Maine Arts Journal Introduction:
This essay was originally commissioned to appear in Maine Art New, a selection of essays and artist profiles edited by Edgar Allen Beem and Andres Verzosa and to have been published by the University of Maine Press. After a long, difficult history, the press canceled the book in February of this year, freeing us to publish the essay here.
In August of 2010, Roxanne Quimby’s Quimby Family Foundation awarded a grant to the University of Maine Press for Edgar Beem and Andy Verzosa to co-edit a new book on contemporary art in Maine, one meant to update Beem’s 1990 Maine Art Now and to be written by a dozen contributing writers.
The author wishes to thank the Quimby Family Foundation for underwriting this essay.
Maine and the Art World
It’s a two-way street now
By Edgar Allen Beem
The 2009 Portland Museum of Art Biennial was a perfect distillation of what has happened to “Maine art” over the past 20 to 30 years. The art has become more entrepreneurial and ambitious, the artists have increasingly been homegrown, and the parochial barrier between Maine and the rest of the art world has begun to disappear.
Upon entering the museum‘s Great Hall, visitors to the biennial were confronted by Hermitage, a two-story hermit’s cabin by Ethan Hayes-Chute*, a Freeport native and Rhode Island School of Design graduate now based in Berlin, Germany. You would swear from the painstaking details of the interior that someone had actually been living in this ramshackle hut.
Hermitage was the centerpiece of the 2009 biennial, an exhibition that put a premium on installations, perhaps because Dan Graham, a world-famous installation and performance artist and the brother of Portland photographer Andy Graham, was one of the jurors. The entrance to the feature galleries was dominated Falsework, an installation of sheetrock “bricks” by Wade Kavanaugh*, a Winthrop native and Bowdoin graduate then working in Brooklyn.
What these two installations exemplified is that contemporary art in the 21st century is about enterprise and industry, creating an experience rather than depicting one. The ascendancy of a new generation of artists such as Hayes-Chute and Kavanaugh also suggests that Maine artists are coming into their own.
Well into the 1980s, the most important art being made in Maine was created by artists from away, New Yorkers up for the summer. That is no longer the case. Maine’s art world connections are deep and wide, reaching back to the Hudson River School in the 19th century, but now it’s a two-way street, aesthetic commerce moving both ways, into the state with seasonal artists as always and out of the state with year-round and native Maine artists.
The historic art colonies of Ogunquit, Monhegan, and elsewhere along the coast have tended to devolve over the past century from outposts of modernism to redoubts of tourist fare. The vital lifeblood of contemporary art has tended to flow into the state via educational programs such as the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (Est.1946), Haystack Mountain School of Crafts (1950), Maine Photographic Workshop (1973, now Maine Media Workshops), Salt Institute for Documentary Studies (1973), and Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts (1986). Of these, Skowhegan has had the most profound effect on the visual arts.
Founded after the Second World War by artists Willard Cummings, Charles Cutler, Henry Varnum Poor, and Sidney Simon, the Skowhegan School transformed the Cummings family farm on Lake Wesserunsett in Madison into America’s premier fine art finishing school. Each summer 65 of the best art school graduates in the country spend nine weeks being mentored by some of the best working artists in the country.
The fact that Skowhegan operates in Maine in the summer and is headquartered in New York City the rest of the year, the annual Skowhegan Awards Dinner being a highlight of the New York art year, ensures a steady flow of individuals, ideas, and imagery between Maine and the capital of the art world.
Hardly a year has gone by since Skowhegan was founded that a Skowhegan alum has not joined the ranks of important contemporary artists working in Maine, among them Ashley Bryan* ‘46 and ‘56, Cabot Lyford ‘47, Alex Katz* ‘49 and ‘50, Bernard Langlais ‘49, ‘50, and ‘51, Charles DuBack ‘50 and ‘51, David Driskell* ‘53, Sigmund Abeles ‘55 and ‘56, Elena Jahn ‘55, Roger Majorowicz ‘57, Abby Shahn* ‘61, Susan Shatter ‘64, John Ventimiglia ‘64, Tim Van Campen ‘69, Maurice Colton ‘70, Leslie Bowman ‘71, Jacque Rochester ‘72, Natasha Mayers* ‘76, Patrick Plourde ‘77, Riley Brewster ‘78, Celeste Roberge* ‘79, Matt Blackwell ‘80, David Little ‘81 and ‘82, Alan Crichton ‘82, Daphne Cummings ‘82, Robert Pollien ‘84, Dozier Bell* ‘85, Gail Spaien* ‘86, Lincoln Peirce ‘87, Connie Hayes ‘89, Vivien Russe ‘91, John Bisbee* ‘92, William Pope L* ‘96, Li-hua Lei* ‘98, Astrid Bowlby ‘02, Hilary Irons* ‘05, and Christopher Keister* ‘07.
