The most famous works of art in the world portray human figures—Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Last Supper, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and David, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
“Figure painting is the classic form for Western painting,” observed painter/art critic Fairfield Porter in an Art in America review of a 1962 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art entitled Recent American Painting: The Figure. “Before succumbing to landscape, it went through the stages, roughly, of portraiture, history, and genre.”
The 1962 MoMA show featured 74 artists selected from among 9,000 applicants, the point being made that America was experiencing a renewed interest in figurative painting in the wake of the tidal wave of Abstract Expressionism that passed through in the 1950s. But Porter argued that, “[a] movement toward painting the figure will be new, not renewed.”
“American painting contains no praise of the human figure… [i]n imitation of society,” he wrote, “the American artist turned directly to his environment, of which he was not in control.”
The figure is central to Western art, but it is not central to American art and even less so to art in Maine, where the vast majority of artists continue to succumb to the overpowering reality of the landscape.
Certainly, the human figure figures prominently in the annals of art in Maine, artists such as Winslow Homer, Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Marguerite and William Zorach, and Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, who celebrated in their art the hardy fishermen, farmers, and sailors of the Maine coast. Indeed, Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 Christina’s World is one of the most famous American paintings of the 20th century and arguably the most famous Maine painting of all time.
That said, there are very few people in contemporary Maine art. This may in large part be due to the pervasive Maine landscape tradition, but it is also due in no small part to the modernist dilemma—how to make art that is not just an imitation of reality but a thing-in-itself.
Figurative art in Maine, then, tends to take either a modernist approach (ironic and impersonal), a romantic approach (sincere and sentimental), a classical approach (stylized and symbolic), or a narrative approach (often folksy and funny).
The Modernist Dilemma
As critic John Berger pointed out in his essay “The Moment of Cubism,” the metaphorical model for painting through much of history was the mirror. The artist held a mirror up to reality and tried to report faithfully on what he/she saw. With the advent of Cubism, which ushered in the Modernist era in the early 20th century, the metaphorical model became the diagram, “the diagram being a visible, symbolic representation of invisible processes, forces, structures.”
Let photographers deal with the appearance of reality; the new function of modern art was to capture and express the essence of reality. As subjectivity triumphed over objectivity, it demanded that a painting not be just an illusion of something real but something real in itself.
As illusionistic space in a painting became suspect in the Modernist era, so too did an obvious focal point. There is nothing more attractive to the human eye than the human body. The presence of human figures in a painting tends to focus the viewer’s eye when what the modern artist was after was integrity from one edge of a canvas to the other.
As an example of how the modernist dilemma played out in some important Maine art, consider the case of the late Neil Welliver.
Welliver, a long-time resident of Lincolnville, whose Maine landscape paintings are, in the words of Time art critic Robert Hughes, “among the strongest images in modern American art,” faced the modernist dilemma as he undertook to apply the lessons of abstraction (his mentor was Joseph Albers) to landscape painting. Many of his early paintings feature female nudes in woodland landscapes. In an attempt to break up the representational image and diffuse the focal point, Welliver first placed his models in the water.
Where Willem de Kooning pushed figure distortion over the edge into abstraction with his expressionistic women, Welliver remained an adamant empiricist, seeking a naturally occurring distortion of form. But the submerged nudes were only partially successful in distributing the weight of paint and imagery evenly across the canvas.
In 1976, following several tragic deaths in his family, Welliver banished the figure from the landscape altogether and it was his landscape work of the 1980s that elevated him to the status of America’s foremost landscape painters.
Fairfield Porter himself, of course, was a figurative painter of distinction, many of his intimate paintings of family and friends having been painted on Great Spruce Head, the Porter family island in Penobscot Bay. Though as a leading critic of his day, Porter championed abstract art and understood the contemporary prejudice against illusionism, when a dogmatic art critic told him, “You can’t paint figuratively today,” Porter defiantly decided that was exactly what he would do.
In his review of the 1962 MoMA figure painting show, Porter, who might very well have been included in the exhibition himself, wrote that he regretted the absence of his close friend Alex Katz from Recent Painting USA: The Figure.
Alex Katz, in retrospect, does look like a major oversight, having become the most important American figurative artist of the last half of the 20th century. As Porter pointed out, Katz “takes off from the comic book and advertising” and “humanizes banality and finds art in the commonplace.”
More to the point, Alex Katz, who still summers in Lincolnville, solved the modernist dilemma by going flat, literally and figuratively. The light modeling that Katz employs gives his figures the graphic look of billboard people.
