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 cancelled 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 in the Abstract
The one object of 50 years of abstract art is to present art-as-art and as nothing else, to make it into the one thing it is only, separating and defining it more and more, making it purer and emptier, more absolute and more exclusive – non-objective, non-representational, non-figurative, non-imagist, non-expressionist, non-subjective.
– Ad Reinhardt, 1962
Despite the fact that non-representational art has been around for more than a century, the general public still doesn’t completely trust it, suspecting perhaps that a fast one is being pulled on them, that there’s really nothing there to understand. It’s just paint or wood or steel. Maine audiences in particular tend to look for and value evidence of skill, craft and hard work in a work of art.
In 2000, after minimalist sculptor Richard Serra’s 4-5-6, three 30-ton blocks of solid steel, each four, five and six feet on a side, was installed in the courtyard at the entrance to the Colby College Museum of Art, a student leading a group of prospective students and their parents on a campus tour observed innocently, “These are the pedestals where new sculptures by Richard Serra will be placed.”
The 90 tons of steel block, of course, are the sculptures. They are Cubism with a vengeance, the mighty hand of Modernism made manifest in what may well be the most important work of abstract art in Maine.
In order to understand how a 30-ton block of industrial steel untouched by the artist’s hand can be an important work of contemporary art, it might help to briefly recapitulate the evolution of modern art. After which we will wander through a representative sampling of some of the best abstract art in Maine in an attempt to appreciate the many manifestations of non-representational art.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, coincident with the rise of photography, painting tended to concern itself with being a mirror of reality, a two-dimensional depiction of three-dimensional phenomena. By the 1870s and 1880s, Impressionist painters were experimenting with depicting the dynamics of light and perception rather than just what was perceived.
Inspired by Cezanne’s abandonment of classical perspective, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developed Cubism around 1906-07. Cubism sparked the artistic revolution that began the age of Modernism.
Modernism was the aesthetic response in art and architecture to the paradigmatic shift in human consciousness signaled by the Theory of Relativity and Freudian psychoanalysis. Mass and energy, space and time, subject and object, were suddenly understood as relative terms, actually manifestations of the same state. Visual art, which until that time had been primarily outward-looking, became introspective, the act of seeing as important as the thing seen.
As art critic John Berger has pointed out, the mirror paradigm gave way to the new artistic paradigm of the diagram. Art increasingly became an attempt to make invisible forces visible.
And that’s what even twenty-first century audiences often don’t get about abstract painting, that a sea change took place in serious painting in the twentieth century. A painting ceased to be just an imitation of reality and became a reality unto itself. As critic Harold Rosenberg, the great champion of Abstract Expressionism, wrote back in 1952, “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
Abstraction was a European phenomenon that eventually came to full flower in America, transplanted to U.S. soil both by émigré artists such as Hans Hofmann, Fernand Leger, Piet Mondrian and Willem DeKooning, and even earlier by Modernist artists who traveled to Europe. Two of the Early Modernist cross-pollinators were painters with deep Maine ties – Marsden Hartley and John Marin.
John Marin (1870-1953) is widely regarded as the first American abstract painter. He was in Paris between 1905 and 1910 and experienced Cubism firsthand. And as abstraction is an urban impulse, it makes sense that Marin, a New Jersey native, would first apply it to New York cityscapes.
“You cannot create a work of art unless the things you behold respond to something within you,” Marin wrote in 1913. “Therefore if these buildings move me they too must have life. Thus the whole city is alive; buildings, people, all are alive.”
The way Marin imparted liveliness to the static geometry of Manhattan was to break it up into a staccato shorthand of brush strokes. What he was painting was the energy as much as the appearance of New York City. When he began summering in Maine in 1914, Marin applied the same rhythmic, dynamic style to evoking the forces of nature at work along the coast.
Maine’s winds, tides, waves, weather, landscape, even the very sunlight shattered beneath his brush. The influence of Marin’s late paintings of Maine, celebrated in the 2011 Portland Museum of Art exhibition “John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury,” begat a strain of naturalistic, organic abstraction that informs Maine art to this day.
Natural abstraction is generally inspired by the natural world and retains some elements of it while granting the work of art at least as much reality as, if not more than what has been observed. William Kienbusch’s dashing, poetic Cranberry Isles landscapes, Leonard Craig’s visual interpretations of birdsong, Vincent Hartgen’s prickly forest abstractions, and Alan Gussow’s kaleidoscopic Monhegan paintings all pursue this line of visual inquiry in different ways.
In less obvious ways, John Walker follows Marin’s inclination to paint nature in abstract ways in his paintings of midcoast tidal mud flats and William Manning* transforms his perceptions of Monhegan into geometric constructs.