Considering the Maine-related artists who have taught at Skowhegan – among them Berenice Abbott, Katherine Bradford*, Rudy Burckhardt, Tom Burckhardt*, Lois Dodd*, Rackstraw Downes, Driskell, Richard Estes, John Heliker, Robert Indiana*, Yvonne Jacquette*, Louise Nevelson, Waldo Pierce, Fairfield Porter, Shatter, Kara Walker, John Walker*, William Wegman*, Neil Welliver, William Zorach—a case could be made that the Skowhegan School is Maine’s single most important connection to art world.
The reason Maine’s art world connections matter at all is that what distinguishes serious contemporary art from popular pictures of pretty places is a function of the degree to which an artist is engaged in the ongoing, never-ending dialogue about what art is, can, and should be. The people and institutions that provide Maine’s art world connections facilitate that dialogue, an aesthetic conversation in words and images central to the enterprise of art.
Though the most famous artist in Maine, Andrew Wyeth, famously remained aloof from the international art scene, both because he shunned it and was shunned by it, there has been a steady parade of art world luminaries among the summer folk, artists such as Katz in Lincolnville, photorealist Richard Estes in Northeast Harbor, conceptual photographer Wegman in Rangeley, and color field abstractionist Kenneth Noland in Port Clyde.
One of the least-known art programs in the state has brought some of the most important artists to the state. The Acadia Summer Arts Program on Mount Desert Island is familiarly known (to the degree it is known at all) as Kamp Kippy after founder Marion Boulton “Kippy” Stroud. Better known in Philadelphia where she is the founder and artistic director of the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Kippy Stroud operates an elite summer salon to which she has invited such noteworthy artists as William Kentridge, Kara Walker, Dawoud Bey, John Currin, Tacita Dean, Richard Tuttle, and Peter Doig. She has also hosted noted art critic Arthur Danto and museum directors and staff from such institutions as the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Miami Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The point here is that an artist working and exhibiting in Maine can never know who is going to see his/her work. That may be true in Indiana as well, but the chances of a major artist, critic, or museum professional discovering an emerging Hoosier artist are far more remote than discovering exciting new talent in Maine.
The New Yorkers
Beyond the artists who have been visiting and colonizing Maine for more than a century, there are also a host of art historians and curators who connect art in Maine to the wider world. The best known is probably art critic Hilton Kramer, a Damariscotta resident who has written for The Nation, The New York Times, and The New York Observer, and who is the founder of the conservative journal of culture The New Criterion. Kramer’s presence in Maine has meant critical attention for artists such as Lois Dodd*, Emily Nelligan*, and John Walker*.
Art writer and activist Lucy Lippard has summered for 74 years in Georgetown, Maine, reflections on which form a running essay in her book The Lure of the Local. A powerful influence and inspiration for a generation of artists, Lippard supplies a progressive feminist perspective on art that runs counter to Hilton Kramer’s more conservative approach.
Before she moved to Maine to become chief curator at the Farnsworth Museum of Art, Susan Larsen taught at the University of Southern California and served as curator of the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Larsen, who has also recorded interviews with Maine artists for the Archives of American Art, curated in 2000 an exhibition at the Katona Art Museum in Katona, New York, entitled Maine and the Modern Spirit that featured works by 28 artists ranging from Bellows, Hartley, Hopper, and Marin to Louise Nevelson, Robert Indiana*, Lois Dodd*, and Janice Kasper*.
“Modern art has not always been mainstream in Maine,” Larsen noted at the time, “but the story of 20th-century modernism is incomplete without the contributions of these artists working in their adopted and complex American Eden.”
