A Conceptual Journey

For in this long digression which I was accidentally led into, as in all my digressions (one only excepted) there is a master-stroke of digressive skill, the merit of which has all along, I fear, been overlooked by my reader, not for want of penetration in him but because it is excellence seldom looked for, or expected indeed, in a digression. And it is this: That tho’ my digressions are all fair, as you observe,—and that I fly off from what I am about, as far and as often too as any writer in Great Britain; yet I constantly take care to order affairs so, that my main business does not stand still in my absence.
— The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Recently I moved to Stuyvesant, New York, a small farming community, about 25 miles south of Albany on the Hudson River.  I used to live in Bushwick, Brooklyn.  Peter Stuyvesant, the last Director General of the Dutch colony of New Netherlands, named the area Boswijck in 1661.

In 1644, Stuyvesant lead an assault on a Spanish fort in the Caribbean.  A cannonball destroyed his lower right leg, which was gruesomely amputated.  He was then given his signature wooden leg.  And the sound of his wooden leg, reportedly, can still be heard tapping against his coffin at night. His other remains are all over New York City. A high school, a street, a barrio, statuary.

Stuyvesant greatly expanded the settlement of New Amsterdam.  He built the protective wall on Wall Street, a canal that became Broad Street, the lower part of what became Broadway, and the location of Time Square stretching fifteen miles from lower Manhattan through the Bronx into Westchester County.

A strong supporter of the supremacy of the Dutch Reformed Church, he did not tolerate religious freedom in the colony. Lutherans were refused the right to organize a church.

He attempted to force Jews from the colony, fearful that if Jews were accepted in New Amsterdam, other persecuted groups such as Roman Catholics might be attracted to the colony. Finally, he agreed that they could remain subject to onerous restrictions including not being allowed to build a synagogue.

Not satisfied, Stuyvesant imposed fines and imprisonment on anyone guilty of harboring Quakers. In 1657, he ordered the public torture of an influential preacher, Robert Hodgson, a 23-year-old Quaker convert. And he was a major slave-owner in a city that, for part of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, had more slaves than any other city on the continent.

Returning to more pleasant, sylvan matters, we note that in 1609, three years before Peter Stuyvesant was born, Henry Hudson traveled the river named after him as far as what we now know as Stuyvesant.

The Hudson River was important to the people who lived near it.  The Indians traveled it long before Hudson. Then the Dutch reexplored the river.  Later, sloops sailed between New York City and Stuyvesant, a fourteen-day round trip. The river was the link to the world carrying first beaver pelts and then agricultural products.  From 1820 to 1938 a ferry crossed the Hudson between the Newton Hook area of Stuyvesant and Coxsackie.  This spring I began fishing for striped bass at Newton Hook and I can see the river from my house. Ships now carry cement, oil and I fear to think what else.

I have not been able to determine if the town was named after Peter Stuyvesant but it appears likely.  In any event I am living in an area that is full of history and I am now exploring its artistic and cultural offerings. Recently I found old nails, horseshoes and parts of kitchen utensils in the garden of my 1750 house.

However, occasionally, I do need to return to New York City.  I am here now for a few days and I have found some very interesting things to think about here. There is the exhibit of Ellsworth Kelly’s photography, a major show of the work of David Hammons, and finally a show of the monotypes of Edgar Degas. Very few cities would have these three shows running at the same time and have them be only a small part of its cultural offerings. Certainly not Stuyvesant, a historical curiosity surviving without galleries, bookstores, poetry readings, film festivals and a Starbucks.  And, interestingly, its population of four-legged creatures exceeds the two-legged population. This is believed to explain the very low crime rate, although I recently saw a Confederate flag and many posters demanding the repeal of the S. A. F. E. Act (New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013), and fewer posters supporting Bernie Sanders.

Perhaps Degasmight find solace in the view of the Hudson River. But I am not sure he would be content here particularly after having been deacquisitioned by MoMA. On the other hand, he would be happy to know that he is back at that august institution.

Degas spent time in the United States. He visited family in New Orleans in 1872 and did some paintings while there.

I believe he also spent a few days in New York City. I have a book of his letters in which he wrote about his travels but the book is either in a box here in Stuyvesant or in storage, so I must, sadly, rely on memory.

Less well known is the fact that his ancestors included descendants of Free Blacks. Unlike the Jeffersonian model-based on ownership and rape, this part of his lineage was the result of a consensual relationship between Vincent Rillieux and Constance Vivant.

Degas’ great-grandfather, Vincent Rillieux, captured an English ship during the American Revolution. His crew of fourteen made a clamor sufficient to suggest a much larger force and made prisoners of its fifty-six soldiers. He constructed a large house on Royal Street, now occupied by Brennan's Restaurant, one of New Orleans’ toniest eateries famous for sumptuous breakfasts, Bananas Foster and Bloody Bull cocktails.

Rillieux's son and namesake had a longstanding relationship, called plaçage, with a free woman of color, Constance Vivant.

Plaçage was an extralegal system in the French colonies of North America whereby European men entered into the equivalent of common-law marriages with African, Native American and mixed-race women.  The women, known as placées, were not legally wives.  The relationships could be formalized with contracts. Property could be settled on the woman and she and her children, if slaves, could be freed.

