Eugene Ludins was a Woodstock-based artist who painted enigmatic, politically charged imaginary landscapes, which achieved some recognition in the 1930s and 1940s. He died in 1996 at age 92, having long fallen into obscurity; Abstract Expressionism had hit New York like a tsunami, triggering America’s first big art-market boom and leaving figurative artists like Ludins in the dust. Ludins, who had studied at the Art Students League before moving to Woodstock’s Maverick art colony in 1929, kept on painting. He was a professor of painting at the University of Iowa from 1948 to 1969, returning to Woodstock with his wife, sculptor Hannah Small, in the summers and permanently settling at the house and twin studios the couple owned off Chestnut Hill Road upon his retirement. He built a concrete-block bunker to store his dozens of paintings, and now, thanks to the efforts of a few of his friends, those works are finally getting their due. “Eugene Ludins: An American Fantasist,” an exhibition of 60 paintings and 30 drawings curated by Susana Torruella Leval, opened at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art on February 10.
Accompanying the exhibition is a handsome, lushly illustrated catalog with informative essays by Leval, Peter Jones, Judith Small Nash, Tom Wolf, and Avis Berman, which provide a fascinating context for Ludins’ life, from the milieu of the Woodstock art colony in the 1930s and 1940s to a critical evaluation of his paintings to a biography, starting with his parents’ immigration from Russia and his childhood growing up in the Bronx. Ludins’ coming of age as an artist in the 1920s was a different world: there was no art market, no public art education, little recognition that art was valuable. Making art was a spiritual pursuit, rather than a path to riches or God forbid, celebrity. Ludins’ commitment to his art, which was filled with pathos and private meaning, and the active role he played in the Woodstock community might prove instructive for our own jaded times.
Ludins had shown at the Whitney Studio Club, precursor to the Whitney Museum of Art, prior to moving to Woodstock, and the connection continued when he was at the Maverick. Director Juliana Rieser Force had a house in Woodstock and periodically purchased work by local artists, helping them get through the winter. One day in 1930, Force and curator Herman More visited Ludins. He wasn’t home, so they entered through the window and took a landscape, leaving $250 on the table. (The Cezannesque landscape of the industrial Hudson River waterfront is in the show, on loan from the Whitney.) As Ludins’ work matured, he exhibited regularly in major annual national shows, including the Whitney Biennial. His painting, The Valley, won a medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Annual Exhibition in 1948. His two solo shows at the Passedoit Gallery in New York in the 1940s received positive reviews; influential critic Thomas Hess, who was soon to become one of the leading proponents of Abstract Expressionism, praised Ludins’ paintings in Art News “as some of the few American landscapes which achieve representation without illustration.”
The time is perhaps ripe for a reassessment — especially for those mid-career and later works that failed to find an audience. “He’s never been put to the test,” said Leval, an art historian who was director of El Museo del Barrio from 1994 to 2001. (She and her husband are Woodstock weekenders who became close friends with Ludins and Small in the early 1980s.) “I think it’s important to relook at and rethink the history of art. While Ludins was undervalued in the 1950s through the 1980s because of abstraction, now he might be more favorably compared, given new approaches to figuration over the last two decades.”
One difficulty is that his work defies categorization. Sara Pasti, executive director of the Dorsky, said Ludins’ idiosyncratic style — perhaps a legacy of his training at the Art Students League, which at the time encouraged student artists to pursue their individualism — is actually quite typical of many American artists. “He has a cartoony style, which should be appealing to contemporary audiences, who are used to looking at graphic novels.”
Ludins painted to the beat of a different drummer, eschewing the celebratory folksiness of American Scene painting that predominated in the 1930s. Like the American Scene painters, he painted narratives, but his were dark, violent, full of clashing contradictions and politically pointed, with names like Heavy Water (a reference to the Manhattan Project) and Game of War. His turbid, stormy skies, acrid colors, dramatic contrasts of dark and light, and rough application of paint, frequently applied with a palette knife, are rooted in German Expressionism, an influence he likely picked up at the League. (It’s also possible he saw the work of George Grosz and other Weimar-era artists when he worked as an assistant ship steward at age 20 and traveled to Bremerhaven, Germany.)
Another obvious influence is Goya and the Symbolists. In her catalog essay, Leval notes the similarity of the surreal mountain forms in Ludins’ work to the romantic promontories painted by Goya and the Swiss Symbolist Arnold Bocklin. Ludins would have been introduced to both by his League teacher, Allen Tucker, and likely seen their work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Leval writes. His crowds of little people, cavorting around a gigantic, mysterious machine or participating in or blithely witnessing the catastrophes of war, echo the nightmarish panoramas of Brueghel and Bosch.
