Since I began the Events/News and Newsletter pages of the Maine Arts Journal, I have also been marking off spam. Last week I emptied the folder at 2,500 plus entries, and after a weekend off there were 250 more to catch up with! I have seen into a gyre of mind-scrambling proportions. Vast distortions of reality threaten to engulf, enmesh and hobble my time and thoughts as I delete, delete and delete.
I woke up this morning at 2am knowing I would not get back to sleep. There is a war on. A war of words that are being puked out by drunk computers from the mind’s dungeon where writers of propaganda meet and mash up with algorithms and endlessly create fictitious names and accounts, attaching toxic links. Even worse is the some times rational voice that emerges and may find a soft landing in someone’s heart or mind. Earworms, heart strings, viral memes are being bombarded at our inbox. There are ominous rants from Holocaust deniers, men who want to boycott American women and promote third world sex slaves. There are messages in many languages, pages of characters directly from the tower of Babel. Some is computer gibberish, strings of brand names, random sentences and live links. There are awkward translations, broken English, robot English, praising the content of our small Arts Journal Blog site, promising to bookmark us and return. This compliment sounds like a threat.
Yesterday I brought this report to my team and we weighed the options. We decided to terminate the comments feature and cut ourselves free from the entanglement.
At 1800 hours I received this message:
“I took a deep breath and installed the plug-in to disable all comments. It means we lost the good ones from Spring too… I hope it works ok.”
Perhaps I will sleep better now, but I can still hear the distant clicking of keys, like the mandibles of an ant army scuttling over leaf and rock, streaming into my devices. Blocked, for now, by a thin veil of technology but there and just waiting for an opportunity, the slightest slip.
Then, before dawn, this note arrived from a friend.
“Somehow I keep thinking of this lately,” they said. It was a quote from Thucydides, an Athenian historian and general who chronicled the war between Sparta and Athens in the year 411 BC.
“The regular meaning of words changed to fit the state of affairs. Insane risk was now bravery for an ally; careful forethought was cowardice; moderation was considered an excuse for being unmanly; circumspection was an unwillingness to commit; heedless attacks was termed manly behavior, and self-defense was a bland excuse for conspiracy.
The one seeking extreme action was considered trustworthy; anyone who spoke against him was suspicious. If you were a successful conspirator, you were smart; you were clever if you discovered a conspiracy. But if you made provisions against either situation, you risked dividing your party and living in fear of your opponents. It was simply the same whether you stopped someone from doing wrong or you discovered a new opportunity for wrongdoing.” Thucydides
Day is emerging now from night, the half moon setting, and Antares no longer visible. The sun will rise, and day will come. The day will come.
In many ways, that day is already here.
Provincialism (n.) “narrowness of mind or outlook; lack of sophistication” (Collins English Dictionary)
“Provincial” is a tricky word. After all, when we talk about the arts, this might be the term we sense as the other to “urban.” And yet, it would only be balanced if “urban” and, say, “urbane” were blended. “Provincial” carries an inherent sting.
How do we talk about regional or local art communities in a way that acknowledges their identities and their distinctive strengths and weaknesses without the presumed insult of provincialism? This is a huge topic of interest for the artist communities of Maine, but it is a conversation avoided by both sides of the polemic. After all, to look down your nose at your local community with the insult side of provincialism isn’t going to win you many friends – or it could isolate you within your own elitist clique. And to argue for provincialism is, by definition, an argument for ignorance: It’s a losing prospect out of the gate because the overbalanced weight of the word.
Not surprisingly, this problem begins in France. That said, the strands of painting that came to lay the path for American art and Maine painting in particular flowed primarily from France. And our French roots go back to our state’s foundation: Maine, after all, gets its name from a French province.
In the nineteenth century, the cultural map of France was described in two words: Paris and Le Désert – “the desert.” That was it. You were either in the central cultural city of the world (as the French saw Paris) or you were in a cultural wasteland.
And yet France is the place that literally institutionalized local flavor: Champagne is only from the Champagne region – or else it cannot be called “Champagne.” Bordeaux’s famous wines are only from Bordeaux – and so on. And this is regulated and enforced by law. (The same also goes for butters, cheeses, etc.)
We can use terms like “regionalism” and “localism” but there is no balance for the tacit insult of being labeled “provincial.” Nonetheless, underlying this seemingly overdetermined topic is a rich conversation that — due to our own politeness among our arts communities — has been overly overlooked. This issue of the Maine Arts Journal hopes to open the floor for this conversation for the benefit of all.
I see Maine as having one of the best art “brands” in America: How is that distinctive Maine brand good for Maine artists? How is that limiting?
Like New York, Maine has one of the densest and richest art historical traditions (including art stars and major movements etc). To what extent does the sense of place bring the communities together — or not?
Many artists, including a number of the nation’s biggest names, simply work in Maine as a place to find focus. Their work, their conversations, their galleries, their concerns have little to do with Maine. In other words, many artists working in Maine don’t consider themselves “Maine artists.” And if their shared concerns are not artistic, do they have economic, legal or social points in common? Should they?
Local color plays a role for many artists working in Maine, it allows for a metaphor of place where an artist might decide that it is here, “between rock and root” that they will hammer out their visions. Building or participating in a “brand,” after all, helps build bridges of expectation or markets while reaching clearly into recognizable cultural communities populated with real people, peers, colleagues, friends. But does this make them willfully provincial, intentionally branded (in the hot iron sense of the word) to a certain extent with ignorant narrowness?
