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by N. F. Karlins
|The most exciting drawings that turned up during a recent foray into the Berkshires seem to be the work of one or possibly two women, both dead for about 150 years. And you will not find their names in any art books -- at least not for a while.
Semantha Fairbanks and Mary Wicks were Shakers, members of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, which was founded In England in 1747. The American followers of the English-born Mother Ann Lee believed that Lee was a second Christ. Trembling during dances of men and women in same-sex groups at worship services open to the public gave them the name "Shakers."
During the late 18th century and early 19th century, 19 Shaker communities were founded in the United States, mostly in the Northeast. Shakers believed in celibacy, equality of the sexes, communal life and property, and the confession of sin.
A religious revival hit the Shaker communities after the death of their leader, Mother Ann, when the first generation not to have known her began to feel estranged from earlier converts. The Shaker revival also just happened to coincide with the "Great Awaking" sweeping through other religious groups at the same time. From 1837 to the late 1860s, "Mother Ann's Work" evoked an outpouring of music, songs and drawings from "instruments," usually women, who went into trances.
A mere 200 or so drawings are extant, out of possibly as many as 1,300. An exceptional cache of 25 owned by Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass., are on view together for the first time to inaugurate the village's new Center for Shaker Studies. The exhibition, "Seen and Received: The Shakers' Private Art," organized by Sharon Duane Koomler, curator of collections, is up until Apr. 2, 2001. The center's shows complement material in the 20 restored original Shaker buildings on 1,200 acres that comprise this living history museum.
The spirit drawings, usually "gifts" from Mother Ann or other Elders to specific Shakers, were not hung on walls, since the Shakers frowned upon art with a capital A. Rather, the works were considered religious relics and taken out only on religious occasions.
Two spectacular pieces from 1843, called simply "Sacred Sheets," are both intense and decorative. The names Semantha Fairbanks and Mary Wicks are on them. This may mean that they are the artists, the recipients, or one may have received visions and the other may have transcribed them onto paper.
The finely patterned blue-ink-on-paper abstractions have none of the traditional Christian or everyday imagery of other Shaker drawings. Nor do they have the extensive writing that engulfs many smaller spirit drawings or becomes part of the fabric of other, larger pieces. They constitute a uniquely American form of inspired calligraphy, a form that could be called transcribed glossolalia. The drawings visualize "talking in tongues."
At first glance, they may appear symmetrical, but they are actually a well-balanced blend of symmetry and asymmetry. Packed with dots, dashes, squiggles, c-curves and s-curves, these strange arabesques pile up simple, familiar elements into dizzying compositions.
Smaller leaf and heart cutouts with lots of scriptural writing on them, and several complex colored drawings that are replete with a mix of abstract designs and religious and mundane images join the Fairbanks/Wicks drawings. The best of the latter are by the long-recognized Hannah Cahoon, Polly Collins and Polly Jane Reed. A number of drawings by still unidentified hands also appear in this utterly absorbing exhibition.
Prendergast absorbed Impressionism, Art Nouveau and abstract art, and used them all to create his own esthetic, one that changed only slightly in form but not in sunny attitude over time. He exhibited his bright, distinctive works with "The Eight" and at the Armory Show in 1917.
Some critics prefer his thickly painted, tapestry-like oils, but I favor his freely brushed watercolors. Like Cézanne, Matisse and Sargent, Prendergast knew how white space can open up a drawing. Just glance at Surf, Nantasket (ca. 1900-05) or St. Malo (ca. 1907). You can feel the air moving through them.
On his death, his brother Charles, a noted frame maker, inherited his estate. Charles did a few paintings like those of Maurice and developed a folk art-like style he used with wooden panels. Charles's widow gave to lucky Williams College a sizable amount of work by both. The school is almost always exhibiting part of its large holdings.
Prendergast is experiencing a boomlet of interest. Back in New York, you can see more Prendergasts in "Parks and Promenades: Maurice Prendergast in the Metropolitan Museum of Art" (through Oct. 22). In addition to Maurice's watercolors and oils, you can see some of his commercial work, especially his sexy book designs for "My Lady Nicotine: A Study in Smoke."
His Art Nouveau-ish "A Woman Passing a Café" (1895-97) shows him keenly attuned to fashion and all the social information it communicated between the sexes. Notice the top-hatted smoking males whose heads turn towards the demurely self-conscious woman in her extravagant hat, cape and muff.
Still, it's a surprise to see A Nude in a Red Hat from the Met's "Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook." Now that's a long way from the Public Garden or Central Park.
Under weird or otherworldly comes Peter Charlie Besharo's Face of the Our Old Time Earth Moon from the 1950s, one of about 70 pieces found at the death of this sign painter and self-taught artist. Other American self-taught artists here are Martin Ramirez, James Castle and Joseph Yoakum.
Madness abounds in this show. The late 18th century provides both an early Thomas Laurence pastel depicting a Mad Girl from Bedlam and Italian Romantic Luigi Sabatelli's brown ink drawing of The Madness of Orlando.
Of course the Surrealists and Dadaists are well represented. Marcel Duchamp's Fania (Profile) of the silent movie star Fania Marinoff is a bunch of typed letters sprinkled down the page with a few dashes of ink. It's a literally off-hand tribute that works. Paul Klee's watercolor Goldfish Wife is another winner.
Contemporary Jody Pinto's disembodied Split Lips in a Landscape hover in lush splashes of green, while Cuban-born José Bedia's dog-man, trapped by force-lines from the moon, evokes the magic of Palo Monte, his Afro-Cuban religion.
The show blasts off with a huge collage of human see-through figures showing nerves and blood vessels that morph into flowers, animals and people. The Sun: Tarot XIX from 1960 is by Jess, a California Beat and one of America's most under appreciated artists.
Ann Percy, the museum's curator of drawings, has pulled together an exciting mix, spiced with undeservedly obscure artists and works not usually seen by big names. Bravo!