"Seeking the Spiritual: The Paintings of Marsden Hartley," Apr. 20-June 20, 1998, at the Babcock Galleries, 724 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019.
This pocket retrospective of mostly minor paintings by Marsden Hartley is as modest an event as the dwindling art season offers. It is an event nonetheless. Timing counts, and now is the time to rethink Hartley -- with Edward Hopper, one of the two greatest American painters after Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer and before Abstract Expressionism. Giving Hartley his due looms as unfinished business of our art culture at century's end.
A lot of us loved the last big Hartley retrospective, at the Whitney 18 years ago. It amazed me. Having associated Hartley with the manic, heraldic abstractions that he made in Berlin before and after the start of World War I, I was unprepared for the profundity of his late works, done during 12 years in Maine and Nova Scotia before his death in 1943. But the show's public effect got trampled by a 1980s stampede of loudly fashionable new and neo painting styles. We weren't ready.
Today we are. The major reason, bringing Hartley's goodness into high relief, is a general search for rock-bottom meaning in all the arts after the final collapse of modern and so-called postmodern ideologies and other delusions. For a painter now, everything comes down to what he or she does with brush in hand in front of a canvas. Only past painters who reflected very deeply on this doubt-ridden, lonesome activity get to be heroes of the moment. Hartley more than qualifies.
Other, subsidiary reasons explain Hartley's new acute appeal. One is a liberated fascination with the artist's gayness, which, among other things, glosses his Berlin works as love paeans and then heartbroken elegies to a certain German in uniform. That interest used to be unspeakable, of course. Now creeping up behind it is an even more consequential matter that is still subject to embarrassed self-censorship in art talk: Hartley's spirituality, the special focus of the Babcock show and its catalogue introduction by Townsend Ludington.
A New Englander steeped in Emerson and Whitman, Hartley was given to reading "the Christian mystics as novels," he said. Never even remotely adherent to any sect or cult, he quested constantly for the holy, developing his God-consciousness in poems and essays as well as paintings. He strove to surrender the "ego-eccentricity" that dismayed him in most of his fellow artists. He succeeded. The greatness of his late work seems to me inexplicable without an understanding of religious selflessness.
Hartley's sexuality and mysticism overlap in The Lifeguard (ca. 1940), one of the two strongest paintings now at Babcock -- the other being a landscape, End of Storm, Vinalhaven, Maine (1937-38). A hunky, bronzed, crew-cut blond guy stands alertly front and center on a beach before a sun-hazed, salt-scented, blue and white sea. Behind him, three young men sit with their backs turned. They almost certainly represent the two sons of a fishing family, one of them the artist's lover, and their cousin, drowned in a storm in 1936. That disaster occasioned several of Hartley's most motivating late pictures.
The figure of the lifeguard brims with meaning: a beautiful object of desire and admiration, a tower of strength, but powerless against nature's unappealable sentence of death. The three young men belong to the sea already, not to him. A poem pitched between Eros and Ocean, the painting registers that there is no contest at last. Ocean will always win. And yet, by the paradoxical action of mystic acceptance, the picture's mood is one of exultation, even triumph.
I think of the words of Abraham Lincoln: "As was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether'." Lincoln spoke of the Civil War. Awesomely, he proposed humble and even grateful submission to a fate that was bitter beyond imagining. Hartley fits directly into this American tradition of active resignation. Like Lincoln's second inaugural address, his late paintings look tragedy full in the face -- and solemnly rejoice.
At times, Hartley's absorption in this or that system of mystic philosophy spilled over into his painting, producing allegorical emblems. An astonishing image from a year Hartley spent in Mexico -- Morgenrot (1932), its title (meaning "morning redness") and illustrated idea from the German mystic Jakob Boehme -- presents a raised red hand and seven drifting spheres. Roughly two feet square, the motif would be legible from half a mile away. It is as clarion in color and sensual in texture as it is hermetic in import.
I surmise that God was a taste in Hartley's mouth -- a temperature on his skin, a smell. No matter how heady his religious speculation became, it always circled back to oneness with wordless nature. Idealizing Paul Cezanne, Hartley in the 1920s was often criticized for (as it seemed then) slavishly imitating the French master. But his later works make clear that spiritual practice, not art style, was what he had sought from Cezanne: mental concentration able to catch, brushstroke by brushstroke, emanations of the real. Hartley followed Cezanne's way until he found his own.
Finding it, he sailed beyond compatriots -- Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, Charles Burchfield -- who likewise were fired by intuitions of natural religion but tended merely to indicate them in some illustrational or symbolic vein. What is the secret of the jolting force of Hartley's gray, brown and black End of Storm, Vinalhaven, Maine? Summary treatments of surf, rock, forest, and cloud -- note the boldly striated cliff, like fingers of a closed fist -- all work like lucky charms. There is no fuss. The picture happens like a thump in the chest.
The secret would not be mystical if words could encompass it. (In his talented but awkward writings, Hartley often seems exasperated with language, pushing and prodding it like a balky mule.) I propose a trinity of scale relations: stroke to framing edge (Cezanne's sublime calculus), fictive observer to observed scene and, well, X, standing for awareness of paint and scene as identically real. The X factor casts the mind -- the artist's mind, our minds, all the mind there is -- as quicksilver light vanishing into what it contemplates.
Hmmm. Just go look at the darn thing, okay?
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.