The Maine that Marsden Hartley painted is brooding, dramatic, and intense. It consists of incredible log-jams, of the ocean slamming against rocks, of black forests, bulky mountains, and choppy seas. Its people make their living from the sea and often give their lives to it. It is a rugged world of conflict and survival only occasionally alleviated by visions of peaceful lakes, floral bouquets, and the soft bodies of lovingly painted birds.
Yet Hartley did not give voice to this Maine until the last decade of his life. Until then his career had been a restless search for creative identity, sometimes partially realized, mostly brutally denied.
This frustrating but also occasionally exultant creative search is beautifully documented in the Whitney Museum's retrospective of Hartley's art on view here through May 25. Curated by Barbara Haskell, this first-rate show of 105 paintings covers the full range of Hartley's art from its beginnings in neo-impressionism, through its involvement with abstraction and cubism, to its culmination in the starkly expressionist paintings of his later years.
I was very curious about what I would find as I stepped off the museum elevator. Hartley's early involvement with European modernism is part of American art history. Every student of American art knows about his attachments to the art of Cezanne, Picasso, cubism, constructivism, Kandinsky, etc. His decoratively abstract and iconic "Portrait of a German Officer" has been reproduced in any number of art books, and some of his New Mexico santosm pieces are also fairly well known.
But to me Hartley has always been the painter of Maine -- of the sea, rocks, mountains, and fishermen of that state. He was an artist who painted as directly as one chopped down tress or pushed aside boulders. And he was also one of the very small band of American painters whose reputation survived the onslaught of abstract expressionism in the late '40s. In short, as far as I was concerned, Hartley was a passionate painter of simple and direct experience and not a modernist innovator.
I spent a good portion of the afternoon viewing the show and then returned the following day to go through it once again. I enjoyed the exhibition very much and found that the time spent with Hartley's paintings confirmed my original opinion about him. No matter how interesting, exciting -- even good -- many of his earlier works are, the don't convince me that they are art -- while quite a few of his later paintings do.
Remarkable as these earlier paintings are in many ways, they tell us more about what Hartley was looking for than what he found. No matter how hard he tried to shape or hammer out a modern style or idiom, he ended up with works which resembled someone else's -- Cezanne, Kandinsky, Matisse -- or they remained decorative and ornamental. I have always found it best to ignore the words written about a painting and let it speak for itself. As far as I'm concerned, these early works of Hartley's mumble.
HArtley was never more than knee-deep in modernism. Like so many Americans of his time he failed to see that one cannot remain tentative about a revolutionary act -- and modernism was just that. It demanded total commitment, something which he was apparently unable to give it -- though he was later able to give it to the wild dramas of Maine.
There is something vaguely adolescent about these pre-Maine paintings, something strident and shrill, as though the essential artist was trapped within and was crying to be let out. And it does seem that Hartley's personal voice was drowned out for a long time by the collective genius of his age. He was not a true modernist. No matter how hard he tried it didn't really fit. Nothing was really his -- until he went to Maine and simply gave over to the dramas and mysteries of his home state. It is in such paintings as "Log Jam, Penobscot Bay ," and "Off to the Banks at Night" that we see the essential Hartley.
All one needs to do is walk through the show to see that HArtley the artist wore a succession of masks until he pulled them off once and for all within the dark, wet woods of Maine, in the shadow of Mt. Katahdin. And with that act he came home, both to the place of his birth and to himself.
After this excellent show closes on May 25, it will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago (June 10-aug. 31), the Amon Carter Museum -- Fort Worth, Texas (Sept. 5 - Oct. 26), and the University Art Museum, Berkeley, Calif. (Nov. 19 - Jan. 11, 1981).