above: Leo Rabkin, Untitled, c. 1965, plexiglass and copper wire, photo by Danielle Frye
Rewarding Regional Art Writing: The Story of the Rabkin Prize
By Edgar Allen Beem
What does it mean to be a Maine artist in the 21st century? Would anyone bother to ask what it means to be a Texas artist? Or a Chicago artist?
The question of regional identity that is the theme of this issue of Maine Arts Journal brings to mind French painter Maurice de Vlaminck’s dictum, “Intelligence is international. Stupidity is national. Art is local.”
All art is local in the sense that the place an artist lives in, the space an artist occupies, naturally finds its way into the artist’s consciousness and into the artist’s work. Personally and professionally, I have spent 40 years now writing about art in Maine in an attempt, as art critic Arthur Danto wrote in the preface to my 1990 Maine Art Now, “to drive an emblematic stake through the heart of the expression ‘Maine Art,’ that genre of souvenir images of lobstermen, tumbled rocks, pointed firs, bleak islets in sullen waters.” And yet “Maine Art” endures.
I no longer have a regular venue for writing about art in Maine, but by virtue of art writing longevity I now serve on the board of directors of a new art foundation that has given me a new perspective on what it means to be local and regional. When I was asked to contribute to this issue on regionalism, I decided I would use the awarding the foundation’s first series of art writing grants as a lens through which to look at “Maine Art” and the question of regionalism in contemporary art. But first you will have to bear with me while I explain this new foundation, which is one of most exciting developments on the Maine art scene in recent years.
The Rabkin Prize
The Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation was established both to preserve and promote the art of Leo Rabkin and to encourage and inspire more and better art writing by recognizing and rewarding it. Leo Rabkin (1919-2015) was an abstract artist and collector in New York City who, like the majority of the foot soldiers in the army of art, experienced limited critical and commercial success during his lifetime. He left two buildings in downtown Manhattan to fund the foundation, which earlier this year awarded the first of what will be an annual series of eight $50,000 grants to art writers.
The Rabkin Prize is designed to reward journalists and critics who write about contemporary art for the general public and there is an attempt to find the best writing all over the country. The inaugural winners were Phong Bui of the Brooklyn Rail, Charles Desmarais of the San Francisco Chronicle, Jason Farago of the New York Times, Chicago-based freelance writer Jeff Huebner, our own Bob Keyes of Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Carolina Miranda of the Los Angeles Times, Christina Rees of Glass Tire in Dallas, Texas, and North Carolina writer/curator Chris Vitiello.
I wish I could say I selected these regional winners myself, but, in point of fact, the four members of the Rabkin Foundation board simply selected nominators around the country who submitted 16 names from which a three-person jury selected the eight winners. The jurors were Paul Ha, director of the List Art Center at MIT; Lisa Mark, art book editor for Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Walter Robinson, a New York-based writer and founder of ArtNet.com.
The reason the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation is in Maine (Office/gallery at 13 Brown St. in Portland.) is Susan Larsen, executive director of the foundation and a former curator at both the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.
Susan tells me the idea for the Rabkin Prize arose from a conversation the two of us had several years ago while riding the ferry back from the island of Vinalhaven. We talked about the rewards and the audience for art writing being even smaller than those for contemporary art and about the important function that art writers and publications play in helping the public find ways into art beyond the popular cliché, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”
Susan Larsen was beginning to work with the Rabkins to set up their foundation and it was she who proposed to them that that they create and fund a major prize for art writing. A Pulitzer Prize only carries a cash award of $10,000, so the $50,000 Rabkin Prizes could have a major impact on art writers in this country.
Now, back to the assigned topic. The raison d’etre of the Rabkin Prize is regionalism. It is to find and reward the best art writing in every region of the country. Having identified a first class of first-class art writers, I contacted a few of the Rabkin Prize winners to get their takes on contemporary regionalism.
Regional Reputation v Regional Aesthetic
Jeff Huebner of Chicago won his award for critical reporting on public housing as a community art form and on the restoration of a political mural entitle “Prevent World War III.”
“Chicago is often a special case,” Huebner writes in an email. “As much as we don’t want to admit it, we’re still afflicted with the ‘second city syndrome’ here (even though we’re actually the Third City), a Third Coast echo chamber, as I call it. The city likely has hundreds of visual artists who deserve to be on a national stage but don’t get the wider recognition they deserve because they’re not on the other coasts, with their big media/art press megaphones, among other cultural infrastructure amenities. The same could be said for artists and writers in Boston, Baltimore, Houston, Detroit, Seattle, or Portland, Maine.”
