Category Archives: Blog

FIRST SUMMER ROMANCE: Telling Tales at the Roger Smith Hotel on August 2, 2017

Last night I had the pleasure to share a few stories with a great audience at the Roger Smith Hotel at 47th Street and Lexington Avenue.
Last year I had met the engaging and lovely Danika Druttman at dinner in the West Village with artists Mike Maxwell and Edgar Heap of Birds. Danika, who runs the programs and exhibitions at Roger Smith Hotel, invited me to speak at one of their Show and Tell events. Last night’s program was the baker’s dozen. It was a privilege to share the bill with master storytellers Noah Harlan and Flash Rosenberg.

The subject of First Summer Romance is not my normal fare.
Collecting stories over the past few years for a memoir with a working title of A Pack of Lies, I decided to rework one of those narratives into something appropriate. It’s all true. I deny every word of it. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


(an excerpt from A Pack of Lies by James L. McElhinney © 2017)

Many years ago, I received a scholarship to attend a summer art-school in Maine, which had been founded in the late 1940s by a group of prominent New York artists. Over the years, its fame had grown, mostly because many of the artists who had studied there later went on to become famous and successful.
The school was in the middle of nowhere.I didn’t own a car.
Calling the school’s Manhattan office looking for a ride-share, I was given the number of a guy named Frank, who was the opposite of the cliché of a bohemian artist.
He lived in an apartment in his parents’ house in Audubon, New Jersey, which was furnished with oriental rugs and antiques. Paintings of nudes, portraits and landscapes covered the walls.
Frank drove a late-60s burgundy Ford Fairlane sedan, equipped with an 8-track tape-deck and twelve hours of Bob Dylan tapes. Fueled by cigarettes, black coffee and malted-milk balls, we reached Central Maine at twilight, finding our billets after nightfall. After breakfast the next morning, we all trudged up the dirt road to campus, to attend an official welcoming ceremony in the fresco-barn. Spread out across a hilltop, the physical plant was a series of rustic buildings, adjoined by cow-pastures rimmed by dark forests. We all lived at the bottom of the hill, in a hamlet of cedar-shake cottages, scattered along the southern shore of Lake Wesserunsett.

This territory was not unfamiliar to me. My family had summered at Mount Desert. The Maine coast was a beloved destination. Ten years earlier, I had attended Camp Choconut in northern Pennsylvania. Summers ended with the traditional Villa Hunt, a three-day event in which campers and counselors reenacted Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa into Mexico. For three days, we slept in trees, and by rushing streams. We stalked the woods, and tagged each other with Bisquick- balls.
More wilderness adventures were had at Camp Hugh Beaver in the Poconos. Frightful reports circulated about a Stroudsburg man, who had slaughtered his family and lurked in the woods. Sightings were reported. Campers slept with one eye open. One day a counselor caught a rattlesnake. He put it in a terrarium and fed it hatchlings from a nearby chicken farm. After capturing a hundred-pound snapping turtle, he somehow got it into one of the stables. The next day we found the hinge broken and the door ajar. Tracks led down to the water’s edge. For days, nobody dared to go into the lake.

Incessant rain plagued our first week in Maine. I unpacked my gear into a corner of a sprawling shed, rounded up some tables and an easel, found some objects and started painting a still-life. When the weather cleared, Frank invited me to ride shotgun on one of his plein-air excursions. I had never really painted landscape before. There was a prejudice against it amongst the avant-garde contingent, who regarded the practice as backward and the subject as inferior. To vex them even more, we began to call ourselves Sunsets Incorporated.
Every morning after breakfast, the burgundy Fairlane debouched from our leafy enclave, in search of painting-motifs; shop-talk for a view that might afford a good composition. Anyone familiar with the terrain in Maine knows that everywhere you turn, there are gobsmacking vistas. Painting day after day, under a burning sun, or in the fine mist of a cool soft day, or shielding our work under ponchos against a driving rain, mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds, and swarms of biting flies were our constant companions. Exposed as I was to the elements from morning to night, something wild and savage was unleashed within me. Imagine a place full of hormonal twenty-something workaholics, men and women, straight and gay, removed from the humdrum routines of everyday life, set loose in the north woods. Two weeks into the program I became involved with a woman named Liza. Most of us bunked two to a room, but Liza’s roommate never showed up, affording us a measure of privacy. She was, shall we say, very considerate, and eagerly approved of my displays of gratitude. Life without her was unthinkable. Marriage even crossed my mind.