In the catalogue for a 1990 exhibition of Katz self-portraits at the North Carolina Museum of Art entitled Making Faces, former Bowdoin College Museum of Art curator John Coffey wrote, “[i]n his paintings, Katz deliberately disassociates himself from the subject by treating them with cool objectivity.”
Katz portrays himself alternately as Stranger, Everyman, and Celebrity. Whether painting himself, his wife Ada, or his art world friends, Katz is all about style, all about appearances. He paints the billboard-worthy beautiful people. His work is, in Coffey’s words, “emotionally neutral.”
In Maine, a whole wing of the Colby College Museum of Art is devoted to cool Katz.
Painter Lois Dodd, a seasonal resident of Cushing who came to Maine as a friend of Welliver and Katz, takes a wonderfully off-hand approach to the figure, sometimes painting her own reflection and her own shadow as she paints. Dodd makes magic from the most mundane subject matter.
There is a great divide in the art world between urbane, ironic realists like Alex Katz and sincere, rural romantic realists such as Andrew Wyeth. The New York art world does not look favorably on romantic painters, big city critics tending to find them conservative, rearguard, even reactionary, and, worst of all, sentimental.
The late New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer, who summered in Waldoboro and retired to Damariscotta, summed up the mainstream art world case against Andrew Wyeth when he said, “He’s just an illustrator. Wyeth’s paintings have nothing to do with serious artistic expression.”
Maine has its fair share of romantic realists, the most prominent, when it comes to the figure, being Jamie Wyeth, Bo Bartlett, and David Graeme Baker.
Where his father was a somber tone poet who sucked all the air and color out of the lives of Christina and Alvaro Olson in Maine and Karl and Anna Kuerner in Pennsylvania, leaving only their painted bones for eternity, Jamie Wyeth paints with a lively, bold, colorful playfulness and freedom that recalls the melodrama of his grandfather N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations for children’s classics such as Treasure Island, The Deerslayer, and Kidnapped.
Andrew Wyeth painted a New England Gothic world with a subtext of death and decay, but Jamie Wyeth paints with a sense of humor. Many of his paintings depict children and animals in good-natured, theatrical ways.
Because Jamie Wyeth engaged the contemporary art world in ways Andrew Wyeth never did, spending time, for instance with Andy Warhol in New York, he has largely been spared the critical brickbats thrown at his father.
Bo Bartlett, Andrew Wyeth’s chief acolyte, has not been so fortunate. New York critics have beat up on him worse than on Wyeth, making for an us-against-the-world bond when Bartlett was commissioned to make a documentary film about his mentor.
Bartlett lives most of the year in Washington state, but, like the Wyeths, he spends his summers on his own private island, Wheaton Island off Matinicus. Bartlett’s 2007 retrospective at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland demonstrated that Bartlett is quite a showman, filled as it was with grand, elaborately-staged tableau of friends, family and islanders acting out sometimes dreamlike scenarios ranging from flaying a beached whale to piratical islanders at sea and privileged views of sexy nudes.
“My paintings are not dogmatic,” Bartlett says. “I do not have an agenda. They are like visual dreams. I am trying to figure them out as I go.”
Where Bartlett’s romantic tales come across as arch and calculated, David Graeme Baker, a South African-born painter who lives in Hancock, more often portrays private casual moments in which family and friends are caught off guard, napping, playing, and daydreaming. In these off moments, such as No Bingo, a painting of three teenagers apparently waiting for a ride outside a bingo hall, Baker finds the still center of the rural universe.
“Other than portraits, most of my paintings have been of young people,” says Baker. “It’s not nostalgia exactly. It’s reliving your childhood and trying to figure it out. There seems to be this Maine reality. Young people can’t wait to get out. It’s as though they are longing for the future.”
Curiously, this conservative approach to figure painting seems to flow into Maine from Pennsylvania. The Wyeths’ hermetic world, of course, has one pole in Chadds Ford, PA and the Brandywine Valley. Both Bo Bartlett and David Graeme Baker are graduates of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia.
“Philadelphia and PAFA have embraced ‘tradition’ in a way that very few American cities have,” writes Bartlett. “They have no need to be the ‘cutting edge’ city. They have integrity and they know it. They are the real deal and they know it. Nothing ostentatious or phony about Philly. In the 60’s when all the other art schools in America threw out their classical plaster casts, (many making performances out of it by tossing them out of windows), the Pennsylvania Academy was wise enough to hold onto theirs.”
Pennsylvania’s embrace of tradition may also explain why two of the contemporary artists who revived national interest in figure painting, albeit the figure as caricature, studied in Pennsylvania, John Currin at Carnegie-Mellon and Lisa Yuskavage at Tyler.