As in Maine, artists in Chicago often have to leave home to find an audience.
“I’ve seen a number of deserving artists who didn’t get a lot of media or critical attention in Chicago move to New York, then get reviews in prestigious art publications (with an inter/national readership) not long later—part of our very real ‘brain drain,’” writes Huebner. “Why? Because they’re showing in galleries THERE, not HERE. On the other hand, some artists here don’t mind working away from the spotlight, as they’re less susceptible to what everybody else—the market, the magazines, the galleries, the critical-curatorial complex, the academic-industrial complex, the art fair art complex – is doing, and can forge their own way of art making (or teaching, or whatever kind of living they make).”
Phong Bui, the editor of The Brooklyn Rail, won his Rabkin for an impressionistic response to a David Novros painting show and for a personal reflection of the death of his mentor, art historian Meyer Schapiro. I talked with Phong Bui by phone.
“We are always caught in the middle between the provincial and the international,” he tells me. “Faulkner was not understood in his country, but he was appreciated in France. Rabelais was not understood in France, but he was in Russia. Dostoyevsky was not understood in Russia, but Andre Gide championed him in France.”
Phong Bui believes, “Local culture, local landscape, even local food finds its way into the form being made in a certain way. I think that’s visceral. You can’t help it. It’s folk legend.”
He used music as an example of the regional dynamic at work within the creative spirit.
“If you love the Delta blues as I do, Son House, Robert Johnson, you know that if you go to Georgia or Texas, the sound is going to be different,” he says. “The question is, ‘Is it good or not?’”
Phong Bui has high praise for two of the best artists associated with Maine – Marsden Hartley, who aspired to being known as the Artist from Maine, and Alex Katz, the Maine summer resident who is the reigning king of New York.
“Hartley was not recognized as a great master until late in life,” notes Phong Bui. “To my mind Alex Katz is the second best since Hartley. When I see an Alex Katz landscape, I feel incredibly free. He’s 90 years old and he’s still making the most consequential art in New York.”
So, even in an age of art-as-activity when art-as-object is suspect, the most consequential art in New York can still be something as quaint and old-fashioned as a Maine landscape painting if it is painted with the right attitude. On the other hand, Phong Bui finds the popular rural romanticism of Andrew Wyeth boring.
Juror Paul Ha at MIT emailed me that, “The List Visual Arts Center has always programmed our exhibitions with the global arts community in mind. There are many art worlds, and we’ve always tried to bring to Cambridge artists that are being talked about in the international theater. Other organizations in the Boston region, such as the ICA Boston and MFA Boston, both have programs exclusively tailored to Boston based artists.”
Oddly enough, one of “the artists being talked about in the international theater” who the List Art Center showed last year was Freeport, Maine, native Ethan Hayes-Chute. For his MIT show, Hayes-Chute, who lives and works in Berlin, Germany, created one of his signature Maine hermit cabins. The installation, which Ha likens to “the Unabomber’s cabin,” could easily be mistaken for regional folk or outsider art were it not for Hayes-Chute’s engagement with the international art dialogue.
Is there such a thing as progressive realism?
The realization that Maine landscape paintings and faux Maine hermit cabins, in the right hands, can be consequential art beyond the regional begs the question that Susan Larsen asked when I told her I was going to tackle regionalism in the context of the Rabkin Prize.
“Regionalism has long been associated with artistic conservatism i.e., Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood,” writes Larsen. “Question: Can there be a progressive regionalism? Has the internet and frequent moving around the country blurred the old regionalism and unified the art community on a national scale?”
Christina Rees won her Rabkin Prize for reviews of Heyd Fontenot’s “explosively celebratory, ultra-queer vaudeville of an installation and performance” at a gallery in Dallas and of a Richard Serra print show at a museum in Fort Worth. Rees sees signs of what might be called a progressive regionalism in the Latino community.
