May 28 – December 30, 2021
If you drive along the Erie Canal today you probably won’t see a lot of the action. But 130 years ago, it was the most important waterway in the East and the second in the country after the Mississippi River. So anyone looking to make a living in upstate New York, including artists, would gravitate there. This is in part what determined the route of Fritz Vogt (1842-1900), an itinerant renderer who worked in five counties west of Albany. He left hundreds of graphite and colored pencil drawings that give a glimpse of a world that no longer exists, where cities grew and agriculture flourished. Even more interesting is what they reveal of the different aesthetic demands that drive a commercial artist.
Selections of this work have been shown at various locations in New York City, most recently in an 18-piece exhibit at the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie, one of those towns along the canal that Vogt passed through. Little is known about the artist except that he made the drawings in the 1890s, long after photography established itself as the preferred method of documentation for architecture and landscape. Yet the owners of the buildings he designed – middle-class homes, businesses, and farms, for the most part – frequented the work. The Garlock family of Canajoharie, for example, could have entrusted the pride of their home to a photographer, but nothing was worthy of possession like a hand-made photo. Vogt slept in the homes, barns, and hotels he designed, and the meaning of a commercial artist’s life on the road in mid-19th-century America is vivid and poignant.
It didn’t matter that Vogt, who most likely learned to draw while studying architecture, possibly in Germany (documents are scarce) had little conventional talent. The Sovereign was his liferaft and he was often at sea. He struggled with prospect like a student in an art class, and he often bit more than he could chew, as when he was. tried to an entire streetscape. In one photo, the Farmer’s Hotel is wedged between buildings of different proportional sizes, which shear in different directions. Only the railroad tracks that cross the entire leaf in the foreground hold the scene together. But fluidity was not the issue; the detail and the frontality were. The client expected the subject to be not only recognizable, but prominent, even majestic. The effect was increased, as in commercial prints of the time, with lettering, borders and titles. The whole thing shows an archival ambition: like the Erie Canal, these places were established, and they were not going to disappear.
The inability to master visual conventions in their fiery pursuit is what makes so much popular and foreign art so charming, but in Vogt’s drawings something more intense happens. It seems to have had two aesthetic sides, and they coexisted uncomfortably. The first was mechanical, embodied in its architectural struggles and perspectives. The second was expressive, elaborated in the diaphanous greenery that decorated his landscapes, as well as in the elaborate and formal writing of the titles and in the delicate colors that he applied. These details may seem like bells and whistles on the business engine of architectural drafting, but they constitute a subversive strategy, bait and probably unconscious switch that clients seemed to have reacted to.
Baroque art overcame many dichotomies by pushing to the extreme the relations between stasis and flow, line and color, nature and culture, evanescence and permanence, pleasure and moral use. But baroque never came to the Mohawk Valley, and Vogt could never have embraced his solutions. He had a job to do and his clients were pragmatic people, probably the same type as those who insisted, at Nathaniel Hawthorne. The artist of beauty (1844), that Owen Warland renounces his unnecessary search for aesthetic perfection. Nonetheless, the trees of upstate New York seem to have freed Vogt’s hand to indulge in the sheer pleasure of drawing. And in the process, the landscape allowed him to give his clients not only proof of their accomplishment, but an experience of the beauty of it.