As Frederick Law Olmsted, visiting New Orleans during the 1850s said, “they form so strong attachments, that the arrangement is never discontinued, but becomes, indeed, that of marriage, except that it is not legalized or solemnized."

Harriet Martineau reported that the girls resulting from such liaisons were raised "to be what they [i.e., the mothers] have been, the mistresses of white gentlemen. The boys are some of them sent to France."

Norbert became a leading chemical engineer. His work transformed the sugar industry. The records in the City Hall read: "Norbert Rillieux, quadroon libre, natural son of Vincent Rillieux and Constance Vivant. Born March 17, 1806. Baptized in St. Louis Cathedral by Pere Antoine."

Norbert was sent off to Paris and by 1830, at the age of 24. He was an instructor in applied mechanics at the Ecole Centrale, having published important papers on steam engines and steam power. In 1833 he returned to New Orleans. He pursued land speculation and other enterprises including the design of a sewer system for the city.  According to Charles Rousseve in his book The Negro in Louisiana "Local authorities refused to accept" Rillieux's plan because "sentiment against free people of color had become sufficiently acute to prohibit the bestowing of such an honor upon a member of this group." Norbert returned to Paris in the early 1860s.

Degas (1834-1917) and Norbert (1806-1894) were contemporaries who shared some interesting characteristics.  Norbert was a difficult personage, gruff and sharp-tongued and impatient with fools, just like his cousin the painter. It is not known whether they sought one another out.

Norbert died in 1894 at the age of 89, and was buried in Pere Lachaise, with the inscription, Ici reposent Norbert Rillieux ingenieur civil a la Nouvelle Orleans 18 Mars 1806/ decede a Paris le 8 Octobre 1894/ Emily Cuckow, Veuve Rillieux 1827-1912

Below are photos of both men. Which is which?


Degas is miscast as a painter and sculptor of petite ballerinas. In fact, he was a ferociously opinionated anti-Semite, a misogynist and political reactionary. He was also a fearless experimenter. No one knows how many works of art failed to survive because of the techniques he was exploring. Thus we will never know the true extent of his genius.

In the mid-1870s Degas began making monotypes, starting with ink on a plate that was then put through a press. Usually one print was the result.

Demanding spontaneity that often leads to improvisation, monotypes are made with brush (both ends), rags, fingers, whatever is available.  Speed is essential. The first impression from each plate is unique; if more versions, called cognates, are printed from the same plate, the images will be increasingly indistinct but also unique.

Degas enhanced his monotypes with pastel. He experimented with heavily pigmented oil paint.

Viewable at MoMA are 120 monotypes in addition to about half as many prints, paintings, pastels, charcoal drawings and photos. Three sketchbooks are on view and can be flipped through digitally. There are landscapes, washerwomen, models, bordellos, all of Degas’s mature subjects.

Degas wrote in one of his letters, “Nothing pleases me more than the black women of all shades, holding little white children, so very white, in their arms, against white houses with columns of fluted wood and in gardens of orange trees, and ladies in muslin against the fronts of their little houses…” Yet other than an indistinct figure in one painting, there was no recognition of blacks, either slaves or the free. Was it that the European underclass of prostitutes, washerwomen and models were acceptable symbols of oppression but black slaves were not? Were they too close to home?


Did his white relatives talk about the Rillieux family or see them? We do not know. We do know that his vaunted skill as an eye that unflinchingly saw everything had a blind spot?

The exhibition is a beautiful tribute to a maker of modernism and will be one of the major shows of 2016. The show comes down on July 24, 2016. A gambler would bet on an extension. Ellsworth Kelly, who died recently, lived in Spencertown, New York.  Spencertown is located a short distance from where I live.  There is no known relationship between my family name, Spencer, and Spencertown. In any event, Degas in France and Elsworth Kelly in the United States and perhaps France, experimented with photography. In 1862, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and a group of French artists and French intelligentsia signed a petition denouncing the “industrial” method as an unartistic abomination. Degas was not among the signatories.

Further downtown from MoMA, at the Matthew Marks Gallery, is the first ever exhibition of Kelly’s photographs. While too often photos are still considered an invasion of industrial exactitude into the free-form art world, the photography of Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Félix Vallotton, Edouard Vuillard and more recently Rauschenberg and Warhol continue to amaze because of their inexactitude. Any aficionado of Court TV knows that photos lie. Of course, that is another subject.

Is it possible to make an enduring art of pure shape and pure color in the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Centuries?  Reacting against what he considered pumped-up AbEx masters, Kelly tried and in part succeeded. Whether his reputation exceeds his contribution is for time to tell. However, a look at a selection of his photos is a good place to start.

The recently deceased Ellsworth Kelly began using a camera in 1950 and now we can see gelatin silver prints made over forty years.

His photos of unadorned structures, barns and other buildings, flattened because of a lack of shadows and other depth-creating techniques, appear to be floating hard-edges planes, often patterned but without convincing texture.


