Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on July 6. 2007 with the permission of the Farnsworth Art Museum and the author. This text was written in conjunction with an exhibition held July 1 - October 14, 2007 at the Farnsworth Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Farnsworth Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Bo Bartlett: Still Point
July 1 - October 14, 2007
Still Point, the title of Bo Bartlett's show, is a famous image from Burnt Norton, the first of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets:
Working in Seattle and on Matinicus and Wheaton Islands -- two remote outposts in Penobscot Bay, some twenty miles from Rockland, Maine -- Bo Bartlett produces some of the most exquisite, fascinating, and complex works of any artist currently working in America. Drawing upon such richly diverse artistic sources as Renaissance fresco painting, the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer and Balthus, and the grand tradition of western history painting in the manner of Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley, he creates contemporary narrative paintings that are at once compelling and unsettling. The artist says, "I use all of art history as a starting point and try to build on top of it a new visual language." Art critic Carl Little adds, "Other layers come into play --- literary, psychological, social, personal, political -- all of them affecting one's personal experience of the painting."
"The seductive illusion of Bartlett's imagery is, indeed, as vivid as a dream, as captivating as a trance. He paints as though he were awake in a dream."
by Helen Ashton Fisher
In 1883 at the age of 47, and at the height of his career, Winslow Homer gave up his New York residence and studio and moved year round to the relative isolation of Prouts Neck, Maine. Here, overlooking his beloved rocky shore and ocean he would settle in and, over the course of the next 27 years, execute his last great series of paintings of the sea. With their philosophical focus these paintings communicated more about the artist and his vision than anything that had come before. Today they are acknowledged as among his most profoundly moving works. No one has quite identified why Homer retreated to Maine. A failed romance has long been suspected but never confirmed. Certainly his growing fame was placing increasing demands upon his time and affecting his ability to concentrate solely on his work. Perhaps he had simply reached one of those inescapable turning points in life that demanded action and he was wise enough to listen to his inner voice.
Creative mid-life crises are not uncommon, and have provided many artists with new ideas and energy. The great concert pianist, Artur Rubinstein, who made his first concert appearance in Lodz at the age of seven, was celebrated as a prodigy with astounding innate musical talent and natural abilities. Sought after as a performer around the world, he maintained an exhausting concert schedule until the early 1930s, when, in mid-career, he withdrew for several years of contemplation, technical consolidation and re-study of his repertory. When he re-emerged on the concert circuit a new discipline and interpretive power was apparent in his playing.
Similarly, Bo Bartlett has, over the last decade, been undergoing a process of personal and artistic reappraisal and renewal. Like Rubinstein, Bartlett's career is notable for an astounding natural ability realized at a relatively young age. This early success thrust him into a spotlight from which he has hardly retreated in nearly three decades. Events pushed him toward his own turning point in the late 1990s and like Homer, he chose to retreat, at least for the summers, to the coast of Maine. In fact he went one better than Homer, and chose an island for his sanctuary. First Matinicus, and then, from 2005, Wheaton Island, have provided Bartlett with a refuge from the demands of a busy career. Here he can access more easily that timeless, selfless place reached by holy men and hermits through meditation and prayer and by artists and craftsmen through intense concentration on their work. It is the "zone" where an artist becomes an instrument through which the creative forces of the universe are channeled. And it is from this zone or "still point" that the works in this exhibition have emerged.
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