Eyeing P-town’s place in American art
Some of the great artists of the 20th century put paint to canvas at the Days Lumberyard studios in Provincetown. Robert Motherwell was there, and Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, and George McNeil, among others. “Days Lumberyard Studios 1915-1972,’’ a rewarding exhibit at Acme Fine Art, offers just a sliver of some of the work made by artists who painted there during those years. Still, it’s a delirious rush through Provincetown’s place in American art, from the more academic work of Charles Webster Hawthorne, the art colony’s first great teacher, through the Post-Impressionism of Edwin Dickinson headlong into Modernism and Abstract Expressionism.
It’s not clear when, exactly, Frank Days Sr. opened the second floor of his lumber company to artists. The town tax records show studios there in 1916; painter Ross Moffett claimed to have set up shop there in 1914. Conditions were Spartan: Small kerosene stoves heated the studios, and artists shared a common toilet. The artists passed through one another’s studios, traded ideas, and sometimes riffed on others’ works.
The exhibit begins with Hawthorne’s “Still Life With Fish,’’ a dark scene of fruit and fish composed around a coppery bowl. The bowl, on its side, rivets the eye; it pulls you in and reflects you right back out. Hawthorne painted it in 1905, but he was at Days in 1915. It wasn’t always possible for the gallery to find work made in the Days studios. That’s too bad, but at least we get a taste of Hawthorne.
Dickinson’s stark “White Winter’’ was probably painted at Days: It shows Pearl Street, where the lumberyard was located, covered in snow in 1915. Dickinson worked in shades of white to create a sense of spatial depth and the snow’s muffle. A whisper of veined beige suggests a tree; a stray streak of green marks a window; impastos of pale white portray drifts of snow. It hangs near George Yater’s “On the Bay,’’ probably made in the early 1930s, an image of a docked boat in the noonday sun. The sun’s glare washes out details and leaves a composition of strong forms and bold tones.
Hofmann, Provincetown’s second great teacher, arrived there in the 1930s and brought Abstract Expressionism with him. His “Muted Abstraction’’ (1947) starts with an approximation of a grid and stained-glass tones of blues, reds, and greens, lyrically organized. At the top, he drew forms with perfect arcs and added a thrilling garnish of vertical white dots and a rash splatter of red.
Hofmann seems to have influenced everything that came after, but the artists also learned and copied from one another. Look at the pairing of John Grillo’s “Untitled Mosaic’’ (1951) and Jan Müller’s “Untitled (Polyptych)’’ (circa 1955). Each is made up of a weave of small painterly squares and rectangles. As Grillo’s title suggests, they look like mosaics. Grillo’s is a simple panel; Müller’s is built over seven panels that ultimately resemble a stout-armed person coming at you for a hug.
Motherwell’s elegant, swooping, textured lithograph “Calligraphy’’ was made in the mid-1960s. It hangs near one of the only figurative works in the show, Lester Johnson’s vigorous “Self-Portrait in Studio’’ (1969). The artist wields his brush, backed by a chorus of his signature male idols, broad-shouldered and stony-faced.
In 1972, the Fine Arts Work Center acquired the Days Lumberyard property. FAWC fellows work in the studios to this day. They rotate in and out more quickly than many of their predecessors did. Hofmann and Motherwell, for instance, spent time in Provincetown for decades, nourishing a community of artists whose work helped promote the dominance of American art in the 20th century - often from scanty accommodations over a lumberyard.
The nuance of shadow, light, and texture is breathtaking in Gary Schneider’s black-and-white tabletop still lifes, pigment prints made from negatives he shot about 20 years ago. In “Chestnut and Fig Leaf,’’ the leaf looks cinnamon-dusted. It’s only the bottom half of the leaf, with the stem pointing up, in this carefully composed image. The gnarled, spiky chestnuts - startlingly ugly - seem to float in space around it, thanks to the table’s reflective sheen.
Steve Miller traveled to the