Exhibits show influence of the rocky coast on some of modernism’s best
PORTLAND, Maine - Visit any or all of the seven museums on the wonderful Maine Art Museum Trail, and you can’t help but notice that the same names keep reappearing.
Not just local plodders and washed-up second-raters, either - I’m talking about some of the preeminent artists and photographers of American modernism: people like Marsden Hartley, Paul Strand, Gaston Lachaise, Max Weber, Clarence H. White, Marguerite and William Zorach, and John Marin.
Marin, whom in 1942 the critic Clement Greenberg called possibly the greatest living American painter, is the exclusive subject of a vibrant show at the Portland Museum of Art. Called “John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury,’’ it focuses on the artist’s watercolors, drawings, and oils from the two decades he spent working in Maine toward the end of his long career.
The same museum is also hosting a jewel of an exhibition called “Maine Moderns: Art in Seguinland, 1900-1940.’’ It includes several Marins, a superb suite of paintings by Hartley, and fine selections of paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photographs by the artists mentioned above.
All these artists, and a few more, such as Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, turn up repeatedly in the permanent collections of nearby museums - the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, and the Ogunquit Museum of American Art - as well as in temporary shows such as Bates’s selection of Hartley drawings and Bowdoin’s “Modernism at Bowdoin: American paintings from 1900 to 1940.’’
So although the two Portland shows are specifically under review here, I advise anyone with a bit of free time and an interest in the points of intersection between Maine and American modernism to consider taking in these other venues as well.
Born in New Jersey in 1870, Marin had been spending his summers in Maine since around 1920. He first visited Phippsburg Peninsula there as early as 1914, and in 1915, with funds from Alfred Stieglitz, his dealer, he purchased a small island in Small Point Harbor. Finally, in 1934, he bought a seaside home at Cape Split.
Among avant-gardists, Marin was uncommonly lucky: There was a consensus that his work merited serious attention almost from the get-go. Already by the 1920s, he had become well known for his fractured and hectic views of Manhattan.
In a tightened pictorial space that drew on aspects of Fauvism, Cubism, and Expressionism, these pictures - most of them watercolors - sought to convey the push and pull of the urban melee and the dynamic, jagged edges of its tremendous architectural masses.
Maine’s coast obviously offered an antidote to the pressures and drama implicit in Marin’s urban vision. And yet, like Winslow Homer in the previous century, Marin was also drawn to the different drama - the constant, often violent push and pull - of these coastal waters.
As a consequence, many of the pictorial devices he used in his city works also appear in the coastal pictures. He used black lines both to define space and contour and to impose compositional structure. He pulled out elements from the views he depicted and turned them into isolated motifs, almost symbols. And he extracted rectangles and triangles before reinserting them into the picture, as if the view through a camera’s viewfinder or a postcard had been collaged onto the surface.
The results were sometimes as odd as the technique suggests: The 1934 oil “Women Forms and the Sea,’’ which shows three female nudes ensconced in snugly fitting rectangles superimposed on the juicily painted waters of a Maine bay, is an admirably free experiment that goes nowhere very interesting.
But in a remarkable Cape Split picture of 1933, Marin used these methods to construct wonderfully lively and unpredictable pictures.
Much of the liveliness is the result of the many different kinds of mark Marin used. In “Composition, Cape Split, Maine, No. 3’’ the rectangular canvas is divided up by straight and zigzagging black diagonals. Areas of bare canvas show through. He had only recently turned to oils after decades working almost exclusively in watercolor, and he seemed to relish the possibilities opened up by this more viscous and opaque medium. He brushed in freely here, scratched in thin lines with the back of his brush there, and made dainty outlines with a loaded brush elsewhere. The colors - gray blues, forest greens, black, white, and isolated outbreaks of yellow and red - are simple, bold, eye-catching.
Much of the fussiness of Marin’s linear, Cubist manner disappears in the lush, choppy oils he produced in the late ’30s and early ’40s. Works like “Grey Sea,’’ “Seascape,’’ “Wave on a Rock,’’ and “Cape Split,’’ show what a farouche painter he could be. Looking at their churning froth and eye-smacking spray, it’s hard not to feel some measure of Marin’s own excitement as he stood on rocks by the water’s edge. Hard, too, not to feel the ghost of Winslow Homer beneath their lively surfaces.
One interesting 1938 work, “Lobster Boat, Cape Split, Maine,’’ sees Marin’s thrusting geometric shapes take the unexpectedly naturalistic form of a lobster boat’s prow. Another painting - really the best of the oils - called “My Hell Rising’’ - captures the multi-directional energies and sheer power of the coastal waters with a superb patchwork of short, loaded, wristy brush strokes in shifting grays and blues.
Marin didn’t turn his back on watercolors, and much of the rest of the show is given over to his continuing experiments with this medium. They have, in many cases, a more provisional, breezier feeling, but there is always an interesting dialogue going on between the oils and the watercolors.
Marin cared deeply about frames - not surprisingly for an artist who so often seemed to be hinting at pictures within pictures, and pockets of space within a more general atmosphere. A number of the works here have frames Marin designed and painted with attractive geometric patterns himself.
The show also contains a few New York pictures, some inland landscapes of the Tunk Mountains, and some superb photographs of Marin by Irving Penn, George Daniell, and Arnold Newman. Overall, it’s a great reminder of what an interesting - and too often overlooked - figure Marin was.
His work may ultimately have a minor look to it - it’s too wedded to the avant-garde manners of Europe. But it’s tougher, livelier, and more inventive than it is often given credit for, and it’s clear from this show that Maine’s coast helped bring these qualities to the fore.
In an upstairs gallery, “Maine Moderns’’ places Marin in the context of his Maine-loving peers - those who spent summers in Seguinland, anyway.
The photographers Clarence White and Gertrude Käsebier were the first New York modernists to discover Seguinland. They were drawn by their friendship with F. Holland Day, Stieglitz’s Boston-based photographer rival, who had a summer home in Little Good Harbor.
Max Weber, who also showed with Stieglitz, became a regular, and soon, thanks to a flourishing friendship between Marguerite Zorach and Isabel Lachaise, the Zorachs joined in the fun.
In 1928, Hartley, Gaston and Isabel Lachaise, Paul and Rebecca Strand, and Marin all fraternized together in Seguinland. And after Hartley’s permanent return to the US from Europe, he spent more and more time in Maine (he had been born in Lewiston).
The show therefore has the feeling of a school or family reunion. There are some wonderful photographs, including several young male nudes by White and some fine Pictorialist images by Day.
There’s also a fine oil dominated by oranges and browns by Marguerite Zorach, called “Clambake.’’ And although the show’s accent is definitely on summer, there’s a lovely winter landscape by William Zorach.
But to my way of thinking, none of these artists can measure up to Hartley, who is represented here by four stunning land- and seascapes and three still lifes.
Hartley’s work is always immediately recognizable for its robust integrity. He really knew how to make pictures. There’s no fussing about with fey and hesitant semi-abstractions or with different degrees of finish.
As with Cézanne, who influenced him so greatly, every inch of his images is thought and felt through, every brush stroke accounted for.
If you want a clearer view of Hartley’s modus operandi, you can’t do better than visit Hartley’s birthplace, home of the Bates College Museum of Art, which is showing a selection of the 99 Hartley drawings from two sketchbooks that were given to the museum by Hartley’s niece, Norma G. Berger.
In these drawings, which build up form in a patchwork fashion across each page, so that each mark is tethered to every other mark, Cézanne’s influence is impossible to miss.
Hartley took on board other influences, too - including the German Expressionists and Matisse. But above all in these later years, he let himself be influenced by the state of Maine.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.