That week Frank and I took a break from the wilderness, and painted by the dam in a nearby mill-town. The French-easel posse was already on site by the time we arrived, and had set up in the most advantageous positions to address the motif.
Its leader was a member of the faculty named Paul. Clad in white from head to toe, wearing a large black beard, he could have been cast as Monet. Curious onlookers approached him. Removing his wide floppy hat with a flourish, he presented it to them, like a mendicant’s bowl. Stunned, they halted, turned, and crept away. Throughout the day, we could hear Paul’s booming voice,
“Blue, blue! Distance is blue” Only Claude could paint distance.”
Driving back to base-camp, Handel’s Water Music blared from the 8-track. All I could think of was Liza. That night, after one of our extended postprandial cuddles, I went back to my room and sat on my bed. Something was in it. Someone. At first I thought my room-mate had gone mad, or mistaken my bunk for his. Reaching under the covers, I found smooth skin, warm breasts and a woman named Lauren. She was amazing. Soon, life without Lauren was unimaginable. This was love. We made plans. It was serious.

Frank and I had been talking about bringing large canvases out to the field, but the modest cargo capacity of the burgundy Fairlane foiled our ambitions. Instead we set up on campus, next to a pond, below the life-drawing studio.
Frank painted water-lilies. I painted Frank painting water-lilies.
My canvas measured four by six feet. Securing it to three easels, I leaned large rocks against their feet for added stability. Our animated banter drew complaints from a few craving silence, as they toiled over drawings in the life-studio up the hill. The co-director of the school came by to investigate.
“Look at that’s they’re doing,” said Frank. “Then look at what we’re doing. You decide. If you want us to shut up, we’re happy to oblige.”
The administrator walked up the hill, to confer with the disgruntled, then returned five minutes later. He smiled, and told us to carry on. Deciding not to break down our workplace for lunch, we left everything where it stood and went to the dining-room.
Returning an hour later, we found Hyder’s setup intact, but my table had been overturned. My palette–a sheet of thick glass–lay face-down on the grass, broken in two pieces. Paint tubes were strewn everywhere. Oddly curved scrape-marks crisscrossed the bottom half of my canvas. I was furious, sure that one of those vengeful sons-of-bitches from the life studio must have done this. Marching up the hill and into the studio, I called them all out at once. They denied everything. Following a few volleys of ripe invective, I slammed the door and stormed down the hill. Frank looked at me, pointed across the pond, and then burst out laughing. There stood two sheep, their faces smeared with oil-paint.

That evening at dinner, Lauren and I conspired to sneak out of our rooms and go skinny-dipping. The plan was to swim out to the raft anchored offshore, and make love under the stars. Waiting by the shoreline for half an hour, I began to wonder if she had preceded me, and might be waiting for me to join her.
Silently, I slipped into the water and made for the raft. Drawing near, her silhouette came into view, sitting on the edge of the raft, legs in the water. Drawing closer, I saw a welcoming smile. Lifting myself onto the deck, we greeted each other with a deep, slow kiss. She spoke.
“I’ve been waiting for you”
“Wait a minute” I replied. “Where the hell is Lauren?”
“Never mind,” the mermaid replied.
“We didn’t swim all this way for nothing.”
We stayed together until first light. From that day on, I could think of nothing but Diana, undine, goddess of sex, warden of my heart. We spoke of growing old together. Life without one another was incomprehensible. Happiness would be ours!
Returning to the field, Frank and I battled sun-showers and bloodthirsty insects. Reveling with primal delight, I embraced my communion with nature, in every possible way. As summer drew to an end, resuming our previous lives was out of the question. Blissful exile, mountains of work, new friends and transformative adventures had filled every last one of us with a kind of jubilation.
At the same time, a sense of loss swept over me. Which romance would blossom? Which love would endure? Pledging endless devotion, we swore to keep in touch, and went our separate ways. Many years later, only one of these summer romances has stood the test of time. We’re still together, the landscape and me.