Pennsylvania artists, writes Bo Bartlett “are brave, based in reality, steeped in tradition, with intellectual and moral integrity. They don’t embrace tradition because it is polite or courteous, they embrace it because there is something of worth to be found there.”
The New Classicists
In 2000, when the Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island, New York, explored how the treatment of the human body in art had changed since 1950 in an exhibition entitled The Figure: Another Side of Modernism, there were eight Maine-connected artists included in the show—Brett Bigbee, Katherine Bradford, Inka Essenhigh, Anne Harris, Alex Katz, Steve Mumford, Fairfield Porter, and John Walker. Of these eight, Brett Bigbee, who is also a Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art graduate, is perhaps Maine’s purist painter of the classical figure.
Classicism in art means both the veneration of ancient antiquity and the pursuit of an ideal of beauty in terms of order, balance, and symmetry. Bigbee, who lives and works in South Portland, is a figurative perfectionist who brings influences as different as Leonardo da Vinci and colonial American limners to bear on portraits of himself, his wife Ann, the couple’s two sons, and, lately, friends of his children.
“I am painstaking with my work,” Bigbee writes. “I usually have a strong sense of the effect I want to create and I labor to achieve it. As a result, I only finish one or two paintings a year.”
As methodical and meticulous as any painter alive, Bigbee spent close to five years between 2005 and 2010 working on one painting, an eerie, exquisitely rendered portrait of a ten-year old girl. Abby is Bigbee’s Mona Lisa, Birth of Venus and Girl with a Pearl Earring distilled into one iconic image of female youth about to bud.
While Bigbee credits Lucien Freud, Gregory Gillespie, and Balthus as remote influences, the almost primitive stiffness of his hyper-realistic portraits may be traceable to another Maine artist, Will Barnet, who taught at the Pennsylvania Academy from the 1960s until the 1990s.
From Barnet, best known in Maine for his poetic portraits of women and cats, though elsewhere for his abstract paintings, Bigbee acknowledges learning “his attention to design and how to relate shapes abstractly. He is very formal and I have that side to me.”
In contrast to the Apollonian stillness of Bigbee’s classicism is the Dionysian rush of the late Thomas Cornell’s classicism. Cornell, a long-time professor and artist-in-residence at Bowdoin College, is a supremely didactic painter, his paintings serving both as critiques of modern life and as visions of an environmental Utopia.
“The major premise of my work,” Cornell wrote in 2007, “has been to create a healing depiction of the good—images of pleasure and human flourishing.”
Cornell’s pastoral scenes of naked people bathing, eating, loving, playing, and frolicking in nature evince a naturalistic spirituality with a moralistic message about living in harmony.
“Artists are not exempt from the necessity of moral discipline,” Cornell wrote. “And I claim that moral messages enhance the beauty of works of art.”
Lincoln Perry, an artist who divides his time between York, Maine, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Key West, Florida, takes a much lighter classical approach to humanistic paintings of figurative groups. Though he was for many years associated with artists such as DeWitt Hardy, Pat Hardy, Michael Walek, George Burk, and Sigmund Abeles, to name just a few of the artists who participated in the North Berwick Drawing Group, Perry’s major work in recent years has been an eleven-panel mural for the University of Virginia where his wife, writer Ann Beattie, taught. A major 1993 painting was Perry’s visual interpretation of Beattie’s 1990 novel Picturing Will in which he imagined the heroine of the book in every room of the couple’s house in York.
The UVA mural depicts a student’s progress through the university, but it also quotes liberally from the great art of the past. While he has an obvious love of Venetian art, Perry insists, “I look at Diebenkorn as much as Titian. Diebenkorn is one of my heroes.”
In some of his recent figurative paintings Perry has been wrestling with the modernism problem of “overallness,” trying to find ways to paint the human figure that do not tell the eye where to look. The great democratic claim of abstract art was that it did not dictate a focal point.
Katherine Doyle, another figurative painter of the Maine-New Hampshire border region, actually lives in New Hampshire but keeps a studio in Wells and shows often in Ogunquit. Doyle often paints al fresco scenes of women lying on picnic blankets, sexually-charged self-portraits and scenes of amorous trysts.
“I think my work has links to the classicism of Lincoln and Bigbee, and to the romanticism of Bo Bartlett and David Graeme Baker,” writes Kate Doyle. “With these last two, I feel I share an emphasis on human relationships, including the relationship of the artist to her- or himself, with hints of implied emotive aspects embedded in the composition of paintings. We distill several ideas and emotions into each image. Bartlett is a symbolist of sorts, as am I.”
