Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Chemical Sins, and Me

Albert Pinkham Ryder and Me, Rural Cemetery, New Bedford

            Because I am a poet, I respond to words before images, sentences before styles, paragraphs before pigments. I love to look at paintings, but for me words come first. It is not surprising, then, that my obsession with Albert Pinkham Ryder, a painter who was born, as I was, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, began not with a museum exhibit but with a review of one. When I read John Updike’s “Better Than Nature” in the November 8, 1990, issue of The New York Review, I was particularly impressed with Updike’s descriptions of Ryder’s technique and of the resulting fragility of his art. The exhibition being reviewed was at the Brooklyn Museum and ran from September 21, 1990, to January 7, 1991. It was an event. Updike wrote, “This show will not come round again, if only because Ryder’s paintings are so fragile and festering that they are disintegrating before, as it were, our collective eyes.”

            I wanted to see that exhibit but never made it to the Brooklyn Museum. Upstate New York, where I live, is not close to Brooklyn, and life and my job got in the way. Since 1991 I’ve seen Ryder paintings in various museums, but only one or two at a time, never a whole room full of them. This year, despite Updike’s warning, I will get a second chance. I am determined to see “A Wild Note of Longing” at the New Bedford Whaling Museum before the exhibition closes in October.

            Even before experiencing any of his art, I wanted to know more about Albert Pinkham Ryder’s life and work. I went to a library, looked through some books, and was very surprised to learn that Ryder is buried in Rural Cemetery, where my parents are buried. We have a family plot, which means that Ryder is a future neighbor. On my next visit to New Bedford and maybe the one after that, I tried and failed to find his grave. Finally I went to the cemetery office and asked where it was, expecting to be given a lot number or other form of cemetery address. Rural Cemetery is very old, and the oldest sections are full of turns, easy to get lost in. The people in the office didn’t give any indication that they recognized Ryder’s name. They may have thought I was looking for my great-grandfather. But they went beyond the call of duty and sent a man in a pickup truck to escort me and my husband to the grave, which is in a very peaceful section of a very peaceful place. We will be neighbors, but not close neighbors. I sent a photo of the gravestone to Find a Grave, where I am known as “Zenobia.”

            One sentence in John Updike’s review jumped out at me as soon as I read it. “Ryder,” Updike wrote, “in his reckless, betranced quest for poetically lustrous surfaces committed every chemical sin in the book, mixing his oils with alcohol, bitumen, and candlewax, painting ‘wet-on-wet,’ applying rapid-drying paints (flake white, umbers, and Prussian blue) on top of ‘slow driers’ like lamp black and Van Dyke brown, pouring on varnish straight from the bottle and painting on top of the still-tacky surface.” Because I am a poet and not a painter, I wrote a poem using part of the above sentence as an epigraph. The poem isn’t about Ryder, but then it sort of is because he inspired it. The poem was first published in Black Warrior Review and is included in my chapbook, Carlisle & The Common Accident. Here it is:

CHEMICAL SINS

. . .Ryder in his reckless, betranced quest for poetically lustrous surfaces committed every chemical sin in the book. . .
                    —John Updike on Albert Pinkham Ryder



So, Carlisle reflects, art shadows life
in both tenacity and dissolution,
and mixes another drink and thinks about

art and luminosity and Faustian
negotiations.  Life, she reflects,
sucking a pimiento from an olive,

is luminous enough, all those tiny
pricks of light scattered along a space-
time continuum.  Rattling the cubes,

she thinks about life, how it accrues
dimension as it jerks along, caught
in ratchets, and she measures out another

shot of gin and tears into a bag
of Ruffles and nibbles and reflects
on chemistry, what little she remembers

from high school, a clutch of rotten-egg
experiments, some graduated beakers
of hydrochloric or sulfuric acid,

lots of dirty Pyrex to wash
afterwards.  She thinks about the stack
of dishes in her sink when all those lights

crackle, then suddenly start to wink at
random, eccentrically spaced
markers in some postimpressionist

universe, all absurdly almost
within reach.  A couple more drinks,
she’ll touch them, fingertips a trail

of auras that ionize and glow
in the dark.  But the chips are down
to a few greasy crumbs and she knows

a French roast and a Tylenol will work
their chemistry on the tenacious headache
she’ll wake with in the morning. 

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