Elise Engler keeps track of the world through her drawings, paintings, and accordion-books; making lists and documenting her travels to The Galapagos, Antarctica, Sicily and the streets of New York. Beginning on May 19, 2014 Elise Engler spent a year on Broadway, exploring it block by block, from Kingsbridge to the Battery. Engler recently completed a residency at the MacDowell Colony. Last year she began work on a new series entitled First Radio Headline Heard of the Day, a chronicle of mostly political events, as they unfold in real time.
I recently caught up with Elise Engler to learn more about her work. Listen, enjoy, comment, and share:

NETCAST: WHAT LIES BETWEEN: A Conversation with Don Stinson

I first met Don Stinson when I moved to Colorado nearly twenty years ago. I felt an immediate affinity with what he was doing. Stinson’s focus was on landscape, not as scenery, nor as an artistic trope, but as a dialogue between terrain, and the society which shapes and consumes it. Mindful of history, western exploration, and influenced by the writings of J.B. Jackson, Stinson’s paintings take notice of dystopic anomalies, industrial intrusions and modern ruins. Adrift in vast deserts, or located near majestic geological formations, these byproducts of disposable culture are at once elegiac, and cautionary. What Lies Between: new works by Don Stinson is now on view at David B. Smith Gallery in Denver, Colorado. Recently we caught up with one another, to talk about the exhibition.


What Lies Between, new works by Don Stinson, will be on view through June 3rd, at David B. Smith Gallery. 1543A Wazee Street, in Denver, Colorado, 80202. Gallery hours are Wednesday to Friday 12-6pm and Saturday 12-5pm and by appointment. For more information please go to the gallery website at Learn more information about Don Stinson and his work at

Erratum: During the interview I misspoke, identifying Dr. Joni Kinsey (University of Iowa) as the author of a book on Albert Bierstadt, when she is the author of a definitive study of Thomas Moran, which I highly recommend to anyone concerned with the history of the American landscape.

Remembering J.B. Jackson: Advice to Landscape Painters

Elevating landscape painting to a kind of purity, twentieth-century Formalism also reduced it to a species of decorative, portable scenery. The question has always been whether the architect exists to provide painters with walls, or if the painter exists to decorate those walls. Either way, both are at the mercy of economies of real property, which historically have tended to shape terrain at the expense of the environment.
Discovering the influential essays of John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1909-1996) for me discredited many of the assumptions about landscape to which painters subscribe. Jackson brought me to the realization that terrain is not passive but susceptible, and ultimately indifferent. What one beholds in sweeping vistas is not physical reality, but a mirage–the reflection of human desires projected upon the land. Thus every landscape is fiction, a narrative, and a conundrum. Jackson said that “Landscape is history made visible”. It is also shaped by natural forces dictating conditions that govern life on earth. Quoting Eliade, Jackson noted that the process of organizing terrain into landscapes was a way of accelerating or delaying the process of nature; an attempt to assume the role of time, presumably to overcome mortality.
Any well-informed landscape painter should acquaint themselves with his essays, and with other writers such as John Stilgoe, James Howard Kunstler, Jane Jacobs, Frederick Jackson Turner, John Burroughs, John Muir, George Perkins Marsh, William Wordsworth, and Alexander von Humboldt, who remains the most influential of them all. Andrea Wulf’s recent biography of Humboldt is highly recommended.
Also recommended is Drawn to Landscape: The Pioneering Work of J.B. Jackson. Edited by Janet Mendelsohn and Chris Wilson. University of Virginia Press. 2015