The late Carlo Pittore (born Charles Stanley, 1943–2005) was probably the most problematic figurative painter of the past 40 years in Maine. He qualifies as a classicist only in that he worshipped Italian painters such as Giotto, Signorelli, and Michelangelo. His contemporary nudes, most painted in his chicken barn studio in Bowdoinham, are flagrantly modern, more akin to those of Alice Neel in their raw honesty than to any idealization of the human form.
An unparalleled painter of the flesh, Carlo Pittore was also a supremely social painter, his portraits of bloodied boxers and gaudy carnival performers as well as his playful antics as a mail artist bridging the gap between figure painting and social narrative.
With portraits and nudes, the human figure itself is the subject. In social narratives and genre scenes, the figures are actors subservient to the story. Who they are is less important than what they are doing.
The fishermen, farmers, and woodsmen of Maine’s natural resources economy once populated the paintings of artists such as Eastman Johnson, George Bellows, Robert Henri, N.C. Wyeth, Waldo Peirce, Rockwell Kent, Carl Sprinchorn, and Marguerite Zorach. Today, very few people paint these passing ways of life in any serious way. To do so would be to invite dismissal as a painter of the sentimental, the nostalgia, the kitsch, the cornball.
The artists who do portray the traditional local color of Maine, unless they are purveyors of sidewalk art show and tourist fare, tend to approach their subjects either with folk naivety or tongue in cheek.
Fisherman and lobstermen, for example, frequently appear in the folksy paintings of Robert Shillady of Brooklin and Matt Barter of Sullivan and in the humorous scenarios of sculptor Mike Stiler on Monhegan.
Satire tends to make the traditional acceptable to post-modern eyes. John Kimball of Falmouth, for example, sends up the polite society of the upper crust Maine coast in paintings of fashionable ladies, sailboat races, and even art openings. Matthew Pierce O’Donnell in Woolwich has done much the same thing satirizing the “real Maine” of trucks and trailers.
Matt Blackwell, a Maine College of Art graduate long resident in New York City, has an antic animist aesthetic, painting crude human and animal figures in lively, fable-like tableaux painted with a velocity and viscosity that is as exciting as his images.
Artist/activist Seaver Leslie of Wiscasset uses traditional pictorial narrative in paintings that visually protest the destruction of Vacationland. In 2000, Leslie, a champion of traditional weights and measures and of farmland preservation, painted a series of paintings depicting nude men and women (naturists?) attempting to stop or slow the influx of long lines of tourists. Art as traffic jam.
There are also Maine artists who paint full-on caricatures, creating figurative humor that is as much a matter of style as of subject.
Peyton “Biff” Higgison of Brunswick has painted a whole series of hilarious Wild Women paintings featuring shock-haired women in long skirts cavorting through his imagination. Matt Donahue, a prolific South Portland artist, works in a range of styles from straight portraiture (often sports figures) to Picasso-esque figurative abstractions, but he also occasionally strays into William Steig territory with paintings that are like cartoon Picassos.
Paul Alexandre John, an artist and Indian flute player who lives in the tiny Hancock County town of Eastbrook, paints colorful cartoon allegories of everything from Major League Baseball to western religion and the animal world. Very much in the same antic vein are the mermaids, angels, and spacemen of Portland artist David Cedrone.
Very few serious artists paint portraits anymore. The best of those who do is probably Robert Shetterly of Brooksville. Shetterly is nationally known for his Americans Who Tell the Truth project, a decade-long portrait series celebrating truth tellers. A political as well as a memorial act, Shetterly’s portraits feature not only likenesses of people such as Walt Whitman, Dorothea Lange, Martin Luther King Jr., and Pete Seeger, but also the subject’s words scratched across the surface.
Shetterly’s portraits are social icons, loaded subjects with whom many viewers already have deep associations. The same is true of Jessica Gandolf’s portraits of icons of sports history, famous boxers and baseball players who speak to a more heroic time, or perhaps to a more innocent one. Gandolf, of Portland, also made paintings of babies and portraits based on photographs of African-Americans before moving away from figurative toward abstraction.
“It’s really hard to do figurative work that does not look like a) a painting of a model in a studio, b) a copy of a family photograph, or c) something frightfully old-fashioned,” says Gandolf. “To find a way to do the figure in an interesting way is really tough. And it’s very hard to paint people who are alive.”