“Provincial” might roll off the tongue as an easy sneer, but it opens the door to some complex and important conversations about the unity and diversity among the communities of artists working in Maine.
above: Emilie Stark-Menneg, Add Gulls, 2017, 48”x36”, acrylic and oil on canvas
“Regionalism: Maine Art and Artist“
We are pleased to present the Fall 2017 issue “Regionalism: Maine Art and Artist”. A variety of artists and writers respond to the question: Is regionalism possible in a globally- connected environment? What does the term Maine artist mean in today’s art culture and is such a term meaningful at all? From Ed Beem, Marsha Donahue, Lucy Lippard’s words to the art and reflections of William Irvine, Mary Armstrong, Emilie Stark-Menneg and many more, they all explore an in-depth discussion on a sense of place that is both unifying and unique. Marsden Hartley garners more than one mention as an artist who returned to and claimed Maine as his muse.
We received 21 UMVA members’ submissions for this issue, more than any other theme. We look forward to your submissions for the upcoming issues. The Journal themes change quarterly and so there are many opportunities for an artist to find a subject that suits their individual temperament. Check the guidelines for the theme of “Innervisions” for winter 2018 and consider contributing. The Journal includes chapter updates and issues concerning all members, and a UMVA Newsletter for artist opportunities that will be kept updated.
There is a News/Events selection on the menu that includes show listings of members and member-affiliated galleries and non-profit organizations, and includes open calls for art. Check the listings for ongoing updates and to get an idea of how much art there is going on around the state. The Journal is launching its own Facebook page, be sure to “Like” the page to get regular highlights of members art and ideas, excerpts from the Journal, and archives, and updates on current events.
We would like to welcome Kathy Weinberg to the editorial board of the Maine Arts Journal: UMVA Quarterly with her own words:
“I joined the UMVA because of the Journal. I like to communicate through writing and believe in publishing. As “The Fourth Estate” journalism has a high place in our society. Mix journalism with poetry and you get a sense of what the Journal aspires to. The Journal allows a variety of artistic points of view to be seen and is a beautiful showcase/ platform of the art that is, and has been made throughout the region. The Journal offers a forum where the artists voice can be heard and where ideas about art and the artistic life are shared. I feel that being an artist in today’s society is by itself a quietly subversive act that I practice daily and by tending to my projects and visions affect the lives of others around me in this way. “ Kathy Weinberg, 2017
Enjoy this Fall issue with a cup of something warm in this season of change, introspection and added layers,
From the Maine Arts Journal Editorial Board,
Jeff Ackerman, Dan Kany, Natasha Mayers, Jessica McCarthy, Nora Tryon, Kathy Weinberg
Marsden Hartley, Mount Katahdin Autumn No. 1, oil on panel
In some skewed kind of logic, regional art of Maine could be argued around to where art is sometimes defined as Maine. Take for instance Marsden Hartley (fig.1) or John Marin’s (fig.2) work. With Marin’s extraordinary coastal Maine watercolors I find it hard to identify him with few other places more than Maine, even though he certainly painted other places, as did Hartley.
When one says regional art of Maine, what comes to mind? Andrew Wyeth (fig.3), certainly, but beyond that, it would depend on your depth of understanding and taste and would probably be subjective, based on your experience and education. But how does Maine fit within the definition of regionalism?
‘Regionalism’ as an actual movement, as defined by Wikipedia, was an American realist modern movement popular from 1930-1935 “that included paintings, murals, lithographs and illustrations depicting realistic scenes of rural and small-town America…Regionalist art in general was in a relatively conservative and traditional style that appealed to popular American sensibilities, while strictly opposing the perceived domination of French art.”
As a result, when in art school in the sixties, the words “regional art” were delivered derisively to mean pedestrian art. Teachers would say about an artist that they were only a regional artist, meaning not to be taken seriously or given much weight, or even trite. By the time I graduated, I said, “Oh my god, I’ve got to avoid at all costs being regional.”
But regional as a damning label began to lose validity as I came to know regions in the world that represented a standard in art; the Barbizon woods where Parisian landscape painters painted en plein air, Provence en Aix where Cezanne made the light and shapes recognizable, Cuzco with its golden Peruvian art, Benin in Africa known for some of the earliest sculpture, and many more of which I came to be aware by education and travel. The denouement was when I walked into the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC as a young art student and saw that the signature painting in a show of Luminist Hudson River painters was Frederick Church’s painting of Katahdin from Millinocket Lake (fig.6). All I have mentioned were important and historic places and the art from them defined and was defined by the region. One not only pictured a style but a quality of work from each place. How does the region inform the quality? Is it by some level of familiarity or brand that we assume a certain quality? Do artists come to Maine to seek out a certain brand, thereby assuming that quality goes with it?
Talking with a couple of artists about regionalism recently, one said that she felt the people that come to paint the Maine we so jealously guard as our own seemed like interlopers after a bit of the Maine panache. Take for instance the number of plein air workshops that have sprung up along the coast in the last few years, often even taught by visitors. You have to wonder if people are being attracted by some greater global connectivity, such as the internet, advertising our mystique.