NETCAST: RONNIE LANDFIELD: American Color Field Master

Ronnie Landfield in his studio. Photo by James L. McElhinney, 2015

Painter Ronnie Landfield has been a presence on the New York scene since his work was exhibited in the Whitney Biennial in 1967. His latest exhibition opens at Findlay Galleries on May 4th, 2017 and runs through June 3rd. Ronnie Landfield and I met at the gallery to discuss his latest exhibition. Ronnie Landfield. American Color Field Master will be on view through June 3rd at Findlay Galleries, located on the 7th floor, at 724 Fifth Avenue, between 56th and 57th Streets. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10am -6pm and by appointment.


Ronnie Landfield
Late in the Day, 2012
acrylic on canvas
75 x 81 inches

Ronnie Landfield
Threshold of Eternity, 2012
acrylic on canvas
90 x 76 inches

Ronnie Landfield
We Walked all the Way, 1997
acrylic on canvas
87 x 72 inches

(Images courtesy David Findlay Jr. Gallery, New York, Published under fair use for critical and educational purposes)


A limited edition suite of seven archival digital prints, drawn from James Lancel McElhinney’s Hudson Valley painting-journals is being prepared for publication.

For information on how to obtain a copy, please write to, using the subject line “Prints”

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Seven archival digital prints will be presented in a fine solander “clamshell” box, with comments by Dr. Katherine E. Manthorne and other texts, in an accompanying chapbook. Each print is 11 x 14 inches, with individual page spreads presented as a trompe l’oeil of an open book.

For a limited time, sets of seven Artist’s Proofs are being offered for sale through August. Purchasers will be acknowledged in the chapbook of the limited edition. Price: $850.00
Please allow 2-3 weeks for delivery. New York State residents add 8% sales tax

Here is a preview:


Storm King



North Gate


Crows Nest


Western Highlands




South Gate



West Point


Drifting through the Francis Picabia show at the Museum of Modern Art, visitors paused to read wall-texts and view the works through their mobile devices. I might have scoffed at what seemed like inattention or distraction twenty years ago. “Pay attention! Look at the work”, a voice in my head would have admonished, “This is a museum, not an amusement park!”
Visiting the 1996 Picasso Portraits exhibition, an elderly couple reminiscent of Billy Crystal and Carol Kane in The Princess Bride gripped their ear-paddles as they moved from work to work, listening to the audio guide. The husband, who moved through the show a few pieces ahead of his wife, turned, pulled on her sleeve and said,
“Come here! Look at this one.”
She swatted him away.
“Leave me alone,” she shot back, “I’m watching this one now.”
It struck me at the time that for many people visiting a museum was entertainment, a different form of television. Museums in the past twenty years have redefined the realm of infotainment. Half a century ago museums were cathedrals of culture—vast, hushed spaces through which handfuls of the reverent might go to ponder masterpieces. The transformation of museums into meeting-places, food-courts and party-shacks has been sharply criticized, but blending the agora with the acropolis is not stooping to popular culture, but reconnecting with it. The word museum means dwelling-place of the Muse—a place from whence inspiration might be drawn. Guiding the creation of the British Museum, for example, was the necessity to gather together under one roof the greatest achievements of civilization—arts and technology, which subsequently were celebrated by international expositions. Musee du Louvre was created by inviting the general public into a former palace, to feast on culture once reserved for a privileged few. South Kensington Museum—now the V&A, was conceived in part as a place of learning, where practitioners of certain crafts might be inspired to improve their own work by studying examples of excellence in the decorative arts.
Today’s museums must appeal to a broader demographic partly out of financial necessity.
One former museum director told me that entertainment value is a concern. For this reason, art and history museums have been looking to science museums for inspiration. Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s spectacular record of audience engagement has for many years been a model for other museums seeking to build attendance. If a successful science museum needs a cafeteria, planetarium and a dinosaur, a viable art museum needs a restaurant, an event-space and a sculpture garden. Both need board members committed to sustained giving and fundraising. A patron might expect generosity to buy authority in program and exhibition planning, like the studio mogul who puts his mistress in a movie he produced. The job of curators today is not just to organize shows, but to deliver visitor experience.
A continuous screening of Entr’acte, the 1924 film by Rene Clair, art-direction and sets by Picabia accentuated a refreshing promiscuity of media and form which the artist embraced. The ubiquity of vitrines displaying books and other material that once would have been deemed too inferior for a major retrospective underscored the diversity of his creative output. One tends to forget that Picabia’s early pictures are quite large, in contrast to Picasso and Braque’s early Cubist pictures. Standing off to the side of one of these paintings, seven or eight people gathered in a cluster to read the tombstone label. A similar number stood in front of the canvas, engaged in the slow, familiar dance of slipping sideways ahead and behind one another to take in the whole painting, and then drifting away to gaze at their phones, exchange a glance with someone across the room, glimpse a movie star pretending to not notice being noticed and then moving on to the next painting. Weaving my way through the crowd, I found an unobstructed view of La Source, 1912, and noticed some text on the wall underneath, directing viewers to become listeners by accessing a musical accompaniment selected by WQXR’s Terrance McKnight.

