6.14.17 — Remember the Maine

In his last years, Marsden Hartley tried to remake himself as, in his words, the painter of Maine. It would have surprised his most ardent admirers, but then he still could not get over his fears of banishment.

Hartley looked for home in Maine. He sought a sense of place in its mountains and shores. He sought a sense of community in its churches and farmsteads. He sought its livelihood in its lumberjacks and Acadians. Marsden Hartley's Log Jam, Penobscot Bay (Detroit Institute of Arts, 1941)At age sixty, he was returning home after a lifetime of fresh starts and unanticipated displacements. Is it any wonder that he ended up painting only turmoil and longing?

Hartley is better known for just that turmoil and longing, only in another country and in wartime. The painter of Maine made his name with paintings of German military gear and the iron cross. Their thick lines and strong contrasts between bright yellow, red, and black have ties to urban American realists like George Bellows and John Sloan. Yet they have only gained attention since then, with the seemingly postmodern reduction of a “portrait” of a German officer to surfaces and signs. They have also taken on a greater relevance with their frank homoeroticism. With “Marsden Hartley’s Maine,” though, the Met Breuer focuses instead on landscape all but devoid of humanity, through June 18.

He took a long time to find a home. Born Edmund Hartley, he lost his mother while young, followed family to Cleveland in his teens, studied there and in New York, introduced himself to modern art in Berlin and Paris, and exhibited with Alfred Stieglitz in a gallery devoted to American Modernism. For yet another disappointment, he broke with Stieglitz as well because he would not settle in New York. Even after World War I obliged him to leave Germany, he kept traveling. He saw Maine’s Mount Katahdin through the lens of the Alps and of Mont Sainte-Victoire for Paul Cézanne. He saw its seacoasts and storms through Winslow Homer and Japanese prints.

Still, he had reclaimed Maine as his own once before. He moved back for a while around the turn of the last century, and he joined an artist colony that encouraged an interest in American folk art. There he painted on glass along with his favored paper board and masonite. As curators Randall Griffey, Elizabeth Finch, and Donna M. Cassidy map the connections and disconnections, and the show falls in two with a huge gap in-between. The first half amounts to barely four years starting in 1907, the last from 1937 to 1942. Within those divisions, it proceeds less chronologically than by style and theme.

That can suggest an artistic development that is just not there, but it clarifies what drew Hartley to New England all along. He starts with a dark, thickly textured, and nearly monochrome seascape, on loan from a library in Maine, and blackness keeps asserting itself in his art. Even when he picks up Post-Impressionism a bit late in the game, the bright colors add up to twilight. They also give way to Dark Mountain, a series inspired by Albert Pinkham Ryder. He is already adopting his characteristic composition as well—dark masses surrounding pools of light, framed by brighter strips for earth and sky. Clouds at top appear disturbingly large, and houses or farms along the bottom appear unnaturally small.

They create a scene of abandonment—only intensified by the greater realism of his late work. When he paints a church, it appears as a white wall pierced by dark windows, set unstable and askew. When he paints breakers, they rise in a torrent. When he paints logging country, he finds imposing piles of timber or a logjam. When he takes up still life, a white seahorse looks larger than life but unmistakably dead. When he paints the view out a window, its brightness seems cut off irrevocably from the interior.

Hartley has found a more muscular art. He learns to use longer brushstrokes, tarter reds and blues, and black outlines as shadows. If they invite one to compare the landscape to a human body, he still has his undisguised longings, and he paints them, too. Loggers appear face-on in little more than small swim trunks, arms akimbo after Cézanne’s bathers. Who knew that workmen could cavort half-naked, with reddish-orange flesh? He could be unsettling masculinity or fixated on it.

Does he keep finding models in art at least a generation after their time? For all his appeal, Hartley remains deeply conservative—never quite able to engage Cubism or Henri Matisse. A black duck looking suspiciously like a woman in evening wear stops just short of German Expressionism. Then, too, though, his always stopping short adds to the sense of exile even at home. Katahdin means “highest land,” and he made plans for High Spot, a house to call his own. He died in 1943 without completing it.

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