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Maine and the Modern Spirit


One of the most beautiful and compelling exhibitions of the summer will open at the Katonah Museum of Art on July 16, 2000. "Maine and the Modern Spirit" explores the myth - perpetuated by artists, writers, reformers, and poets -- that Maine is a uniquely modern American Eden. It also shows how this rugged New England state served the evolution of modern American art. (left: George Bellows, In a Rowboat, 1916, oil on canvas, The Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJ, Purchase made possible through a special gift from Mr. and Mrs. H. St. John Webb)

Featured are fifty-eight works, mostly oil paintings in a broad range of styles, from the figurative to the abstract, that allude to Maine's wild grandeur and isolation -- its craggy shores, seacoast towns, virgin forests, and diverse wildlife. The works were created by twenty-eight well-known artists such as George Bellows, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Edward Hopper, Fairfield Porter, Louise Nevelson, Alex Katz, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Robert Indiana and others -- each interpreting Maine in different ways, contributing to its mystique. This groundbreaking show will be on view until September 24. (right: Edward Hopper, Rocks and Houses, Ogunquit, 1914, oil on canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, Josephine N, Hopper bequest, 70.1202)

"Maine and the Modern Spirit" was organized by the Katonah Museum of Art and was curated by Susan C. Larsen, PhD., formerly Chief Curator of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, and Curator of the Permanent Collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (1988-1991). A 40-page illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition in which Dr. Larsen's comprehensive essay explores modernists' views of Maine and documents their view of social and environmental change. During the past century, artists, through their various voices, have contributed not only to the mystique of Maine, but to the history of modern art. "Maine set the stage for a dramatic interface between man and his natural and social environment," Dr. Larsen observes. Maine is the place where artistic imaginations often found new material for personal dreams -- "a remote and wild place, where fundamental questions about man's place in this world present themselves with an unusual clarity," she writes. "This is the radical Maine cherished by our poets, philosophers, and artists." (left: William Zorach, Stonington Maine, 1920, watercolor, William Kelly Simpson; right: Charles Woodbury, Ogunquit Bath House with Lady and Dog, c. 1912, oil on bord, Portland Museum of Art)

For over a century, artists have traveled to Maine, attracted by its isolation, stark beauty, and unspoiled environment. It was Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church, artists of the Hudson River School, who first captured the state's scenery on canvas (albeit a romantic view) and stimulated interest in this remote state. Before long, the modernists arrived, finding Maine to be the place that offered them the space and time to think. It had "dynamic forces, free play, and power," as Dr. Larsen describes it, "where they felt free to move beyond established cultural and personal boundaries to notice the smaller, telling; details of life that point to larger truths." Early American modernists used Maine's wild nature and social constraints -- its sense of presentness and plainness -- to separate themselves from their European counterparts. "Perhaps, better than most, modern artists sensed and understood the inherent cultural contradictions of Maine," she writes. (left: Louise Nevelson, Maine Meadows: Old Country Road, c. 1933, oil on panel, The Farnsworth Museum; right: CHarles DuBack, Horse Pull, Union Fair, c. 1956, oil on canvas, collection of the artist)

In "Maine and the Modern Spirit," the artists' styles are as diverse as the times in which their works were created. Charles H. Woodbury's fluid painterly style, based on his understanding of French Impressionism, is evident in Ogunquit Bath House with Lady and Dog, which colorfully depicts vacationers at a crowded beach. George Bellows's In a Rowboat recalls an actual event, in 1916, when a sudden storm threatened to drown him and his party at sea. "The painting, with its abstractions, captures their vulnerability against the enormous energy of the ocean," notes Evelyn Fay, who served as Museum project director of this exhibition. By contrast, the artist's Romance of Autumn, with its broad range of colors and tones, inspired by two of Maine's small coastal islands, reflect a rapturous mood and dreamlike sense of space. Edward Hopper's stark images of Maine's lighthouses, fishing boats and small towns, painted in 1912, contrast the pulse of modern life with the simplicity of a quieter past. Marsden Hartley's Granite by the Sea, Seguin Light, Georgetown (1937-38) makes use of tilted planes to evoke a massive pile of granite boulders. (upper left: Janice Kasper, Endangered Species Act, 1999, oil on canvas, Caldbeck Gallery, Rockland,ME; lower left: Lois Dodd, Eclipse in Seven Stages, 1997, oil on canvas, Caldbeck Gallery, Rockland,ME)

William Kienbusch brought his abstract expressionist sensibility to Island Balancing on Four Pines (1952) in which he depicts the effect of weather on the forms and scale of the sea. Another of his paintings relays the chill of winter wind in the Maine night sky. For thirty years, contemporary artist Alex Katz found in Maine a refuge and inspiration. His paintings, with their flattened, abbreviated style, capture transitory moments in the landscape. Lois Dodd's Eclipse in Seven Stages (1997) is a simple, yet powerful depiction of an evening in which the moon waxed and waned. Robert Indiana's Autoportraits Vinalhaven Suite (1980) provides a window into Vinalhaven's working-class character through brash and tender graphic imagery. Janice Kasper, an avid environmentalist, protests the clear-cutting of Maine's forests in Now You See Them and Now You Don't (1989). Father Paul Plante, an avid birder, uses a square of paper to reveal a fragment of life. His Maine Favorites (1999) and Northern Cardinal (2000) focus on the bird's eye to provide a glimpse of its life. (left: Father Paul Plante, Northern Cardinal, 2000, oil pastel on paper, collection of the artist; right: William Thon, Northern Fishing Village, c. 1989, watercolor on paper, Caldbeck Gallery, Rockland,ME)

"Modern art has not always been mainstream in Maine, but the story of 20th-century modernism is incomplete without the contributions of these artists working in their adopted and complex American Eden," Dr. Larsen notes.


Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Katonah Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/2/11

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