Purist might sneer, but this is nothing new. Frederic Church encouraged viewers to bring opera-glasses to explore the details in Heart of the Andes. George Catlin traveled his Indian Gallery around the United States and Europe with a trove of artifacts and a Native American dance-troupe. Catlin lectured on his travels as a painted backdrop moved behind him, between two giant rollers hidden from view. My first encounter with Emanuel Leutze’s image of Washington Crossing the Delaware was in a sound and light show in a deconsecrated church at Washington Crossing State Park, Pennsylvania. After Sunday picnics, hide-and-seek and vexing frogs and other wildlife, my parents, siblings and I would take a seat. Lights dimmed, music swelled, red velvet curtain parted and Washington’s head was framed in a circle of light. Speaking in a sonorous baritone the narrator unpacked a tale of defeat, retreat and hardship and how, with his army on the verge of melting away, Washington conceived a bold plan….

Sitting in the dark, enraptured with a tale that we all knew by heart, we beheld the great image emerge as its surface grew light, one section at a time. We gazed in wonder at the thrilling tableau, and then all was dark again. The curtains closed. The house lights came up and we all rose from our seats. I promised myself that one day I would see the real painting.
In 2012 Kathie and I attended the John Martin-Apocalypse exhibition at Tate Britain. Entering a side gallery, we found a seat on one of the stepped bench-rows installed to recreate the first showing of Martin’s famed triptych. The audience was seated. The room grew dark. A gaslight glow arose, flickering as a disembodied voice described the end of days, and the final judgment when the faithful are carried up to Heaven, with Christ on his throne.
The damned are cast into Hell. And there is the Great Whore of Babylon, conquerors and accursed, tumbling into the pit. And finally, cleansed of evil, the world is reborn as a bright new age begins, and suddenly, I remembered.
The following week we were back in New York. Kathie was speaking on a panel at the Salmagundi Club. One of the other presenters was Kevin Avery, now former curator of American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After giving him a report on the John Martin exhibition, I recounted my childhood memory, and commented on what a pleasure it is to have the original Leutze painting hanging in the Met. He smiled.
“Do you have any idea what happened to that picture you saw at Washington’s Crossing?”
“No idea,” I said. “For all I know it’s still there, behind those red velvet curtains.”
“No,” he said. “It’s gone. Long ago. But I can tell you where it is. You must have seen it.
It’s the centerpiece of the new American Wing. It’s hanging at the Met.”