It may be true that the internet connectivity has begun to draw more artists to the region but artists have been beating a path to Maine for over a century and a half, ever since Frederick Church came to Maine in the mid 1800’s. In fact artists with their tools were the original visual reporters of these regions, be it the unexplored West or Maine’s rugged coast and interior. Connectivity may have enhanced the allure of our region but there is plenty of evidence that it was well established before the internet. Even if the sales and promotion often exists in an urban setting like New York, that does not take away from the regional nature of the art. That is why I see Maine as an identifiable region, as is Rockport, Massachusetts, for its community of seaport painters, or Abiquiu, New Mexico as interpreted through the eyes of Georgia O’Keeffe.
The region defines the art defines the region. So I return to the question, does the region inform the quality and how much does familiarity influence our judgment of quality? Some work begs the question, but regionalism can sometimes carry the day. I remember the great, groundbreaking show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC of Black folk art from across the South back in 1978. Some of the artists went on to be international sensations but it was the region that carried all the artists on its tide. Authenticity can count for a lot; a sense of truth and integrity in the work or the power of a regional brand.
And sometimes an artist lands exactly where they are supposed to be, a kind of magic coupling of the level of inspiration of a region with the artist’s particular sensibility. What would Marin have been without the Maine coast, or Fairfield Porter (fig.4) or Stephen Etnier (fig.5) without Maine light, or Hartley without Katahdin?
Or Hartley without Stieglitz? When Hartley wanted to revive his flagging career and reestablish himself as “the painter of Maine” Stieglitz mounted a solo show of his work at Gallery 291 in New York City in 1909, including images of Katahdin, and thereby located his work of Maine before an international art audience. So without the connectivity to a larger audience, would we even know regionalism?
Ultimately the connection to an urban sales and exhibition venue is crucial to our connectivity to outlying regions, and even though it has been enhanced greatly by the advent of the internet, the “connectivity” is the catalyst, the vehicle, whether in the mid 1800’s when Luminist paintings of Mt. Desert, Maine were put before the Rockefellers or in 1913 when George Bellows (fig.7) began
summering on Monhegan and returned to New York City, or when Alex Katz (fig.8) came to study at the Skowhegan School in 1950 and brought his en plein air visions of Maine back to his native Brooklyn, N.Y., or when Stephen Pace (fig.9) showed his light coastal Maine paintings in New York.
But how does this connectivity really affect the quality and character of work from this region? Aren’t we just as likely to produce regionally substandard or trite work or does Maine really have an edge, a distinctive look, where the landscape serves the artist and, even if the artist has only passable skills, will produce work of distinct appeal and quality?
I have a gallery in North Light Gallery of mostly emerging artists who paint this region. The region is the subject, but the artists are not necessarily from this region. Andrew Wyeth did not start as a Maine regional painter but came to embrace this region after being raised and schooled in Pennsylvania, but he will forever define a quality of Maine painting; a reduced palette and emotional austerity typical of the Maine farmlands and coast.
Which brings me back to the question, how is perception of a region changed in the world view by painters who are not from that region adopting it and bringing their sensibility to it? Would any painter who did not have a deep relationship with Maine have painted Christina crawling through the field? Having grown up here I am mostly preoccupied with rocks (fig.10), as many of my friends would tell you, but is that what a visiting artist would relate to? Maine is a known region, because it is familiar, because it has been made familiar and because it continues to draw artists because of where it is. But seen through the eyes of those who are not from Maine we are often shown a different interpretation of a familiar theme. Was Wyeth’s attraction to Christina in the field really influenced by his childhood farm environment in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania? Have visiting artists, because of their earlier influences, perhaps shown the world a different place than we as natives might have?
After five years running this gallery, one day I suddenly saw with awful clarity, brought back from art school days, that I was running a regional gallery. I began to understand from that day forward what value regionalism has and to embrace it. I began to see how the region has a strong brand and how that gives every artist that paints here a leg up. But, regardless of the brand, I can look at a painting of the north of Maine by Philip Barter(fig.11), a prolific painter of the Maine landscape, and see an arrangement of colors and shapes similar to what I saw in an Arthur Dove at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. many years ago, and know that I am looking at greatness and quality, whether it is Maine or not.
If a work of art is good, it doesn’t matter where it was painted or by whom. Oftentimes the tide of regionalism can raise an artist with real potential into the mainstream that we might never have noticed otherwise. Once in the mainstream that label may drop away, but it might also end up defining what we see. As an example, Linden Frederick paints Belfast, Maine (fig.12), a town I spent many years of my childhood in as my grandparents were there, and though he paints a unique and authentic view of that place, it is very different from the memories I have from my childhood, though just as true. His regional view is very different from mine and he has redefined the region with his truth. I always worry about falling into the “regional” label trap and then failing to recognize and to support some of the true talent around us, regardless of where the artists are from. Linden Frederick is a master and has taken the language of our region and established it with a global audience. In the end all of us from this region may have been buoyed up by those master artists who have ventured here, painted their truth and connected us to the rest of the world.
Being inPlace from Lure of the Local –senses of place in a multicentered society
Page 34-37 Chapter Two
The New Press, New York, 1997
with permission from Lucy Lippard
Place is most often examined from the subjective viewpoint of individual or community, while “region” has traditionally been more of an objective geographic term, later kidnapped by folklorists. In the fifties, a region was academically defined as a geographic center surrounded by “an area where nature acts in a roughly uniform manner.” Today a region is generally understood not as a politically or geographically delimited space but one determined by stories, loyalties, group identity, common experiences and histories (often unrecorded), a state of mind rather than a place on a map. Perhaps the most accurate definition of a region, although the loosest, is Michael Steiner’s “the largest unit of territory about which a person can grasp ‘the concrete realities of the land,’or which can be contained in a person’s genuine sense of place.”
