Marsha Donahue on Regionalism

Marsden Hartley, Mount Katahdin Autumn No. 1,            oil on panel

2. John Marin, Sea and Gulls, oil on canvas

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.

3. Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, egg tempera on board

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.”

4. Fairfield Porter, Still Life with Boats, oil on canvas

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.

6. Frederick Edwin Church, Katahdin from Millinocket Camp, oil on canvas

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?

5. Stephen Etnier, Still Morning, oil on canvas

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?

7. George Bellows, Sunlit Surf, oil on canvas

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

8. Alex Katz, Homage to Money 2009, oil on linen

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.

9. Stephen Pace, Early Morning, oil on canvas

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.

10. Marsha Donahue, Intersection, oil on board

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?

11. Phillip Barter, Moonrise Mount Katahdin, oil on board

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.

12. Linden Frederick, Night Neighbors, oil on linen

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.

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