The continuing appreciation of the role of Maine in American art is insured by scholars such as former National Gallery of Art deputy director and Princeton professor John Wilmerding, who summers in Northeast Harbor, and Maine native Robert Storr, former curator at the Museum of Modern Art and now Dean of the Yale School of Art.
Adam Weinberg, the current director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, summers on Vinalhaven and in 2011 delivered the Farnsworth Forum lecture at the Strand Theatre in Rockland. Holly Block, the director of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, is also a Vinalhaven summer resident.
So an argument might be made that New York comes to Maine in the summer. And, of course, New York has historically been the mecca for artists looking for a national market and audience.
Since the mid-20th century, there have always been New York art galleries with a distinctive Maine character to their stable of artists.
Kraushaar Galleries, founded in 1885 and now a by-appointment gallery, has a long history of showing Maine art by artists such as Peggy Bacon, Will Barnet, John Heliker, William Kienbusch, Karl Schrag, and William Zorach.
Midtown Galleries, operated by Alan and Mary Gruskin, used to show Milton Avery, Waldo Pierce, Maurice Freedman, Edward Betts, Stephen Etnier, and William Thon. Philanthropist John Payson purchased Midtown in 1985 and exhibited even more Maine artists both in New York and at his Hobe Sound and Portland galleries.
The Payson family provided one of Maine’s strongest art world connections for many years. Joan Whitney Payson, whose collection was housed at Westbrook College for several years, was once the owner of the New York Mets. Charles Shipman Payson, Mrs. Payson’s industrialist husband, gave his Homer collection to the Portland Museum of Art and built it a new building to house the collection. Son John Payson owned galleries in Maine, Florida, and New York, and served on the board of the Skowhegan School. Two of New York’s most mainstream art dealers got their starts with John Payson.
Gallerist Philippe Alexandre, who worked at Hobe Sound Galleries North in Portland, shows Maine artists Brett Bigbee, James Cambronne, Jen Casad, Lois Dodd*, Emily Nelligan*, and Neil Welliver at Alexandre Gallery in midtown Manhattan.
Bridget Moore, who grew up in Maine and whose father was Maine landscape painter Robert Eric Moore, is the president of DC Moore Gallery, which shows Maine artists Eric Aho, David Driskell*, Yvonne Jacquette*, Walt Kuhn, John Marin, Fairfield Porter, and Ben Shahn. She got her start working at Midtown Payson.
And Jim Kempner Fine Art has shown work by artists Charlie Hewitt*, Tanya Hollander*, Robert Indiana*, Greg Parker*, and Randy Regier* Kempner was one of the jurors for the 2011 Portland Museum of Art Biennial.
There are artists such as Kathy Bradford*, Charlie Hewitt*, and David Row* who move easily back and forth between Maine and New York, but there are also major artists whose Maine connections have never really been recognized or explored.
Richard Prince, whose re-photographing of Marlboro ads in the 1970s signaled the new age of appropriation art, studied art at now-defunct Nasson College in Springvale. Kara Walker, perhaps the leading African-American artist in the country, spent 2001–2002 in Portland while her husband was teaching at Maine College Art. Jonathan Borofsky, one of the art stars of the 1980s, grew up in the Ogunquit summer colony and now lives in Ogunquit year-round and maintains a studio in Wells, but Borofsky, something of a recluse, does not consider himself part of the Maine art scene.
Ahmet Alsoudani, one of the hot young artists in New York today, is a graduate of Maine College of Art. Portland Museum of Art will give Alsoudani his first museum show in 2013.
And it is not at all well-known that Lesley Dill, famed for her integrations of text and image in works often inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson, grew up in Falmouth and graduated from Waynflete School in Portland.
In 2007, Lesley Dill and Richard Prince had concurrent exhibitions at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York, but Dill’s only solo appearance in Maine was at the Portland Museum of Art in the winter of 1999–2000.
“I would love to be more visible in Maine and I’ll tell you why,” says Lesley Dill. “I grew up in Maine. That’s the land I became a person of thoughtfulness in. I actually think that it’s an under-recognized factor where an artist grows up. The geography, the culture, the background—all of the things that go unknowingly into an artist’s being.”
