At the end of an undulating road, in the heart of the green and peaceful hills of the Hudson Valley, artist Dan Colen’s farm, Sky High Farm, appears lost in silence and light, as if from a tale of fairies. The rebellious child of a group of New York revelers nicknamed Warhol’s Children, Colen cultivates an organic vegetable garden there, and pigs, chickens and goats graze freely. A small army of assistants are busy in the adjacent studio and in the carpentry and steel workshops in anticipation of international exhibitions or sales.
Colen, who for a long time lived with a mattress as his only luggage, is, at 36, an important figure in contemporary art in New York. His large canvases covered in thick layers of giclee paint, debris and excrement are all the rage in the market and in museums. As his career grew, Colen set out to build this pastoral retreat in 2011, two years after the tragic overdose death of his friend Dash Snow, an icon of l’underground New Yorker. He likes to recharge his batteries there far from the city and its excesses, living to the rhythm of the earth and nature. Colen offers all the products from his farm to regional food banks.
“I needed space, solitude, far from the city, for personal reasons,” says Colen, a tall, slender man with curly hair and gruff elegance, a follower of hikes in the Catskills mountains at 200 km north of New York. “Agriculture seemed to me to be a progression, a transition to a more natural way of life. I looked for a way to have an impact on the malnutrition problems in the city. Justice and equality have become essential issues for me. “
The “hickster”, an emerging profile
In America of hyperconsumption, rampant capitalism, growing inequalities and violence, living apart from society, while remaining involved in it economically, is both a luxury and a radical gesture. If there have always been several Americas, far from the image of the emblematic dream, if, from the Beat generation to the hippies, the subcultures have progressed on the fringes of the dominant values, the tendency of hickster – or farmer hipster – has been emerging for ten years in this region of Upstate New York. In reaction to the suffocating urban lifestyles, a return to nature, to community values offers for many an alternative to mainstream and commercial culture, perceived as meaningless.
Thus, director Jim Jarmusch writes his films locked in his house in the Catskills, alone with his music. Artist Terence Koh, who was for a moment at the center of all contemporary art evenings, abruptly announced that he had taken refuge on a dark mountain in this dark green territory. Melissa Auf der Maur, Canadian-born rock icon and former bassist for Hole (which also included Courtney Love) and the Smashing Pumpkins, moved to an abandoned building in Hudson to create an art center, Basilica Hudson , in an old forge built in 1880. Marina Abramovic has been talking about her experimental space in Hudson for several years, in a building renovated by the architect Rem Koolhaas, inspired by nature and by alternative practices such as magnetism. Photographer Kate Orne has been editing since 2014 Upstate Diary, a publication on art inspired by the region. But we can still evoke artist farms, community radio stations, a growing number of musicians and creatives living in the bucolic towns of the region, from Kingston to Saugerties or Beacon… The most popular activities? Gathering wild plants, gardening, carpentry, hunting, hiking and even knitting.
Catskills, cradle of counter-culture
The region has been nourished by powerful influences for centuries. From the 17th century, the construction of the major cities of Upstate New York and its great lakes by the French and the Dutch was linked to the fur trade. Railways then contributed to its development. It was during this period that the first great American artistic movement was born: the Hudson school. Its painters, inspired by the pioneers of mountains and great lakes, create romantic landscapes, dramatic mountains and bubbling rivers bathed in light. The Arts and Crafts movement, born in Great Britain as a reaction to factory-produced products, settled there at the end of the 19th century. Later, bohemian, feminist and rebel communities grew there: Woodstock became an international symbol of hippie and rock culture. And, in the 1950s, composer John Cage, too poor to pay New York rents, moved to an artists’ commune where he rented two rooms for $ 24 a month. His performance Silence premiered in Woodstock in 1952, and the man will remain inspired throughout his life by nature and the Zen monasteries of the Catskills.
A new wave of arrivals
Spirituality, counter-culture, nature: these are recurring themes in the region until today. When Melissa Auf der Maur bought in 2010, with her husband the filmmaker Tony Stone, this huge factory on the fringes of Hudson and adjacent to the railroad tracks, she transformed the space into a punk utopia, inviting rebellious and avant-garde artists like Jarmusch, Richard Hell, Gang Gang Dance or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. She also organizes farmers’ markets and other craft bazaars there. A small alternative school run by a Californian chef has settled there. Auf der Maur – to whom a thick flame-colored mane and turquoise eyes give the air of a rock ‘n’ roll nymph – Stone and their daughter, River, live opposite the art center, away from the noise and from the city. The artist is part of a new wave of arrivals who are politically influencing a predominantly Republican region. She was hired on the home team that supported Senator Bernie Sanders. “This country needs major reforms, especially in finance, health and education,” she explains.
Further from Hudson, in a small isolated village, the imposing Wassaic Project grain mill rises in front of the railway line. This is where artists Bowie Zunino and Eve Biddle created their project in 2008, after obtaining ownership. The space, which adjoins a barn and a large garden, is like an artist’s residence, with studios, an exhibition or performance room and an alternative school. In summer, the team organizes a festival attended by the local community and townspeople.
It is also the quest for nature and calm that prompted gallery owner Jack Shainman to buy an abandoned school in the village of Kinderhook, which he transformed in 2013 into an impressive exhibition space, The School. Shainman, known for his choice of artists with political views such as Hank Willis Thomas or Carrie Mae Weems, exhibits his most monumental works there, such as the immense metal tapestries by El Anatsui or the large-format photos of the Irishman Richard Moss. . He also organizes annual festivals in the garden, in the nostalgic spirit of fairs, where a few hundred artists, gallery owners, curators and journalists, joined by the inhabitants of the region, feast on street food served by food trucks. local. Shainman, who was born in Massachusetts, has been taking refuge on his farm for fifteen years to get away from the hectic pace of the city. There, he forges links with an increasingly rich community of renowned artists – Brice Marden, Ellsworth Kelly… -, collectors and inspired publications.
Guided tour in pictures
The “Hamptons in the countryside”
These are all factors that favor the emergence of a regional art market. The region’s fertile valleys and organic markets are increasingly popular with an urban elite who build luxurious homes there, notably in Hyde Park, the hometown of Franklin Roosevelt, where several stars like Claire Danes (the heroine of series Homeland) and André Balazs resident. The American jet-setter, creator of nightclubs, hotels and spas, has even bought a huge adjacent property, in Locusts-on-Hudson, which he rents out to groups with a team and a chef. Everywhere, gourmet restaurants, boutique hotels, vintage or trendy stores and trendy bars serve a new affluent clientele, hence the nickname “Hamptons in the countryside”. Resorts like Hudson are quickly turning into trendy destinations, causing a movement of gentrification and rising property prices that enraged local populations, the poorest of whom find themselves marginalized. An evolution that reflects a cycle that has become familiar on this side of the Atlantic, where artists in search of large and affordable spaces, and thirst for experimentation, transform improbable territories into fashionable destinations.
In New York, the phenomenon has already taken Brooklyn, Queens and Harlem by storm, which many underprivileged residents have had to leave. From this continuous tension between capitalism, counter-cultures and communities of artists are born deep questioning of the “American dream”.
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