“Regionalism” –named and practiced as either a generalized, idealized “all-Americanism” or a progressive social realism—was most popular in the thirties when, thanks to hard times, Americans moved voluntarily around the country less than they had in the twenties or would in the fifties. During the Great Depression, the faces and voices of “ordinary people” became visible and audible, through art, photographs, and journalism, and had a profound effect on New Deal government policy. John Dewey and other scholars recognized that local life became all the more intense as the nation’s identity became more confusingly diverse and harder to grasp. (Allen Tate called America “that all destroying abstraction.”) The preoccupation with regionalism was a “search for the primal spatial structure of the country…(for) the true underlying fault lines of American culture.”
Bioregionalism seems to me the most sensible, if least attainable, way of looking at the world. Rejecting the artificial boundaries that complicate lives and divide ecosystems, it combines changing human populations and distinct physical territories determined by land and life forms. But most significantly, a region, like a community, is subjectively defined, delineated by those who live there, not by those who study it as in Wendell Berry’s description of regionalism as “local life aware of itself.”
In the art world, the conservative fifties saw regionalism denigrated and dismissed, in part because of its political associations with the radical thirties, in part because its narrative optimism, didactic oversimplification and populist accessibility was incompatible with the Cold War and out of sync with the sophisticated, individualist Abstract Expressionist movement, just then being discovered as the tool with which to wrench modern art away from Parisian dominance. Today the term regionalism, most often applied to conventional mediums such as painting and printmaking, continues to be used pejoratively to mean corny backwater art flowing from the tributaries that might eventually reach the mainstream but is currently stagnating out there in the boondocks.
In fact, though, all art is regional, including that made in our “art capital,” New York City.
In itself extremely provincial, New York’s artworld is rarely considered “regional” because it directly receives and transmits international influences. The difference between New York and “local” art scenes is that other places know what New York is up to but New York remains divinely oblivious to what’s happening off the market and reviewing map. Yet, paradoxically, when the most sophisticated visitors from the coasts come to “the sticks” they often prefer local folk art and “naive” artists to warmed over syntheses of current big-time styles…………
Instead of getting angry, defensive, or discouraged, it might be a good idea for local artists to scrutinize their situation. Why does this very local art often speak so much more directly to those who look at a lot of art all over the place? What many of us find interesting and energetic in the “regions” is a certain “foreignness” (a variation on the Exotic Other) that, on further scrutiny, may really be an unexpected familiarity, emerging from half-forgotten sources in our own local popular cultures. Perhaps it is condescending to say that a regional art is often at its best when it is not reacting to current marketplace trends but simply acting on its own instincts; the word “innocent” is often used. But it can also be a matter of self-determination. Artists are stronger when they control their own destinies and respond to what they know best—which is not necessarily related to place. Sometimes significant work is done by those who have never (or rarely) budged from their place, who are satisfied with their lives, and work out from there, looking around with added intensity and depth because they are already familiar with the surface. These artists may seem marginal even to their local artworld, but not to their own audiences and communities.
It has been argued that there is no such thing as regionalism in our homogenized, peripatetic, electronic culture, where all citizens have theoretically equal access to the public library’s copy of Art in America if not to the Museum of Modern Art……On another level altogether, middle-class museum-goers living out of the centers do become placeless as they try to improve and appreciate, and in the process learn to distrust their own locally acquired tastes. They are usually unaware that mainstream art in fact borrows incessantly from locally rooted imagery as well as from the much-maligned mass cultures—from Navajo blankets to Roman Catholic icons to Elvis to Disney.
Everybody comes from someplace, and the places we come from—cherished or rejected–inevitably affect our work.
Most artists today come from a lot of places. Some are confused by this situation and turn to the international styles that claim to transcend it; others make the most of their multicenteredness. Some of the best regional art is made by transients who bring fresh eyes to the place where they have landed. They may be only in temporary exile from the centers (usually through a teaching job), but they tend not to waste their time bewailing their present location or getting away whenever possible. They are challenged by new surroundings and new cultures and bring new material into their art. As Ellen Dissanayake has observed, the function of art is to “make special”; as such, it can raise the “special” qualities of place embedded in everyday life, restoring them to those who created them. Yet modernist and some postmodernist art, skeptical of “authenticity” prides itself on departing from the original voices. The sources of landbased art and aesthetics remain opaque to those who only study them.
In all discussions of place, it is a question of abstraction and specifics. If art is defined as “universal” and form is routinely favored over content, then artists are encouraged to transcend their immediate locales.
But if content is considered the prime component of art, and lived experience is seen as a prime material, then regionalism is not a limitation but an advantage, a welcome base that need not exclude outside influences but sifts them through a local filter. Good regional art has both roots and reach.
Regionalism The term Maine artist and the concept of regionalism are political in the sense that the lines on paper defining these terms are drawn on political maps. It is currently difficult to divorce these topics from the related, bitter cultural divides that are roiling politics, not just in America but across the globe. These conflicts are not new and in fact this archetypal struggle stretches to the birth of human civilization, and is mythologized in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel.
Cain was a farmer, a settler, and Abel a herdsman, a nomad. The story illustrates the real world tensions between settlers and nomads. This polarity plays an important and universal role in how cultures develop and evolve. Settlers organize, become specialists, invent and build. Nomads carry ideas on their backs from one settlement to another. Throughout history, culture has thrived in cities and regions that were advanced, well organized, but that also received travelers, traders and immigrants, and sent their own citizens out into the world, for commercial and cultural purposes.