Ludins clearly identified with Van Gogh, as evidenced by the marvelous Self Portrait in Winter, in which the pipe-smoking artist, rendered in vigorous brushstrokes, resembles a salt-of-the-earth workman. His early paintings of his primitive Maverick cottage (which lacked electricity and indoor plumbing and was heated by a pot-bellied stove) recall Van Gogh’s paintings of his bedroom and chair at Arles, though the social, popular Ludins had a much happier domestic life: in Maverick Studio, a dog plops down before the big stone fireplace, and the open doorway, crowned with a self portrait of Ludins, reveals a woman asleep in bed.
In the early 1930s Ludins painted a riveting double portrait of himself and Small. (They had met in 1932 at a Maverick theater performance, fallen in love, and shortly after Small’s divorce from her husband, Austin Mecklem, another artist at the Maverick, eloped to New Mexico, before returning to Woodstock and buying the property on Chestnut Hill Road.) The portrait shows the seated couple with their dog, Popey, at their feet. Ludins’ head is romantically silhouetted against a stormy sky, framed by a large window, drawing board on his lap, while Small, looking exceptionally demure — in fact, she had a successful career as a sculptor, exhibiting in many shows and winning awards; two of her carved-wood sculptures are included in the exhibition — sits beneath a framed oval photo against a wallpapered wall. According to Leval, the contrast between the romantic depiction of the dashing young artist with the mane of red hair, who loved women, and the domestic portrayal of Small expresses Ludins’ ambivalence about settling down. (It worked out: the couple married in 1937 and were together until Small’s death in 1992.)
In 1933, Ludins had his first solo show, which included two of his allegorical landscapes. The imagery of Spring Thaw, whose centerpiece is a throne-shaped snowy promontory, its pinnacle wreathed by a Blake-like vortex of cloud, includes skaters on a frozen pond, nude bathers, a file of soldiers, military exercises observed by a white piglet, a building on fire, and, in the foreground, tiny figures raping and pillaging. Leval speculates in the catalog that the violence is a reference to the rise of Fascism in Europe. The painterly quality of the work gives it an exuberant energy, yet the forms are solid and immovable, the shifts in scale clumsy. However, it struck a note: Writing in The New Yorker, Lewis Mumford noted that the young painter “will bear watching.”
Ludins was labeled a “romantic,” which qualified two of his imaginary panoramas, Rotten Foundation and Interlude, for inclusion in a show of contemporary romantic art at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943. In Interlude, tiny figures listen to a phonograph which has been set up on a cliff top overlooking an enormous protruding pipe, which stretches into the distance. Peter Jones, an artist and retired professor of art who is executor of Ludins’ estate (he did much of the scholarship for the catalog), speculated that the pipe was inspired by Ludins’ impressions of the Panama Canal, which he saw on an impromptu trip to Panama.
Leval notes that Ludins particularly excelled at painting snow, which perhaps accounts for the peculiar appeal of New Lands: the oddly scaled glacier upon which the tiny explorers rest or survey the arctic landscape is strangely weightless, a ghost mountain that serves as a mirror for the stony crags. Guerrillas, one of the most successful landscapes, is a Brueghel-like snow panorama in which the sinuous curve of a stream and line of soldiers leads the eye into the distance, where a hilltop settlement is in flames; the snow and mass of smoke contrast dramatically with the midnight blue sky, creating a crisp demarcation.
As a Russian-born progressive Jew whose family immigrated to America a few months after Ludins was born in 1904 — Jews were unable to own property in the city of Mariupol, Ukraine, where the family lived, and the Bolshevik uprising had spurred the first pogroms — the artist was perhaps especially tuned in to the zeitgeist of the times. His paintings are like waking nightmares, nonsensical, but infused with anxiety. (Some of his titles from the 1940s—Rotten Foundations, Oil Riches, and Carbon Black—seem particularly prescient of the challenges facing the world today.)
During World War II, Ludins served as the field director for the American Red Cross in Okinawa, experiencing one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific. “When he came back, his painting was more focused, and from 1946 to 1960, he painted with obsessive intensity,” said Leval. The paintings became more monumental, the figures larger, often huddled in groups, like war refugees, in paint-smeared, elemental landscapes confronting some strange phenomenon — a pack of black, panther-like slinking beasts, or a giant chalkboard with indecipherable marks. His war experiences seep into the imagery: In Suspicion, for example, painted in 1951 and 1952, the spidery tree trunks and branches silhouetted against the ominous orange sky resemble the bomb-blasted trees in a war photo in Ludin’s possession.
