composition, the elemental shapes and striking contrasts, the way light seems to emerge out of the paintings, and the themes he choses, so many drawn from myth and legends.
Below are a few more favorites, including what is considered his masterpiece–Jonah.
Some say Ryder is a painter of dreams. But as Jensen says in his notes on Ryder: “This can be misleading unless one understands that dreams are reality condensed.” This is true of the myths and legends and Biblical stories that he uses as points of departure to reveal what lies below the surface of our common day experience—that “something more” we yearn for that lies so tantalizingly just beyond the reach of our fingertips.