Locale sometimes just seems to seep into an abstract artist’s work. There is the dense rawness of the Rangeley Lake region, for example, in many of Claire Seidl’s murky paintings. She paints as though she were following a moose through the woods.
As fellow painter Mark Wethli observed of Dudley Zopp’s paintings at Coleman Burke Gallery in Brunswick in 2011, “As in the natural world, the twin forces of evolution and entropy are at work in Zopp’s creative process as well, metaphorically that is, through images that are painted, washed away, repainted, and scraped out time and again, reenacting the effects of geological processes through the chance operation of repeated erosions and abrasions.”
Meg Brown Payson is a painter whose biotic imagery suggests that not only her art but also her artmaking process is organic, conjuring as it does the beauty of biochemistry. Margaret Lawrence paints with gestures that transform the external realities of landscapes and gardens into interior realities of mood and emotion.
And just as organic forms such as seed pods, kelp, and whale bones once inspired the freeform abstractions of sculptor Clark Fitz-Gerald, Richard Van Buren up in Perry makes sculptures that look as though a plastic dollhouse might have melted on the Washington County shore, embedding seashells and seaweed in its molten ooze.
Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) was a Maine native who wandered the world from Lewiston to New York, Paris, Berlin, and back to Maine again, sampling and assimilating many of the Modernist trends from Impressionism through Fauvism, Expressionism, and Cubism to the hybrid, highly symbolic form of German Expressionism in which he did some of his most important work.
Symbolic abstraction refers to art in which shapes, colors, designs, and even recognizable imagery is used to embody ideas or emotions. Robert Indiana, for instance, was inspired by Hartley’s symbolic “Portrait of a German Officer” to create a suite of Hartley Elegies that use words, numbers, and imagery as autobiographical references.
Among the artists in Maine who might be said to pursue a symbolic abstraction line of aesthetic inquiry are Grace DeGennaro, whose symbolism is often religious in nature; Charlie Hewitt, who often appropriates symbols of faith and labor from his working class childhood in his art; Alison Hildreth, whose imagery often includes winged beings; Gail Spaien, who uses floral and garden images in her abstract compositions; Alice Spencer, a painter who uses textile patterns as cultural symbols; Scott Davis, who uses structural forms as philosophical constructs; Jenifer Mumford, for whom moons, mushrooms, seeds and vines can be stand-ins for entire worlds; and Carol Bass, an artist for whom wild colors combined with common household objects turn them into domestic totems.
There is not, of course, a one-to-one correspondence between an artistic symbol and a symbolic meaning. Imagery in expressionist art tends to function as objective correlatives, conjurers of ideas and emotions rather than explainers.
Pablo Picasso was the master of such painterly conjuration and much of the abstract art that followed from Picasso and Cubism was foretold by his protean magic.
To look upon gloriously colorful mask paintings by David Driskell, Will Barnet’s early stylized pattern abstractions, the wild profusion of humanized forms in an Abby Shahn painting, the highly charged imagery of Natasha Mayers, or the existentialist dramas of Harold Garde is to look upon the sons and daughters of Picasso. In his rendering and rending of the human form, Harold Garde also participates in another strong current of abstract art – figurative abstraction.
In 2000, the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art mounted an exhibition entitled “Negotiating Figurative Abstraction.” Curated by then-ICA director Mark Bessire, the exhibition featured then-MECA faculty member Sean Foley, Skowhegan School staff member Jo Ann Jones, and Boston artist Amy Ross and established Maine’s place in a millennial trend.
The elements of figurative abstraction are combinations not only of figures and abstract space, but also of the grotesque and the gorgeous, a resort to cartoon-ish rendering, a predilection for bodily organs, a freewheeling exploration of psychosocial terrain not seen since the heyday of surrealism.
Tom Burckhardt, son of painter Yvonne Jacquette and the late painter/photographer/filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt, included Sean Foley in a 2001 exhibition in New York entitled “Figstract Explosionism.” Burckhardt suggested that Philip Guston, the Abstract Expressionist painter who liberated a previous generation of artists from the tyranny of pure abstraction with his late-career shift to crude, caricatured images of eyeballs, hooded figures and hob-nailed boots, was “the ghost behind figurative abstraction.”
Sean Foley agreed, saying, “I think Guston is Poppa for all of this.”
Sean Foley paints big oil and oil and acrylic paintings grotesque and garish with wildly imaginative organisms, globules and entrails. Menace, Foley’s site-specific wall painting for the “2009 Portland Museum of Art Biennial,” was, in the artist’s words, “inspired by the manic energy of a Looney Tunes skirmish and Frankenstein’s grotesquely unconventional methods of animation.”