“Contemporary artists in Texas are pretty tuned in and aware of their references and contexts,” emails Rees. Plenty of them got their MFAs out of state, anyway. (Texas is sticky; natives often move back home.) You may see a bit more art inspired by illustration in Austin, or more work that requires huge spaces for metal-welding in West Texas and the Panhandle, but that’s pretty questionable too, at this point. If you showed me a good new video work by an unnamed artist from Texas, I wouldn’t be able to say that person is based in Huntsville or Wichita Falls. The only exception to that is that Latino artists across the state are more visible, more mobilized, more politicized, and more fearless than perhaps they were five years ago. That’s sort of true of all the artists here, though. It’s exciting.”
The politicization of art is an international phenomenon, yet all politics are local. Jeff Huebner says the closest thing to a Chicago regionalism might be activist art.
“Chicago,” writes Huebner, “pioneered the community-based art/mural movement in the 1960s, and the ‘new genre public art’ movement in the early 1990s:—they are both models of collaborative, community-involved, socially engaged art making, for and with diverse groups of people, and are forerunners to today’s ‘social practice,’ which has taken root in Chicago, because the creative soil had already been worked.”
And Paul Ha, though skeptical about the existence of regional art, observes how the best of the local tends to become mainstream.
“I don’t think regionalism (if there are any now) would have to be conservative,” Ha writes. “I am in the mind that regionalism currently does not exist (this can be argued), however, when you look back at some of the better known regionalism, such as the Chicago’s Imagists and The Hairy Who, the artists who participated all ended up in the international arena. The Imagists being Ed Paschke and Roger Brown among others and the Harry Who represented by Jim Nut, Seullen Roccan and Art Green, among others. There was also the Washington Color School, the folks that I studied with in college, such as Anne Truitt, Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Gene Davis. The scene that was working in parallel with the color field painting happening in NY with artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still. In a way you can say that Abstract Expressionism in NY was a regional movement. Pollock, Rothko, Gorky and the likes all were concentrated in the West Village area and they supported and competed with each other.”
All art is local. It’s just that it often has to travel the world to become recognized at home. Think Hartley bringing New York, Taos, Paris and Bavaria to bear on the fisherfolk of Nova Scotia and Corea, Maine. Artists are often prophets without honor in their native lands.
“I spent 20 years in California,” writes Susan Larsen, who was a professor of art history at University of Southern California before moving to Maine. “In the postwar years and until the late 1990s Californians went round and round about their status as a regional art scene. Then some artists – Baldessari, Ruscha, Turrell, Burden went to Europe (Germany, Italy) and became international stars. Then New York came on board for them. California art at its best is regional but not provincial.”
Regional without being provincial
Bob Keyes won his Rabkin Prize based on an article about the critical re-appraisal of Andrew Wyeth, an artist as reviled by the critics as he is popular with the people, and another about the collaboration between painter Linden Frederick and novelist Richard Russo. Maine, it seems, is more invested in regional identity than some other parts of the country.
“To some degree, regionalism crops into all my reporting about Maine art in the sense that I am always writing and thinking about place and trying to create geographic and cultural context for an artist,” writes Keyes. “I believe that where you grew up and where you live are unavoidable influences, and I am always curious how those factors surface in an artist’s creative expression. In Maine, those influences often show up in obvious and dramatic ways, and have for centuries of art-making in Maine. Particularly in a place like Maine, which has had such a profound impact on the international art scene for so long, regionalism is vitally important and at the core of much of what I do and how I approach my job.”
Keyes finds Maine’s strong sense of place and the predominance of cultural realism in art both “a blessing and a curse.”
“It’s a blessing if you come from that tradition and continue in it,” Keyes writes, “but it can hamper the career of an artist whose art is not based in the landscape or a representational tradition. That’s less the case lately, as our world as has become so much smaller even in the last decade or so, and artists from Maine whose work is not based in the Maine tradition have found enormous success internationally.”
Maine artists, like Maine natives in general, often withhold a sense of belonging because, I believe, that is often all local people can afford to claim for themselves when folks from away own and enjoy the best of what the state has to offer. Being local is a virtue in Maine in ways it is not in other parts of the country.
“I can’t speak about artists who live elsewhere, but I suspect that artists in LA, Chicago or Texas are not as protective as artists in Maine,” writes Bob Keyes. “Being labeled an ‘artist from Maine’ carries with it a certain amount of credibility and prestige, because of the tradition. Artists – and arts writers – are protective of that because it’s part of the cultural tradition. We see that tension play out every two years with the PMA biennial, when people debate what it means to be an artist from Maine and how one qualifies for that distinction. That conversation and debate would not happen if it were not still important.”