All over the world this divide between urban globalists and rural nativists is turning bitter, hostile and at times violent. It seems ironic that there is an international movement of isolationist, nativists—they are, ironically, involuntary globalists. Art culture is similarly divided between globalists and regionalists, each with legitimate leanings—pride and love of place pitted against curiosity and openness—and many have no problem situating themselves between these compatible sentiments.
The term regionalism came into use to describe the works of artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Stuart Curry, whose works were generally set up as the antitheses of European modernism. They celebrated rural and working class America at a time when many urban American artists still looked to Europe, ancient and modern. Study in Paris and then the grand tour of Italy were seen as essential to an artistic education for many Americans, and these pilgrims, in turn, set up a view of America as provincial.
The Painter of Maine Maine’s première regionalist, Marsden Hartley, is a more complicated story, and the works that are considered regionalist came after he established himself as one of America’s most prominent modernists. He made a conscious decision in the 1930’s to become, in his own phrase, thepainter of Maine, and landscape painting is naturally at the core of Hartley’s regional identity. In Maine he found a wild nature, untouched by man, which allowed him to express a religious feeling between melancholy and ecstasy. He possessed a knack for discovering a profound beauty in the barren and desolate.
But despite Hartley’s own desire to be the painter of Maine, I cannot see this work through a regional lens. The Maine works have the same mood and feel as his Alpine or New Mexico landscapes, or in his series on the barren rockscapes of Dogtown in Gloucester, Massachusetts. What Hartley found in Maine or in Dogtown was an isolation and solitude that many artists have found in the anonymity of the city. As with much current Maine landscape painting, the appeal is universally broad and the city dweller may even be more in need of Hartley’s portals to the primal than the rustic. Hartley’s sentiments are universal in the most cosmic sense of that word.
Hartley transformed himself into a regionalist defensively. In the jingoist atmosphere of the 1920’s and 30’s, he was criticized as being too European and too modern. Regionalism was seen as true American painting and the preferred mode was realism rather than the imported mode of abstraction, though the most prominent regional artists look incredibly artificial to our modern eyes (and I imagine they likely did then to those not blinded by ideology). But Hartley was not a reluctant convert, and shared some of the nativist, xenophobic tendencies of the pro-American painting camp. The politics of that day pivoted around themes that sound all too familiar. The rural working-man was mythologized as the true American, as opposed to the urban, Europeanized, effete elites.
For that latter type you can insert Jew, but Jew in this context is not an actual Jew, but a stand in for the foreign born, the financial elites, condescending toward the common man. Hartley’s essays implicitly betray his sympathies for this view, and his letters reveal them more explicitly. He had a well-known love affair with a German officer who died in World War I, and Hartley continued to have a love affair with German culture. In 1933-34, he traveled to Germany, where he saw and admired Nazi pageants and parades, and found common ground in the Nazi idealization of the folk. He linked a New England Anglo Saxon heritage to their German roots. Like the Nazis, Hartley was obsessed with youth and beauty as an expression of racial purity. His homosexuality, rather than mitigate his admiration for the Reich, played into a fascist fixation on masculinity, athleticism and male power. Even his admiration for Native Americans was colored by his viewing them as racially pure; he mentions in a letter how the Indians of Mexico would not go near the mixed race mestizo. This was all played down with his many Jewish friends in New York art circles, but Ettie Stettheimer, sister of painter Florine Stettheimer, stopped inviting him to her salon because of what she described as his admiration for Hitler.
Much of Hartley’s nativist attitude was quite common in New England, and all over America, at that time. He lamented that New England was being ruined by commercialism, and the nouveau riche. Criticizing the nouveau riche is different from criticizing the rich; the poor as well as the wealthy Anglo Saxon might use that term to describe a person of moderate wealth, one or two generations removed from immigrant poverty. Their names might still be foreign as well as their accents. Tending to be proud of their achievement, they might display their wealth to the degree that the Boston Brahmin might hide theirs.
It is in Hartley’s quasi-religious paintings of fisherman and loggers that this bias can be detected, and knowing his leanings does affect how these paintings are currently seen and read. The paintings themselves are often striking, but the brilliant paint-handling cannot be divorced from the subject matter. He indeed elicits a real sympathy for the subjects, but in light of the election and recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, these subjects are once again charged. This interpretation was present in the political moment Hartley’s images were first painted, but fell into the background in the intervening years. Saying this, is not to suggest that we should shy away from viewing the works, but rather that we should fully engage with them, because of—not in spite of—their flaws. Great works are inevitably made by flawed humans and contain flawed ideas, and the tension between Hartley’s authentic mysticism and (what we can now see as his) misguided politics make these paintings worth grappling with.
