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.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

5.5.17 — Out of the Kitchen

Marisa Merz started out working in her kitchen, on the way to a retrospective at the Met Breuer. It could have come sooner, but never mind. Women often earn less than their share, in both money and recognition.

If Arte Povera means poor art, does that make Merz the poorest of the poor? Others often treated her that way, but she proves otherwise, from the coarse grandeur of her early sculpture to increasingly ethereal images of women, through May 7. Marisa Merz's Testa (Head) (photo by Renato Ghiazza, Fondazione Merz, undated)Along the way she brought to the Italian art movement something it dearly lacked—humor and introspection.

Merz outgrew the kitchen almost before she began, and she made art out of that, too, and (along with other recent reports of women from that era), it is the subject of a longer review and my latest upload. Others in Arte Povera were out to bring art down a notch, but with an unwavering solemnity befitting a higher calling. Alighiero Boetti did it by refusing to call his tapestries and monuments art objects—and Lucio Fontana by taking a knife to his canvas, like a tasteful act of murder. Merz’s husband, Mario (who died in 2003), made still life from real fruit, as if nothing less would provide nutrition for body and soul. Marisa found room in the kitchen for more, starting with her towering Living Sculpture from the mid-1960s. It brought a car wreck to sculpture, like John Chamberlain or Lynda Benglis in America, but with every sign of life.

Her massive aluminum, plain or with spray paint, can take the shape of an overstuffed armchair, a marionette or a monster, a forest canopy, or a doghouse. It looks even funnier in a photo, suspended over the stove of her cluttered apartment. It was not her last foray into shiny objects or homemaking either. She soon turned to woven grids of copper wire, inspired in part by knitting with her daughter—whose name she fashions in nylon thread. They build on small squares with concave sides, like potholders, but they grow quickly. The tacks holding them to the wall can spin off to complete an otherwise empty grid of their own, in much the same bright coppery hue.

Merz makes reconstructing her career difficult, even for the curators, Connie Butler of the Hammer Museum and Ian Alteveer of the Met. She reuses materials, repurposes older work, and leaves much of it undated and untitled, but allow me to help. Born as early as 1926 (depending on whom and when you ask), she took up wire in the mid-1970s, along with her first images of women. They include her first Teste, or heads, in wax and unfired clay. By the 1980s, they also include the graphite swirls of what could well be self-portraits, archetypes, or angels. Already she sacrifices some crudeness and comedy in search of a woman’s art.

They, too, start small but keep growing in scale and ambition—quite from the show’s cheesy title, from a poem of hers, “The Sky Is a Great Place.” They also leave ambiguous the line between a woman’s self-assertion and a woman acted on. In graphite, her subjects can seem thoughtful or otherworldly. By the 1990s they have taken on pastel, gold leaf, and hints of the Virgin Mary as a queen of the heavens. One of the latest and largest rests against the wall behind huge timbers. The wires grow, too, in the 1990s, coiling more tightly, staking out large triangles on the wall, or resting casually as what Merz calls scarpette (or small shoes) but look more house slippers.

She is stepping out, in comfort, but still at home. It appears in indoor fountains, one shaped like an earthen square from an ancient culture, another like a violin in wax. It appears most of all, though, in her sculpture. The heads may seem boastful or damaged, with the imprint of her hand and splotches of color like lipstick or blood. They may seem broken off from a more heroic or feminine body. They may share a steel table with one another or a tablecloth in lead.

Merz retains a sense of damage or incompletion from Arte Povera. One work consists simply of taped lines on a broken mirror, while others incorporate a binder clip, torn flowers, plastic caps, and a paint can. Both wire patterns and gray swirls may follow the Fibonacci series, an interest of Mario Merz and Renaissance mathematicians as well. The heads have ancestors in wax sculpture from an earlier Modernism by Medardo Rosso, too. The grandeur may become forced, cryptic, or self-defeating, like a painting that alludes to Ben-Hur. Never doubt, though, that this woman’s sculptures are alive.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

1.25.17 — Visible Man

Kerry James Marshall got his start by painting an invisible man. It may sound difficult, but Marshall has his resources, and he loved Invisible Man, the novel by Ralph Ellison. It must have spoken to him insistently through long nights, just as it does to black and white America now.

Already in 1980, at age twenty-five, he is painting portraits of the artist and of blackness. He renders a man in white against white and in black against black. He interrupts his black silhouette for the harsh white of a shirt front, bright eyes, and a gap-toothed grin. Kerry James Marshall's Untitled (Studio) (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014)He accompanies it with the red cross of a medical emergency, the stripes and color fields of late modern art, and the colors of the Pan-African flag. He holds a finger to the gap, in 1986, as Silence Is Golden. For the rest of his vibrant career, he will be breaking out of the blackness and the silence.

A retrospective holds barely seventy of his paintings, but it feels larger, with big canvases and allusions running every which way. That grin could belong to the stage nigger of an older America or to twenty-first century health disparities and violence. It could be comic, sly, knowing, or just plain scared. He is, a title announces, “a shadow of his former self.” Either way, he drops the persistent angry voice of Ellison’s narrator. He is past all that—too proud, too visible, too vulnerable, and too at home in the African American community and in modern art.

Mastry” occupies two floors of the Met Breuer, through January 29, for the museum’s first solo show of a living artist, and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review, as my latest upload. It enlists Marshall as curator as well, of forty additional works from the Met’s permanent collection—and they are not just black and white. The retrospective itself opens with a burst of color. In two paintings from 1992, both well over eight feet long, people just go about their business. One depicts a barber shop, as De Style. The other describes children at play as The Lost Boys.

They show the artist’s leap that year into maturity, with silhouettes now set amid bright colors and a fuller stage. The man in a barber’s chair has his white smock, and one of the boys is a bright pink. They also show Marshall’s twin ideals of home, in the community and in art. The people in the barber’s shop sport afros rising to the point of comedy, one in parallel to a house plant—but the work’s colors are an all-American red, white, and blue. The title alludes to both street talk and to De Stijl, the Dutch movement that included Piet Mondrian, the abstract painter. Marshall lays claim to them all.

He also refuses simply to play the victim card. The boys are having too much fun, whether speeding in a toy car or striding along in a black jacket. A tree beside them has blue leaves and fruit like electric lights. The floor has a tiling akin to Minimalism, although in exaggerated perspective, and the back wall has the bright red and white patterning of Henri Matisse. And yet the lost boys are victims, of gun violence. A yellow swirl around the tree amounts to police tape, and that pink child could be an angel.

Success comes with a cost: it risks making the terrors of racism an occasion for delight. Yet Marshall keeps his sense of humor, even with his role models, and a transformation of Hopper’s 1930 Early Sunday Morning reintroduces the erasures. Flash forward to the South Side of Chicago in 2003, for a speeding car, a flock of black birds, and blank façades almost inapproachable across a four-lane street and a mysterious blur. Is it sad as a sleepless dawn or a joyful release from Hopper’s anxiety? A recent work turns the Pan-African rainbow into an inkblot. Read into it what you like.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.