Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

'Marsden Hartley's Maine' at Met Breuer

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

'Marsden Hartley's Maine' at Met Breuer

Article excerpt

Waves crashing against a rocky shore greets visitors to "Marsden Hartley's Maine" at Met Breuer. The wall-sized video captures the quality of Maine that has fascinated artists for 150 years: a place of stark and rugged beauty where the lyrical is laced with a touch of menace.

The parade of artists who went to Maine is like a who's who of American art: Winslow Homer, Frederic Church, Robert Henri, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Childe Hassam, John Marin, Edward Hopper and all three Wyeths. But only one, Marsden Hartley, was a true native.

In what is hands-down the best show in New York right now, the Met focuses on this immensely gifted artist who was as cosmopolitan as any American, who absorbed every lesson modernism had to teach at the turn of the 20th century, but whose paintings were often saturated with the look and feel of New England's northernmost state.

Born in Lewiston, Maine, in 1877, he had a hardscrabble childhood marked by death and abandonment. But he found his calling and managed to get to New York where he emerged as the best of the artists in the circle surrounding gallerist photographer Alfred Stieglitz, which included Arthur Dove, Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe and Paul Strand.

In 1912, he went to Paris and Berlin. There he developed a variation on cubism that looks like collage -- flat overlapping patches in which numbers and symbols communicate like words in a poem. He returned as World War I heated up, came back to New York and spent the next two decades painting, writing essays and poems, and exhibiting his work to positive reviews.

With the Great Depression came the rise of American regionalism, a mostly realist style that focused on the charm and authenticity of small towns and rural landscapes (think Wood's "American Gothic"). Hartley, despite wide-ranging talents, had never nailed down a clear artistic identity. It seemed to bother him that artists "from away," were claiming his homeland's rocky shores, fir-covered islands, and forbidding forests as their own.

In 1937, he announced that he was returning to be "a painter of Maine." His life had come full circle.

The Met Breuer show is organized chronologically, beginning around 1906, with landscapes of mountainous scenes along Maine's western border. These are powerful paintings in post-impressionist style that was almost as systematic in technique as Seurat's pointillism. Unlike Seurat's calm compositions, though, Hartley's mountains vibrate with electric color and his huge undulating mountains threaten to push the strip of sky right out of the painting.

Many American impressionists made entire careers out of paintings like these, but Hartley was already restless and eager to push on. He began to build his paintings out of strong, simple shapes like those in Japanese prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige, six of which are shown here next to his paintings. …

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