Some of the most compelling works in the show are Ludins’ drawings, including the ones made during his wartime experiences. They are refreshingly spontaneous, showing the soldiers doing routine tasks around the barracks. Indeed, the pen and ink drawings, sometimes supplemented with a wash, reveal Ludins’ superb talents as a draftsman. His supple line can describe any form with ease — a bare, foreshortened foot, a Rubenesque nude, gun-toting duelists, a couple departing in a boat. The subjects range from the tragic to the comic: In one Goya-like sketch, entitled Putsch, dark, loosely drawn lines describe a scene of amazing complexity — soldiers carrying off the dead in an urban street, a crowd, grieving and demonstrating figures. In another sketch, entitled Sweetbreads, a thin, delicate line depicts two hooded figures at a table, while a frazzled chicken, harried rooster, and skinny dog, with a tail like a black brush, look on. With minimal means, Ludins describes a convincing space animated by barks, squawks, and the mysterious concentration of the human figures. There are domestic and romantic dramas, tabletop showdowns, animals emerging out of ink blobs, a robbery with Steinberg-like masked figures. Ludins’ drawings capture life as astutely as does the Japanese master Hokusai.
In the 1960s, his palette lightened in a series of pastorals, suggestive of a more buoyant mood. Regenerator depicts another humongous machine, but it is more ornamental and whimsical than the oppressive contraptions he painted previously and echoes the poses of the people seated in background, on the seaside cliffs. Meadow features a Picasso-like bull in the foreground, while the rocket in To Space resembles a funereal-like tombstone, its lone form a striking contrast to the strolling couples in the landscape. The figures are roughly delineated in patches of paint or suggested in a few limpid lines, yet invested with character of cartoon-like intensity. They are more integrated into the ground, seeming to emerge from the luminous atmosphere. Their poses are peaceful and leisurely, like the dreamy figures in a Watteau, and there is a sense of poetic timelessness.
The show also contains samples of Ludins’ plein air landscapes, which he made on trips down to the Mississippi River, Gulf Coast and the coast of Maine and Nova Scotia. The paintings depict cities or a horizon of land floating in an atmosphere of light, with a bit of grass in the foreground, often punctuated with a figure or boat. The elemental drama of the vast, luminous sky, sometimes underlined by a smoldering sunset, and reflected in the expanse of sea, has a raw, discomfiting quality.
Besides being an American original, Ludins was also a key figure in the Woodstock artists’ community, Pasti noted. He played baseball on the team founded by George Bellows — a talented player, Ludins had played on the upstate New York Farm Team of the American League as a teenager — and participated in the Woodstock Artists Association shows shortly after moving to the Maverick. In the 1930s, he was head of the Ulster County Artists’ Union, which was formed to lobby for jobs and money for unemployed artists, and later that year was appointed supervisor for the newly formed Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, serving Ulster County. One of his achievements in this position was the launch of the “Art Caravan,” a refurbished World War I ambulance used for traveling art shows of local artists’ work. A series of photographs in the show depict an Art Caravan worker unloading the folding screens and paintings from the van and setting up a show on the Village Green.
After the war, Ludins was elected chair of the Woodstock Artists Association’s Board of Directors, a position that qualified him as a “village elder.” He was also a talented frame maker — a source of income in the early years. (Ironically, his frames have fetched more money than his paintings, sometimes selling for thousands of dollars.) Ludins made his last landscape painting expedition in 1993, active nearly to the end of his life.
Jones recalled that Ludins “was one of the best liked people in Woodstock. He was physically imposing. Women were drawn to him even when he was in the hospital. People didn’t believe he was 90.” Jones, who studied with Ludins at the University of Iowa, said “not descriptions of life, but experiences of emotion interested him.” Ludins laid out colors on his palette — one is exhibited in the show — so that he could easily “discover a color he wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.”
The deceased painter would undoubtedly be thrilled with this comprehensive exhibit of his work. The show represents an unusual opportunity for viewers to look with fresh eyes upon a body of work that hasn’t been previously sifted by the critics, pre-packaged by an army of collectors, historians, and tastemakers, and digested by the public. One experiences the work with unpremeditated directness and is forced to analyze and honestly assess its impact using one’s own judgment. Perhaps Ludins’ paintings will strike people as quaint anachronisms, but then again, in today’s post-modernist world, where anything goes, Ludins’ work just might resonate, just might take.
The Dorsky Museum of Art is located at SUNY-New Paltz. “Eugene Ludins: An American Fantasist” is on view through July 12. Hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm. Advance copies of the catalogs are available for purchase at The Dorsky. The price is $35/copy, not including membership and other discounts. Copies will be available for purchase elsewhere and on-line at SUNY Press beginning in April.
Lynn Woods is a freelance writer, art critic, and painter. She is co-author of Adirondack Style: Great Camps and Rustic Lodges (Universe Rizzoli), has lectured on Prohibition at the Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake, and is currently researching the history of urban renewal in the Rondout district of Kingston, where she lives. She has a B.A. in art history from Barnard College. Samples of her writings and paintings can be found on her web site, www.kingstonstudio.com.