09 April 2019

A Lesson from Abstraction: William Palmer's Autoroute

In William Palmer's Route 5 - Morning abstraction does not conceal so much as reveal a new viewpoint: this is how landscape looks from the road, from a car.   It is, coincidentally, how farmland looks from the air.   Agriculture may be the oldest profession but the automobile has existed for the blink of an eye, historically.  Palmer's choice of the panoramic view seems exactly right for his subject, suggesting movement and his choice of purple, complementary color to green, an apt choice  to suggest passing clouds reflected on the ground.

The origins of this particular route date from the post-glacial age.  First as narrow foot paths trod by the Mohawk and Iroquois peoples, then as trails for horses and oxcarts to carry European settlers westward.  When traffic reached a critical mass, New York State turned the roads over to speculators and the era of the turnpike toll road began.

By 1793 the Mohawk Turnpike reached from Albany to Utica where the Genesee Turnpike continued through Central New York (now known as Route 5).  With the arrival of the Erie Canal  in 1825 and the railroads in the 1850s, turnpikes became poor investments for speculators  fell into neglect.  With the invention of the automobile, rutted paths and corduroy roads had to be replaced by hard surfaces.  A new east-west toll road was proposed in the 1940s and the first section of the New York State Thruway opened in 1954 between Utica and Rochester.

You may not know his name but the imprint of William C. Palmer (1906-1987) is all around  the art world of  upstate New York.  Palmer was the first professor of studio art at Hamilton College in Clinton and the founder of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute School of Art at Utica where he served as director from 1941 to 1973.  His murals  grace post offices from Massachusetts to Iowa and hospitals in Queens; his paintings are in the collections of the Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and, of course,  Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute.

Palmer studied at the Art Students League in New York  with Thomas hart Benton and then learned fresco painting at L'Ecole des Beuax-Arts in Fontainbleau.  He returned from France in 1927 to earn his living by painting murals for the WPA Arts Project during the Depression in New York.  President Franklin Roosevelt choose a Palmer painting Manhattan from the Jersey Meadows for the White House art collection; it is now part of the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.  After his retirement Palmer lived in nearby Clinton, NY until his death.  The moods and atmosphere of the upstate countryside were often the subject of Palmer's late semi-abstract landscape paintings and Route 5 - Morning is among Palmer's best.

William C. Palmer - Route 5 - Morning, 1949,  oil on canvas, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Uiica, NY.

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