Foley has been surpassed in fame and fortune by his student Ahmed Alsoudani, who successfully applied Foley’s lessons in painting monstrosities to the war in his native Iraq, thus adding relevance to artistic radicalism.
Inka Essenhigh is another painter with Maine connections who moved through the vortex of abstract figuration at the turn of the twenty-first century. Essenhigh’s paintings are now far more surreal fantasies than abstract phantasms, but her earlier paintings were big, gorgeous canvases that featured humanoid figures lashed together by tendrils of paint on slick, slippery surfaces that look something like animation cells.
Figurative abstraction seems to have run its course for the time being, but the Maine art scene is rife with artists such as Clint Fulkerson, Reese Inman, Tanja Kunz, Ling-wen Tsai, and Henry Wolyniec who create biomorphic abstractions that operate at the cellular level and digital abstractions inspired by computer technology, circuitry, and networks.
In terms of abstract sculpture, contemporary Maine artists have ample precedent in Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) and Bernard “Blackie” Langlais (1921-1977). Nevelson moved from Russia to Rockland in 1905. Her father was a woodcutter and a lumberyard owner, a heritage of Maine wood that played out on an international stage in Nevelson’s monumental, monochromatic wood constructions. Langlais was a carpenter’s son from Old Town who became well-loved and famous for his carpentered animals, but in the 1950s and 1960s he pieced together wonderful abstract wood relief sculptures.
Some of the best sculptors in the state create abstract sculpture that is, very much like that of Nevelson and Langlais, an outgrowth of the material with which they work. Michael Shaughnessy, for instance, gathers, binds, and weaves hay into abstract agrarian forms. Cassie Jones fashions funky forms out of upholstered felt. Jesse Salisbury splits, carves and seems to draw in coarse granite. Celeste Roberge moves in and out of abstraction and representation in stone, steel, and seaweed. And John Bisbee speaks a formalist vocabulary consisting entirely of spikes and nails. Bisbee’s elegant welded sculptures are, within the narrow range of formal abstraction, the polar opposites of Richard Serra’s brutal cubes at Colby. Bisbee creates the illusion of lightness. Serra is nothing but heavy. Bisbee evidences craft. Serra subordinates craft to manufacture. Bisbee is a lyricist. Serra is a minimalist.
To approach minimalism in Maine, you start by looking at geometric abstraction. Perhaps the best-known abstract artist in Maine was Kenneth Noland, a Color Field painter world-famous for his target, stripe, chevron, and diamond paintings. Noland, who died at age 85 in Port Clyde in 2010, had no connection whatsoever to the Maine art scene until 2002 when the Farnsworth Art Museum staged “Kenneth Noland: Themes and Variations, 1958-2000.” And then he was gone.
The greatest concentration of artists who work in abstract geometry can be found at Icon Contemporary Art in Brunswick where owner Duane Paluska has promoted artists such as Martha Groome, Jeff Kellar, Frederick Lynch, William Manning, Garry Mitchell, David Row, Don Voisine, and Mark Wethli whose work resonates with his own.
Perhaps the strictest formalist in this group is Don Voisine, a Fort Kent native who studied with Bill Manning at both the Portland School of Art and the breakaway Concept Center for Visual Studies before moving to New York in 1976.
In the fall of 2011, Voisine’s exhibition at Icon featured oil on wood paintings in which wide bands of black, often in X’s, seemed at one and the same time to occlude the painting and be the painting. In the statement on his website, Voisine explains that his art is about the architecture of the space within a painting and that is a painting.
“Working with symmetry and a standardized format to reduce variables, I establish borders on all planes,” he writes. “Color activates an apparent void; a reflective surface opens a window into the painting, both mirroring and obscuring the view. Such devices restrict and ultimately reveal the interior spaces, establishing a fluid subjectivity between the viewer and the work.”
Formalists tend to think and talk in terms of the structure and internal dynamics of the work of art rather than about external references, let alone purpose or meaning. They tend to subscribe to a philosophy of art that is as much ethic as it is aesthetic.
“Art is art-as-art. Everything else is everything else,” wrote Ad Reinhardt, an abstract artist famous for his all-black paintings.
The ethical enterprise of the formalist and minimalist artist is to reduce art to its very essence, or as Hans Hofmann, another abstract artist who preached the reductivist orthodoxy, “the ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak”.
Sculptor and art critic Ken Greenleaf is a Maine artist who subscribes to this formalist ethic. In the 1970s, Greenleaf made sculpture of welded steel plates. In the 1980s, he made more complex abstract works in steel and marble, wood and aluminum, and steel and wood. In the 1990s, he was making forceful, muscular abstractions such as logs bound in steel rings.