A master framer, Minimalist and denier of metaphor, Kelly’s black and white geometry is everywhere and everything. Strips, triangles, squares and rectangles remain as the underlying objects disappear. The thirty photos are, to my eye, uneven. Some could be anyone’s cropped photos. Others strike me as artsy. And the lack of content becomes overwhelming. Why, for example, are there no references to the world he live in? No social conservative can be offended by what is visible in his art.

This brings me to David Hammons who famously said, “I can’t stand art actually. I’ve never, ever liked art.” And indeed he didn’t and doesn’t. I assume he did not have Kelly in mind. However, he knows that the sacrosanct, the palaver of art, is always symbols. Intangible and fungible, they are useful as vessels crying out for content. They are the playthings of saint and sinner, of politician and magician and of artists who transmogrify them, extending their usefulness into the quotidian. What he makes of this can be seen at Mnuchin Gallery, 45 E. 78th St., New York.

Hammons’ early pieces from the Sixties in Los Angeles include a series of life-size body-prints created from oil-smeared bodies, his own among them, leaving imprints on paper. Not in the show but, for a good example, see below, Boy With Flag:


Later, in the 1980s, he retailed snowballs on the Bowery and made sculptures from hair found on the floor of Harlem barbershops. In Brooklyn he built a three-story basketball hoop. No trendy galleries here, but enough elusive content—bizarre, droll, cutting and unforgettable—to define the racist underbelly of America in which Peter Stuyvesant lived and prospered. The same underbelly that Degas wrote about and never painted.

His assemblages used materials found in urban black life, including a patterned wall sculpture of hundreds of beer and soft-drink bottle caps and the ripped off hood of a hoodie exhibited like a stuffed animal on a wall.

Or “Which Mike do you want to be like…?”  Jackson, Jordan and Tyson? But who can reach these super high microphones?


Basketball is another uncertain route up and out. The hoop mentioned above has been reduced from three stories to gallery size featuring ropes of  cut-glass beads:

Hammons’ recent work deals with the history of art, or rather subverts it. His vigorous, light-infused abstractions whose lushness he then denies us, are often obscured by old bedding, crumpled plastic sheets, and material from construction sites.  Mirrors with baroque gilded frames are partially covered with street detritus.

In this exhibition we are led, or better said, marched by the artist, as in a multi-venue performance piece, through his concerns. If you understand the show to speak about the failure of contemporary art to be relevant, you will want to return to this concept again and again to see the mind of David Hammons as it works its way through the tragedy that is the human history of the United States. And this history is unavoidable as he looks at our symbols and turns them against us so we are forced to see the reality they hide.

Hammons bought a warehouse in southwest Yonkers where he plans to open a new art gallery. Yonkers lays on land that was purchased in 1645 by Adriaen van der Donck, the first lawyer in New York City. (This was one year after Stuyvesant lost his leg leading an assault on a Spanish fort in the Caribbean.) Van der Donck was known as the Jonkheer or Jonker which meant young lord. The city was named after him. His property was subsequently acquired by Frederick Philipse who went on to acquire enormous tracts of land and to become one of the wealthiest men in the Dutch Colony. Philipse’s other activities included slave trading which he often did in partnership with Adam Baldridge, who, in addition, was a pirate.

Baldridge created a haven for pirates in Madagascar and supplied them with the goods necessary to pursue their trade in exchange for high fees. Baldridge lived well on the island and had his own harem. However, he was forced to flee after it was discovered that he had sold a group of natives as slaves.

Frederick Philipse was a self-made man initially selling iron nails. Subsequently, he began a new career as a landowner. His accumulated holdings became Philipsburg Manor that contained about 52,000 acres, much of present day lower Westchester County.

Below is a map showing the extent of the Philipsburg Manor.


Map of Philipsburg Manor

Philipse died in 1702. Buried with his two wives in the crypt of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, he is best remembered for his belief that “It is by negros that I find my chievest Profitt. All other trade I only look upon as by the by.”

What is it that makes this odd threesome so interesting? Blackness in America is part of the answer. Degas was surrounded by it and did not paint it. Other than as a color there was no place for it in Kelly’s pure art. And Hammons inadvertently finds his warehouse-gallery on land once owned by leading figures in the development of New York City and New York State who also owned slaves and were promoters of slavery.


Although I am writing in NYC now, I didn’t go to MoMA, Marx or Mnuchin. I cruised the Internet. Perhaps not exactly the same as seeing the real thing. But is a monotype the real thing? Is a 20-foot high basketball hoop real? Are photos of shadows real?

We live in the Age of Information.  We know all about the hidden, the torturer’s tools, the politician’s mistresses, the priest’s boys. We can also know a great deal about these three artists without seeing their work in a museum or gallery. Reproductions of the works in these three shows are Googleable.

Perhaps it’s time to move from large cities. Perhaps it’s time to move to Stuyvesant and log in and see what’s worth looking at and then Google a bit. No crowds, no pollution but lots of trucks, guns, hunting dogs, cow manure, chicken shit, cornfields, etc. The real world that so much art refuses to recognize.


I am indebted to Christopher Benfey’s book, Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable, for information on the ancestry of Degas, part of which was published in The Nation.