The heroes of these paintings are presented in a Biblical framework; the working-men are Christ-like, or like Christ’s fishermen disciples, and a fishermen’s dinner is clearly read as a last supper. The routine dangers that the loggers and fishermen grapple with make them suitably heroic subject matter. But these occupations were fading even in Hartley’s day, and today they are a smaller part of the Maine economy, though they play an oversized role in Maine’s myth-fed leading industry; tourism. There is a false note in having such figures stand for the region, and that is especially true now. Van Gogh painted his province’s working folk as he found them: a postman, a doctor, as well as farmers and fishermen. American regionalist sentimentality plays into a lie now current on both sides of the political divide—the mythos of the working class. This term is now antiquated and sexist, suggesting masculine physical labor but excluding, teachers, bank tellers, nurses, and other common, modern occupations. Women, exceedingly rare in Hartley’s work, take on a secondary role when they do appear, and the men are depicted in a style of exaggerated masculinity, as in his depiction of a Hercules in a G-string (Madawaska—Acadian Light-Heavy, 1940). That Hartley shares this quality with Hellenistic sculpture, Michelangelo and Marvel comics does put him in good company, but points out that his men look more like culture than nature.
Provincialism We cannot blame an artist for painting what they love. That Cezanne chooses to paint his mountain is understandable. But Provence cannot claim Cezanne, who, though a Provencal, influenced modernist painting worldwide, not for what he painted but for how he painted it. That sort of promotional language essentially defines the parochial and provincial character of regionalism.
Hartley very consciously honed in on regional subject matter, but went on to make the dubious claim that even his style was native. Maine has no ruined temples from antiquity, no Romanesque or Gothic churches, and no Renaissance paintings—all of the historical components of Hartley’s, or any Western painter’s, style. Hartley claimed that Albert Pinkham Ryder was the source of this native style, Ryder being a fellow New Englander, born in New Bedford. But Ryder moved to New York Cityat agetwenty and painted allegorical scenes from his imagination. It is a stretch for Hartley to claim him for Maine, but that is how regional thinking sours. Pollack also claimed Ryder as an influence, but considered him the only American painter of note and, in his view, the antithesis of regionalism—a painter who broke free of the parochial traits that Pollack bristled against.
I understand Provincialism to be simply the inability, or conscious refusal, to see an artist in the large context of art history. It is usually associated with geographical isolation, physical remoteness, but it is more of a mental construct, a filter through which the world is viewed. As a mental artifice, provincialism is not confined to geography; there is also temporal provincialism, confining oneself to a time period, usually the present one. The allegiance to stylistic ghettos may be the most common provincialism.
Provincials, whether geographically isolated or isolated by their biases, are slow to get news from outside of their borders and may argue about controversies long settled elsewhere. In Maine, abstractionists and conceptualists battle the heirs of Andrew Wyeth and Fairfield Porter—a faint echo of the controversy surrounding the 1960, abstraction-dominated, Whitney Biennial. Provincialisms also overlap and reinforce each other. Sophistication and education do not guard against parochial thinking. And academia is home to some of the most remote outposts in art culture, completely cut off from the common populace, by language and habits of thought.
In addition to the provincialism of the provinces, there is also the provincialism of capitals and powerful nations, the belief that all of the culture the inhabitants require exists within their borders. The New York school, at the height of its prestige and influence, was a very small town. There are more galleries in Maine today than there were in New York in the 1950’s.
The critic Clement Greenberg is a good example of an art capital provincial. As a champion of the New York School, he defended himself against the charge that he was an ideologue by insisting that he was merely an empiricist, and that the best art of his day was flat and abstract. However, he only seemed to consider artists and galleries within walking distance, or a few subway stops. Europe did not seem to exist for Greenberg. He ignored the north European COBRA painters. Established artists such as Picasso, Giacometti and Balthus were considered old news, though they continued to make often remarkable and relevant work until the end of their lives.
Hipness and cool are also provincial traps. This ideology ranks high all that is currently in fashion, and deems it the coolest. By always focusing on the present trend, the hip never seem to notice how cool the old stuff they ridicule or ignore once was. Related to this is Brooklyn provincialism, and all hip neighborhoods across America are being declared the next Brooklyn. It is a secret hid in plain sight that some of the best artists in Brooklyn have been working, in what is now seen as the style of the moment, for several decades.
Art capitals are often where great art can be seen but not necessarily where it is made. Those currently considered the leading artists of the late 19th century, though connected to the Parisian art capital, did their most significant work in Provence (the original province), Brittany and Tahiti. Cezanne, van Gogh and Gauguin define that era for us, yet were largely unknown to their Parisian contemporaries and the leading painters of that period are now mostly unknown. That is not to say that the Provencals knew what great painting was happening in their midst. And who can truly claim van Gogh—the Dutch, Parisians, Provencals—all of them and none of them.
Can Maine claim artists like Marsden Hartley? He painted landscapes in Europe and New Mexico and unscrupulous dealers sold his Bavarian mountainscapes as Maine scenes. Does a border really determine who is a Maine artist? The reputations of local artists loom large in their homelands, yet fall into the middle of the pack outside of those locales.
Hartley’s work and subject matter beg comparison with the Italian painter Mario Sironi, a great painter whose work is not well known in this country or even outside of Italy. Sironi was a fascist and so his reputation further suffers for his being on the losing side of World War II. He depicted poor workers in religious attitudes and his barren cityscapes are unquestionably close in spirit to Hartley’s landscapes. Architecture is a point of pride for the Italians, so the city is a nationalist expression of the genius of Italy. Sironi’s work and politics produce the same equivocal response that one might get from Hartley. Both are great painters whose work deserve to be seen and considered in the context of these thorny issues.