A Conversation with Sigmund Abeles

Over the last two weeks I collected a series of conversations with Sigmund Abeles for the Jewish Heritage Oral History Archives, in the Addlestone Library at the College of Charleston. The audio recordings will be available in the future through the Lowcountry Digital Library.

I fist met Sigmund Abeles in the late 1970s. My then wife Vicki Davila and Sig’s then wife Frederike Merck had been room-mates in Pietrasanta, where both had been studying stone-carving with local artigiani. Over the years we have maintained a warm friendship, and shared a great passion for drawing. We both identify with a Northern esthetic–the figurative German and Netherlandish tradition that favors sharp tools and articulate line.
We spoke of his undergraduate days at University of South Carolina, graduate school at Columbia University, fresco-painting at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and the Art Students League of New York. Unpacking stories about his career as a draftsman, printmaker, painter and sculptor, he described also the perils of being so diversified in an art-market built on backing brands. Abeles taught in a number of colleges and universities, finally retiring from the University of New Hampshire. The conversation mentioned artists whose names today are less well-known; artists such as Leonard Baskin, Michael Mazur, Harold Tovish, Marianna Pineda, Sidney Hurwitz, Hyman Bloom and Rico Lebrun, whom Sig quoted as saying, “If one has nothing to say, they gossip. If one has nothing to draw, they sketch.”
Resisting pressure to work abstractly, or bow to formalist figuration, Sig’s work embraced narrative, social commentary, eroticism and equestrian subjects. Manifested in visual form, as representational imagery, these works represented a departure from his paternal roots in Orthodox Judaism. He discussed his activities within the National Academy of Design, the Century Association, the New York art-world and his beloved children, one of whom–Max Abeles–is making a name for himself as an artist.

Part of our discussion did address his experience of growing up Jewish in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, his association with the Civil Rights movement that led to his expulsion from the University of South Carolina, standing up to the Klan, and later in life being courted by USC as a Native Son. We spoke of his friendship with Jasper Johns–another South Carolinian, and his first exposure to art at Brookgreen Gardens, which now owns some of his work.
It may come as a surprise that the largest Jewish population in the antebellum United States was not in New York or Philadelphia but in Charleston, followed by New Orleans, Mobile and Savannah. As many as ten thousand Jews saw military service during the Civil War, during which General U.S. Grant ordered all Jews to be expelled from Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. Judah P. Benjamin served as Secretary of War and Secretary of State for the Confederacy. Its surgeon-general was Simon Baruch, from South Carolina. The first Jewish governor of any American state was David Emanuel, a captain of militia during the Revolutionary war.
A second interview conducted by Dale Rosengarten, Curator of Special Collections at the College of Charleston, will focus on Sigmund Abeles’s Jewish identity.

The value of collecting these conversations is to preserve the voices and ideas of significant artists like Sigmund Abeles whose creative legacy, despite a distinguished career, might otherwise be forgotten. Artists born in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s are advancing in years. Many have diminished their output, and have been marginalized by shifting trends in the art-market.
Oral history interviews collected by the College of Charleston, the Archives of American Art, the Senior Artists Initiative in Philadelphia, the Frick Center for Oral History and many other organizations become keystone documents–primary sources for researchers to consult, and from which artists and others might draw inspiration.

James L. McElhinney

VOICES IN CONTEMPORARY ART: James Lancel McElhinney in conversation with Marie Watt. Denver Art Museum. June 15, 2016

Marie Watt

James Lancel McElhinney


Link to video:

On the evening of June 15, 2016. VoCA (Voices in Contemporary Art) sponsored a public program at the Denver Art Museum. I sat down with Native American artist Marie Watt (Seneca) to discuss her work, which was on view in the exihibition “Why We Dance: American Indian Art in Motion”