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New York Public Library Exhibition Explores the Far-Ranging Influence of a Fabled Artist's Retreat
William Gass painted by Philip Guston, 1969. Photographer unknown. Collection of Tom and Musa Mayer.

NEW YORK, NY.- The iron gate that has welcomed generations of artists to Yaddo is now welcoming guests of The New York Public Library to a new exhibition about the fabled artists’ retreat, Yaddo: Making American Culture.

Founded more than a century ago on a wooded 400-acre estate in Saratoga Springs, New York, Yaddo has nurtured the creative work of some of the nation’s most distinguished writers, composers, performers and visual artists, while fostering a multitude of friendships, rivalries, collaborations and cross-influences. Artists who have worked at Yaddo have garnered 63 Pulitzer Prizes, 58 National Book Awards, 25 MacArthur “genius” awards, 8 Emmy Awards, a Nobel Prize, and countless other honors. By making a multigenerational community out of these artists, Yaddo has helped to forge a distinctive American tradition in the arts.

Now The New York Public Library explores the far-ranging influence of Yaddo, and opens a window onto some of the most significant events in twentieth-century life as experienced by its artists, in this richly detailed multimedia exhibition. The free exhibition is on view from October 24, 2008 to February 15, 2009 in the D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall (First Floor) of the Humanities and Social Sciences Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Sociologist and cultural critic Micki McGee, Fordham University, has served as the Spencer Trask & Co. Curator for Yaddo: Making American Culture.

Through a lively mixture of letters, papers, photographs, books, artworks, film clips and sound recordings Yaddo: Making American Culture offers a rare glimpse into the workings of this most private of institutions, revealing how it has hosted such luminaries as James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, Aaron Copland, Philip Guston, Patricia Highsmith, Jacob Lawrence, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor and Sylvia Plath. At the same time, the exhibition provides a new perspective on public events throughout the period. The economic and social turmoil of the 1930s, the destruction and displacements of World War II, the paranoia of the McCarthy era, the strife born of resistance to Jim Crow segregation, and the rise of the feminist and gay rights movements are among the developments that shaped Yaddo, the lives of the artists who sought shelter there and the works they produced. As a result, the exhibition gives an intimate yet panoramic view of American culture, from Yaddo’s first official season in 1926 through 1980.

The exhibition showcases extraordinary materials from the Yaddo Records—the retreat’s uniquely fascinating archive, which reveals the story of Yaddo and its artists. Since 1999, the Records have been a part of The New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division, which makes them publicly accessible to researchers and preserves them for future generations. Additional installments to
the Library’s holdings from Yaddo’s ongoing records will be made through 2026, the hundredth anniversary of Yaddo’s first official season for invited guests. Joining the wealth of materials from the Yaddo Records in the exhibition are exceptional items from other NYPL collections, from Yaddo’s holdings of rare books and artworks and from other lenders.

“The Yaddo Records are a prized holding of The New York Public Library,” stated Paul LeClerc, President of the Library. “We take great pride in being able to offer the public access to materials that were once only accessible by a few. Our collection of Yaddo materials and the exhibition itself will be an exciting and eye-opening experience for anyone with an interest in American culture and the arts.”

“We are honored that The New York Public Library has chosen to make Yaddo the centerpiece of its fall and winter exhibition program,” stated Elaina H. Richardson, President of The Corporation of Yaddo. “Thanks to the Library’s enthusiasm, the cooperation of the lenders to the exhibition and the expert curatorship of Micki McGee, Yaddo: Making American Culture will initiate a festive celebration of Yaddo, in New York City and around the country.”

Plan of the Exhibition
Yaddo: Making American Culture unfolds its story in seven sections, organized according to the overall themes of what is given at Yaddo, and what is made.

Visitors enter the first section, What Is Given, through the actual Yaddo gate—brought to the Library for the exhibition—and are immediately surrounded by the atmosphere of the estate in its early years. Here visitors learn how the wealthy Spencer and Katrina Trask acquired Yaddo, remade it over the years and eventually resolved to convert it into a retreat for artists. Among the rare materials in this gallery is a portrait painting of Katrina Trask by Eastman Johnson, photographs of life at Yaddo taken by Spencer Trask, and a hand-drawn map of the grounds by artist Philip Reisman.

Refuge examines the different functions of Yaddo as a safe haven: from the bustle of city life, from the economic pressures of the Depression, from political persecution during the rise of European fascism. A stained-glass window by Louis Comfort Tiffany offers a pastoral view of the Yaddo grounds. Pictures by artists such as Louis Lozowick reflect the turmoil beyond Yaddo’s gate in the 1930s. Correspondence from Newton Arvin to Truman Capote tells the story of how Yaddo gave a place in America to the Danish novelist and political refugee Karin Michaëlis.

Running down the middle of the exhibition hall is Community. The centerpiece of this section is the Yaddo dining table, around which the resident artists gather every day. Projected onto the table are the names of artists, both celebrated and obscure, who were guests at Yaddo during the time period of the exhibition, from 1926 to 1980. A wall projection at the far end of the gallery displays maps of the social networks developed and fostered at Yaddo. Other highlights of this section include a colorful selection of handmade holiday cards from Yaddo artists.

Contention shows how Yaddo has been not only a refuge from the world’s conflicts but also a place where they have been played out. Compelling letters, photographs, books, press clippings and documents from the 1930s through 1960 reveal the struggles at Yaddo over admitting African American artists such as Langston Hughes and James Baldwin; the clash over accusations of covert Communist influence at the retreat; and the tragic outcome of the police persecution of Newton Arvin—literary scholar, long-time Yaddo advisor, and lover and mentor of the young Truman Capote—because of his homosexuality.

In contrast to the conflicts seen in Contention, Collaboration concentrates on the artistic partnerships that have emerged among Yaddo’s guests. Outstanding among these were the highly influential music festivals (later known as the Music Periods) that Aaron Copland originated in 1932, and that continued through 1952. At audio stations, visitors are able to hear historic recordings from the Yaddo festivals, as well as examples of collaborations among Yaddo’s writers and composers, including Ned Rorem’s settings of poems by Elizabeth Bishop.

Recognition explores how the reputations of Yaddo artists have fared over the years and considers the role of Yaddo in raising or lowering the barriers between high art and popular culture. Books, papers and other materials in this section reflect the diminishing fame of once-celebrated authors such as Evelyn Scott, James T. Farrell and Josephine Herbst; document Yaddo’s decision in 1967 not to admit sculptor Eva Hesse (now seen as one of the key artists of her generation); and provide insight into the careers of Yaddo authors such as Mario Puzo and Irving Stone, who gained popular success but paid for it with a loss of critical esteem.

The final section, Made at Yaddo,is devoted to a summary of the work that has been produced thanks to the retreat, which according to John Cheever has “seen more distinguished activity in the arts than any other piece of ground in the English-speaking community or perhaps in the entire world." In this section, visitors may listen to excerpts of music by composers including Marc Blitzstein and Leonard Bernstein; see original works by visual artists including Milton Avery, Clyfford Still, Philip Guston, George Rickey and Anne Truitt; view a montage by artist Shelly Silver, developed from films based on the works of Yaddo authors; and stand at the foot of a towering pile of more than a thousand books, representing only a fraction of the works published by authors within five years of their residence at Yaddo, 1926-1980.

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