And yet when artists start arguing over who is a Maine artist and who is not, that’s when regionalism begins to devolve into provincialism. As far as I’m concerned, not only is a seasonal resident or an art student a bona fide Maine artist, so is any artist who simply imagines Maine from afar. If art can be anything an artist says it is then a Maine artist can be anyone who says she is. It‘s a Maine thing.
“I think that artists in LA, Chicago, Houston, Dallas etc. don’t really consider their region ‘turfs,’” writes MIT’s Paul Ha. “I think they all have a local arts community they are part of and they all mostly are looking at the international arts scene.”
The virtual reality of the 21st century frees artists from the bonds of place. Once artists have established themselves, they can live and work anywhere.
“Especially now that you don’t have to subscribe to certain publications, we all have access to Artforum, Artnews, The Art Newspaper etc. And if one wants to, you can put yourself on email lists to many arts related e-zines,” observes Ha. “And of course, one can also follow individual writers on Twitter based in NY, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston. There are few regionally driven arts blogs and websites. Glass Tire comes immediately to my mind, especially because Christina Rees, based out of Dallas, was a recipient of the Rabkin Prize, but they too cover areas other than Texas.”
One might expect artists in the Lone Star State to be as jealous of their turf as artists in Maine, but Christina Rees insists this is not so.
“Not at all,” wrote Rees. “Texas is growing all the time, faster than a lot of parts of the country. Our large cities are transforming at rates we even can’t get our heads around. New people land in our art scenes the whole time, and we like it. We’re interested in newcomers. The more the merrier.”
Chris Vitiello won his Rabkin for a review of an Art Deco car show at the North Carolina Museum of Art (where former Bowdoin College Museum of Art curator John Coffey is the senior curator) and, more to the point at hand, a review of Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art.
“It’s impossible to tag Southern Accent with an overarching theme, which speaks to the curators’ ultimate point: Southern identity is profoundly multiple and very complicated,” wrote Vitiello. “Slavery, the Civil War, racism, and their complex inheritances? Much of the work in the show explores and interrogates that. Connections to place so deep that land and body become the same thing? Many artists unravel the warp and weft of that. The dissonance of the past’s intrusion into the present? Most of the exhibition shimmers with that temporal disorientation.”
So Southern artists do wrestle with regional identity issues as some artists in Maine do.
“For native North Carolinians,” Vitiello writes in an email, “artwork has to do with narrative and lyric, values craft, and draws strongly upon 20th-century traditions if not 19th-century ones, to be honest. In conventional circles here, you still have to justify abstraction—it’s tedious. But so many artists here have come from elsewhere, so the contemporary scene doesn’t have a coherent identity. It’s even problematic to call all artists here ‘Southern artists.’”
Just as it is problematic to call all artists in Maine “Maine artists.”
And in the end
Eighty years ago, in an essay entitled “On the Subject of Nativeness,” Maine’s one true native genius Marsden Hartley extolled the virtues of Maine as “a strong, simple, stately and perhaps brutal country.” In that 1937 essay, for which I would nominate Hartley for a posthumous Rabkin Prize, he wrote, “The essential nativeness of Maine remains as it was, and the best Maine-iacs are devout with purposes of defense.”
“The quality of nativeness is coloured by heritage, birth, and environment,” declared Hartley, claiming his turf, “and it is therefore for this reason that I wish to declare myself the painter from Maine.”
Artists have been planting that flag for centuries and it is about time they stopped. Once the best “Maine artists” were really only 19th century tourists – Cole, Church, Lane. Then we got the settlers – Homer, Kent, the Laurents and the Zorachs. The best artists in Maine when I was a kid were still almost all from away – Dodd, Katz, Welliver, Wyeth. Blackie Langlais was one of the few exceptions. With my generation that was no longer true. Maine produced many of its own best artists – Dozier Bell, Alan Bray, Charlie Hewitt, Eric Hopkins, Celeste Roberge.
Today, many of the best artists working in the state – John Bisbee, Jonathan Borofsky, Lauren Fensterstock, Anna Hepler, Aaron Stephan, Mark Wethli – could be working anywhere. Their art is largely independent of their residence. That is a freedom all artists should aspire to. Wanting to be “the painter from Maine” may no longer be a worthy goal.