Do Italians need to know more about Hartley? Do Mainers need to consider Sironi? Clearly not, but expanding one’s horizons is never a bad thing. It can correct the biases inherent in a regionalist focus. I would reject regionalism, though not regionalist art. For the artist, subject matter based on their passions is laudable, maybe even necessary. But to view art through a regional filter is provincialism, dragging the work into the small context. I do not have to be a believer to appreciate religious art or gospel music, but I do expect the artist—on some level—to be a believer. Hartley professed a creed that many of us might reject, maybe even strongly, but the power of his belief produced authentic and powerful painting.
In the past, many artists came to Maine to paint the landscape, and I contend that by defining the region did a disservice to artists like Robert Hamilton, who did not make Maine paintings. Today, many artists live here for diverse reasons and work in a wide range of artistic styles. To view this art through any regional filter, is unfair to the artists who see themselves in the larger context. I still get a thrill driving over the Piscataqua River Bridge, but that has nothing to do with how I see art or make art.
Gary Lawless has been a presence and force in Maine poetry for many years. He grew up here and runs with his wife Gulf of Maine Books. But he is also a world traveler, or I should say an “earth traveler,” having residencies in national parks, studying with Gary Snyder in the Pacific Northwest, and, he writes, heading off for a residency in Venice this fall. His work also includes making room for others–teaching poetry workshops for immigrants, translating, bringing to our community the voices of those we haven’t heard before. My sense is that Gary is very grounded in place, but it is an expansive place, because he honors the fact that every living soul also has a place. It’s as if he makes no distinction between “here” and “there.” After all, our stones have already been fire and vegetation and sand, have been under the earth and high above.
The stone is “full of slower, longer thoughts than mind can have” Ursula LeGuin
Birds skim the surface
Just above, just below
Layers of light
Stone below the
Surface, many surfaces
What is revealed and
What is hidden
Inside the stone
Up in the woods,
In the circle among the beech trees,
Last winter one of the lumber horses split a stone
Horizontally, with a clip of his big steel shoe.
It had seemed to be a plain gray stone,
But when it was opened a black wall appeared,
Rusty at the edges, flecked with pale checks
Like unknown constellations, and over all
Floated wisps of blue-grey, trailing feathers of clouds.
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.
“I was more interested in daily life, less melodramatic human interactions, poems of place, and glimpses of transcendence through ordinary things,” Karie Friedman said of her writing. Waldo County Poet, translator, editor, and founder of a poetry workshop group The Poets’ Table, Karie Friedman died of a sudden illness last week. Along with her two daughters and many friends, we pay our respects and honor her words. Work is in progress to publish her most recent collection of poems.
“Yes, the thought of poems that never got written, that I might have produced when my neurons were moving faster and my passions hotter, does sadden me. What a dope I was not to assert myself, etc. On the other hand, my peripatetic life, with its personal ups and downs and varied roles as a motorcycle tourist, back-to-the-lander, mother, faculty wife, truck dispatcher, landlady, and editor, plus a few others I haven’t mentioned, have fed my writing and continue to do so. Now that I’m underway, coming up on the age of Amy Clampitt when she published The Kingfisher, I’m making a run for it.”Karie Friedman
Catch N. C. Wyeth, Dark Harbor Fishermen, 1945.
Swamped by silver herring,
the dory is so full
it should be sinking,
but there’s no water-
line, no glint or splash
around its hull or those
of other boats nearby.
they float in a black
space that might
be wet or not.
All eyes of men and gulls
focus on the catch,
more luminous than coins.
It is a dreamlike haul
and we’re the dreamers,
hovering above, with a gull’s
eye view, drawn not by hunger
but by the allure of shine,
the amazing prospect
of wading knee-deep in light,
scooping it in a net.
Karie Friedman, 2016
To read more of Karie’s poems, and biography: https://kariefriedman.com/home/
The centennial anniversary was celebrated this year for one of the most famous modernist artworks that no one alive today has ever seen. I am referring to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, an ordinary urinal turned upside down and signed R. Mutt. The non-existent artwork was never on public display anywhere. It was entered into a non-juried exhibit organized by the Society of Independent Artists, and that is part of the joke; that the artist was free to submit anything. The organizers of the exhibit were not amused, and left the object behind a curtain, out of public view. Alfred Stieglitz got possession of it (no original Duchamp readymades were ever sold), took a famous photograph, and eventually threw it out. The artwork exists entirely as a story (replicas were made in the 1960’s).
Artworks often contain narratives, but the less that a readable narrative is contained within a work, the more the narrative shifts to being about the work. A narrative contained in a work is subject to comparison with the object; interpretations change over time but always refer back to the object. In the presence of the artwork, the viewer is free to accept or reject any narrative told by others and to spin their own. Artworks where the narrative is about the work often require the now ubiquitous wall plaque to tell the story that the work fails to convey and the curatorial interpretation controls the narrative. The interpretations of the Fountain have supplanted the object and are now an intellectual readymade. Would we be able to freshly react to it if it still did exist or would we remain forced into the dialogue created by its defenders?
The narrative, the myth of Fountain, is that the organizers of the show, conservative gatekeepers, rejected the work, perhaps unable to understand this radical gesture. But the Society was a pretty radical group, including Walter Arensberg, Katherine Dreier, Albert Gleizes, John Marin, Walter Pach, Man Ray, and Joseph Stella. These were Duchamp’s friends, supporters and fellow travelers in discovering new possibilities for art. Pach, who organized the 1913 Armory show, introduced Duchamp to Arensberg, who became Duchamp’s most important patron and would eventually collect every existing Duchamp artwork (a small feat, considering the artist’s limited output). Could it be that this avant-garde group simply did not think Duchamp’s stunt was all that clever, or worth muddying their own serious attempts to pull resistant American audiences into the modernist conversation? The legitimacy of modern art was still in question; they did not want the integrity of their work defended by the argument “it is art because I say it is.”