As far as making a political statement with the figure, Natasha Mayers of Whitefield and Lesia Sochor of Brooks make unique use of stereotypes and surrogates. In her Men in Suits series, Mayers paints the anonymous bankers and investment brokers who manipulate the economy for their own private gain. And Sochor, a Philadelphia College of Art graduate, uses images from the needle arts— patterns, mannequins, dresses – to celebrate the lives of women in art. Her Bodice series features paintings of dresses worn by Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, and Louise Nevelson.
Finally, three of the artists who do manage to find interesting ways to paint the figure do so in autobiographical ways that verge on the visionary. Coincidentally, or perhaps not so, all three are Maine natives who, rather than painting appearances, seem to have internalized their Maine experiences and now express them in imaginative and individualistic ways.
Richard Wilson, who grew up in Springvale and has lived and worked in Portland since the 1970s, draws and paints cryptic little dramas drawn from his own life and imagination. Two swimmers between Peaks Island and Portland pass one another in the water like ships in the night, one obviously going the wrong way. A pair of canoeists battles a storm at sea. A young man dives into a watery room where his lover waits. Wilson’s magic realism turns fact to fiction.
Michael Waterman, a lifelong resident, is the visual poet laureate of Portland, evoking the soul and essence of the peninsular city in gritty fantasies filled with mermaids and giants, visions in which angelic figures soar over the city, row dories across the rooftops, and even carry the city on their backs. Freed from the laws of nature and the dictates of logic and scale, Waterman’s Portland becomes an animate urban being unto itself.
Charles Wilder Oakes, who still lives and works in his native Port Clyde, describes his practiced naïve style as “a bootleg version of folk art.” A local boy whose piratical uncle Walt Anderson was one of Andrew Wyeth’s best friends and favorite subjects, Oakes paints with a boisterous good humor that is an antidote to the arid seriousness of Wyeth World.
Encouraged early on by artists in the area such as William Thon, Robert Hamilton, and Bernard Langlais, Oakes creates dreamlike visions of a hard-scrabble coastal town in which angels appear to little boys, wolves roam free, young lovers sail their bed above the village, and ex-wives (he has three) get together for a clambake that resembles nothing quite so much as witches stirring a cauldron.
“I tend to see them as touchstones with other visions and other realities,” says Oakes of his poetic paintings of mythic Port Clyde.
As a fisherman and factory worker who grew up to become an artist, Oakes crossed the cultural divide between working-class Maine and summer-colony Maine. That and the fact that he is a figurative painter in a land of landscape and abstraction tend to make him something of an oddity, renegade and maverick.
“I’m an outsider in my own state,” says Oakes, “but I’m okay with that.”
And to a certain extent, every artist who paints or sculpts the human figure is a bit of an artistic outsider in a state where landscape reigns and abstraction gains. In fact, in addition to Alex Katz, two of America’s most prominent figurative artists also have strong Maine connections, though they have somehow managed to fly beneath Maine art radar.
Like Alex Katz, both Jonathan Borofsky and Kara Walker solve the modernist dilemma by working flat.
Jonathan Borofsky has virtually no artistic presence in Maine though he grew up in the Ogunquit summer art colony where his mother operated the Left Bank Gallery in Perkins Cove and now lives there year-round. Borofsky emerged as an international art star in the 1980s. His monumental Hammering Man cutouts celebrate workers and stand around the world in Frankfurt, Seoul, Los Angeles, Dallas, Basel, and Seattle.
The Museum of Fine Art in Boston featured the life-size men of his I Dreamed I Could Fly soaring high up in the glass atrium of the MFA’s new contemporary art wing. The new Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland opened in 2016 with Borofsky’s stacked metal figures at the entrance and a selection of his colorful plastic figures, Particle Soul, in the main gallery. Borofsky reduces the figure to a glyph.
Kara Walker is famous for her sensational silhouette images of slavery in the antebellum South. An entire wall of the Boston MFA was devoted to her mural, The Rich Soil Down There. Walker’s powerful black and white paintings and paper cutouts read like shadow puppet morality plays about racism, sexism, and colonialism.
Walker lived in Portland and worked out of a studio on Munjoy Hill while her husband was teaching at Maine College of Art in 2001–2002, but she managed to escape detection before anyone could exhibit her. But then Alex Katz summered in Maine for 30 years before anyone asked to exhibit his work and now he is everywhere. So polite, conservative Maine may eventually catch up to the fugitive figures of Borofsky and Walker.
(This essay was originally written in 2012 to be included in a Maine art book that was never published. It has been lightly revised. The author wishes to thank the Quimby Family Foundation for funding the now-defunct book project.)
Image at top: Marguerite Zorach, Diana en la Playa