Greenleaf’s most recent work consists mostly of charcoal drawings and paintings that use strong black lines, rather like Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, to determine shapes and spaces that have a surprising resonance with his welded sculpture of the past.
“My intention is simply to make the best work I can, with the most economy of means,” Greenleaf says. “I seek an art without narrative, rhetoric or illusion. Art is, by its nature, an abstraction, and I wish to go directly to its nature.”
And that is how a block of steel, one simply ordered by the artist, not fabricated or installed by him, can become an important work of art, Richard Serra’s 4-5-6. Reduce sculpture to its essence, stripping away personal and social narrative, representational illusion, and craftsmanship, and you have raw material (three 30-ton blocks of steel) that speak about physical space, weight, and pure potential.
In conclusion, it should be noted that the categories of abstract art described here are arbitrary and inexact at best, meant only to provide possible avenues of approach to what can be an amorphous aesthetic covering everything from the spontaneous paint-slinging of action paintings to the obsessively careful construction of minimalist grid paintings.
Certainly no artist belongs in a categorical box. Most, in fact, move, sometimes capriciously, sometimes intentionally, often seamlessly and effortlessly from one style to another, one medium to another, in pursuit of their artistic ends.
Painter Mark Wethli, to cite the most obvious example, was a “West Coast realist” painting sublime, transcendent domestic interiors when he arrived to teach at Bowdoin College in 1985.
“My realist paintings were made in doubt,” he says of the elegant, moody, meditative paintings for which he first became known. “They were meant to remind us that what we see is very fleeting. What seems solid is actually a bunch of atoms bouncing around in an excited state.”
In 1999-2000, weary of representation and hungry for a new direction, Wethli stunned many on the Maine art scene by beginning a series of abstract paintings, careful modulations of color squares that could be read as the ideal realm of forms behind his realistic illusions.
“Dropping the veil of representation and working more explicitly with the internal structures of the painting that I’d been thinking about all along,” explains Wethli, “seemed like a natural step.”
Realist-turned-abstract painter Wethli, Maine’s Guston-in-reverse, has also created symbolic abstractions in collaboration with others on public art projects. And he is not alone in defying easy taxonomy.
Larry Hayden hosts a regular life drawings group in Portland, but his art is resolutely abstract and conceptual, such as The Biggest Drawing in the State of Maine that filled June Fitzpatrick’s entire High Street gallery in 2010 with a one hundred foot long drawing of obsessive vertical lines.
Jennifer Gardiner might be considered a minimalist because her work involves tight little grids of color squares, but since she creates them with thread and ribbon that evoke traditional needle arts she is clearly not a reductivist.
Nor, for that matter is Greg Parker, the painter whose work might at first glance fill the minimalist bill better than any artist in Maine. But Parker’s highly refined abstract paintings are not about stripping art down to its essentials, they are about leaving the residue of life, work, and geography on a highly charged surface.
For when you come right down to it, the work of art is the search for meaning. Art is a method of inquiry into the mysteries of existence, every bit as much a form of research and discovery as science.
Garry Mitchell, who teaches at Colby College, paints in a spacious white studio in the field behind his home in North Yarmouth. Many of his 2011 paintings are lively, eccentric, inexact grids in pinks, purples and browns.
“Almost all the things I’m painting are not about direct observation,” Mitchell says, “but they come about by looking at the world. Everything I do in my paintings is response and action.”
Mitchell finds the forms in his paintings by a laborious process of laying down, wiping away, and painting over surfaces, but how a painting resolves itself is often a combination of intuition and perhaps subliminal perception. His twisted grids, for example, resemble nothing quite so much as the woven mesh of fencing wire. Other paintings, while purely abstract, are informed by quilt patterns.
And what Mitchell is looking for in his art, he says, is “some recognition of something I knew all along.” For that is how all art communicates both to the artist and the audience, through visual stimuli that, whether recognizable in the case of realism or not so in the case of abstraction, resonates with the individual’s conscious or unconscious experience.
Garry Mitchell’s paintings might well be described as visual music, his grids, forms, colors, and surfaces reading like staffs, notes, glyphs and lyrics. And, ultimately, for viewers who simply don’t understand non-representational art, the best approach is often through the metaphor of music.
Abstract art is like instrumental music. We don’t expect to hear nature (wind, surf, thunder, rain, bird song, etc.) in music and we shouldn’t always expect to see nature in a painting.
“Everyone wants to understand art,” Pablo Picasso famously complained back in 1935. “Why not try to understand the songs of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting people have to understand.”
Image at top of page: Richard Serra, Colby installation in progress.