The famous dogma regarding the readymades is that anything an artist calls art, is art. Duchamp’s own corollary to that, less frequently referred to, is that it doesn’t mean the work is any good, and that the audience and posterity will ultimately make that decision, not the artist. The argument for the importance of the readymades is based on the influence they exerted on later artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauchenberg and composer John Cage, and via these artists Duchamp continues to attract a cult- like following. But what did these artists think about the master? Here is Johns in 1968: “The ‘Urinal’ [a famous ‘readymade’ art-work of Marcel Duchamp] signed R. Mutt, is played as an art object, and then as the opposite of a legitimate art object. And it vacillates back and forth. Well perhaps that is a nice thing, but I don’t know. I find Duchampianism a bore. It’s very adolescent. I was very much excited by it when I was a teenager. My tradition is quite different. My conscious tradition is through Constantin Brancusi and Brancusi just strikes me as an infinitely wiser and infinitely more talented, an infinitely stronger figure than Duchamp. I think I could have done my work if Duchamp had not lived. I could not have done my work if Brancusi had not lived.”
The Brancusi myth also relies quite a bit on stories; the rugged, bearded Romanian, platonic-primitive, with friends in high society. But the Duchamp myth puts the story before the artworks, and that is why his following has certain cult- like attributes; the stories need not be true if they answer to the needs of the narrative arc. The Duchamp and Brancusi narratives are facets of the larger narrative of modernism, another true story that is often intricately twined with myth and error or willfully distorted by all manner of bias. It is best that these narratives be seen, not as true or false, but simply as stories, and subject to all of the dramatic enhancements that make a story interesting. We can correct the facts and are free to tell our own versions.
In the heyday of Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, one man could, and in Barr’s case did, affect the way the story of modern art was told. His modernism creation myth exerted a powerful influence and an equally powerful reaction. It is ridiculous to reject one academic dogma only to replace it with another; but that is what happened, and in some quarters continues till this day.
Every artist, and every art viewer, will eventually construct their own canon, consisting of the artists they are most drawn to. But museum directors and curators continue to control the conversation by deciding what works the public sees. Though MoMA is slow to challenge its own linear interpretation of modernism, museums like the Met and the Whitney, and smaller regional museums, are doing an excellent job at filling out the recent history of art by prominently displaying once neglected artworks. Not only is the viewer left to the task of rating and ranking, they are left to decide if that approach is even necessary.
The Whitney recently had a show of painter Archibald Motley, a black painter who not only was handicapped by race, but had the added misfortune of being a figurative painter in an age of abstraction; his career petered out in the 1950’s and he supported himself painting shower curtain designs. His work speaks for itself, and will continue to, now that he has been inserted into the public view.
Maine viewers were recently treated to the remarkable works of Florine Stettheimer, at the PMA. Those works and many more are now part of a larger show at the New York Jewish Museum. Stettheimer suffered professionally from self-inflicted wounds; she chose to not pursue a public career. Her works have long had a cult following, Warhol was a fan, but she is now experiencing a mainstream moment at a time when there is a great deal of contemporary painting that forms a natural dialogue with her work (Nicole Eisenman and Kerry James Marshall come to mind but there are so many more).
Stettheimer was part of Duchamp’s social circle and she painted him on a number of occasions. It is in fact a delicious irony that as large as Duchamp still looms in the modernist canon, (with Stettheimer, even now, inhabiting a lower tier) in Stettheimer’s paintings, it is Duchamp cast in a walk- on role. In one such painting, Picnic at Bedford Hills, the women outnumber the men and it is Duchamp doing the cooking, tending the lobster pot, while Stettheimer, her sisters, and sculptor Elie Nadelman wait for lunch. Another painting, La Fete a Duchamp, depicts two stages of the same party, and in one, Duchamp waves from a roadster driven by Francis Picabia.
In spite of Duchamp’s misunderstood reputation as being anti-retinal, in 1946, two years after Stettheimer’s death, he helped organize a retrospective at MoMA (he was credited with the role of Guest Director). Duchamp’s public statements were designed to be provocative; in private he admired and befriended a number of painters of all styles. It is noteworthy that the MoMA show was intentionally attempting to secure Stettheimer a place in the canon. But then Jackson Pollack happened and America preferred the cowboy in a trance myth to the cultured urbanite narrative.
Now that artists like Stettheimer, Motley and others are part of the conversation, their stories and the stories surrounding them will be forced into a variety of narratives. But the artworks exist, and they are now on public view. We can spin our own stories out of our encounters with the paintings. Duchamp and his posthumous mythographers no longer control his story. He will now also be remembered as a red haired androgyne, ready to serve lunch to other artists who are paying no attention to him. This does not change the standard narrative, but modifies it and adds color. To be faithful to the Duchampian ethic of destructive renewal would actually mean rejecting the standard narrative, writing a new one. Jasper Johns, in his rejection of Duchampianism, was doing just what the master would have him do.
It is not for us, but for posterity, to decide whether Duchamp gets demoted and Stettheimer promoted. But however the story gets told, we now have vivid full color illustrations provided by Stettheimer. But did Duchamp look like that? I will answer the question the same way Picasso answered the critique of his Gertrude Stein portrait: He will!