Dill credits the shimmering North Atlantic, the dark forests stretching all the way into Canada, the snow, the isolation, the loneliness, the solitude, and the quiet of wild Maine with conditioning her to respond to reading, black words on white pages like bare branches against a blanched sky.
“Part of me,” says Dill, “is total Maine.” **
In his 1937 essay, “On the Subject of Nativeness – A Tribute to Maine,” Marsden Hartley, perhaps Maine’s one true native art genius, evokes loons, chevrons of geese, bears, gulls, “the rocks, pines, and thrashing seas” in making the case that “[n]ativeness is built of such primitive things, and whatever is one’s nativeness, one holds and never loses no matter how far afield the traveling may be.”
In the same essay, Hartley declared himself “the painter from Maine.” Not the painter “of” Maine. For like the best of the artists who grew up in Maine, Hartley did not paint a picturesque likeness of his native state.
Maine manifests itself in the gut, the sinew, and the bone. Native Maine artists do not so much celebrate the natural beauty of the state as they internalize the Maine reality and express it in indirect, deeper ways. Hartley painted the Maine landscape in an expressionist manner that betrayed a man deeply uncomfortable with himself, a heavy, contorted land beneath cement clouds.
Among contemporary native Maine artists, there is this same psychic torque. Think Dozier Bell’s* bleak, wayfinding aesthetic, Celeste Roberge’s* material obsession with the North Atlantic, the strangeness of Alan Bray’s* central Maine even when it is recognizable as such, the cosmic twists of Eric Hopkins’s* Pen Bay cartooniverse, Charlie Hewitt’s Catholic working-class vocabulary, Richard Wilson’s lightly surreal figurative vignettes, Michael Waterman’s* visions of mythic Portland, Bill Manning’s* determination to translate the environment of Monhegan into the language of abstraction, David Row’s insular abstractions on the edge of the infinite, Don Voisine reducing visibility to an obscuring blackness, and Maury Colton, having drifted from Portland to Manhattan and back to Maine, painting mosaic-like fragments of experience out on far Matinicus. There is nothing romantic about native Maine.
Which brings us full circle back to Ethan Hayes-Chute, Wade Kavanaugh, and the emerging generation of Maine artists. They, too, eschew the obvious beauty that attracts the outlander in favor of the peculiar essence of existence in place at once remote from and yet inextricably bound to mainstream American culture.
Natasha Bowdoin grew up in West Kennebunk. Most of her relatives are lobstermen. Her late father was a well-known stonemason and racecar driver. She graduated from Kennebunk High School near the top of her class in 1999, majored in painting and classics at Brandeis, earned a masters of fine art degree at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, and moved to Houston in 2008 to attend a residency program at the Glassell School of Art, where she now teaches. Only after establishing herself in Texas did she land her first solo show in New York at Monya Rowe Gallery in January 2012.
A very literate painter, Bowdoin’s subject, like Lesley Dill’s, is language and how we create meaning with it. Her entry in the biennial was a large conceptual wall painting on cut paper that resembled nothing quite so much as clumps of seaweed swaying in underwater currents. Upon closer examination, however, there were words written on the fronds.
In fact, Bowdoin’s submission, Untitled (detail from Alice), was a work-in-progress, an evocation of underwater plant life upon which she is transcribing the text of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.”
Bowdoin’s fusion of text and natural forms is just the sort of painting that defines post-modern art. She is very much a part of the international art dialogue, but her Maine roots show when you look deep enough—the littoral metaphor of the seaweeds and the literary metaphor of Wonderland.
“I haven’t really gotten an opportunity to show my work in Maine even though that’s where I’m from,” Natasha Bowdoin says. “I entered the biennial because I wanted to show my people what I’ve been doing.”
What Maine artists have been doing over the past couple of decades is engaging the national and international art worlds on their own terms. The provincialism and parochialism that for so long have marked “Maine art” as a distinctly regional phenomenon are being slowly abraded and washed away, like a rocky shore pounded by waves into the sand and washed away by the outgoing tide.
*Image at top of page: Ethan Hayes Chute, Hermitage, 2009
*artists who appeared elsewhere in Maine Art New
**Lesley Dill is featured elsewhere in this issue of Maine Arts Journal