Ever since Frederic Edwin Church spent a few summers in the 1850s hiking around Mount Katahdin and rusticating on Mt. Desert Island, Maine has been a magnet for artists. In the 20th century Andrew Wyeth painted the crippled Christina Olsen gazing up the hill at the Olsen House in Cushing, while Jamie Wyeth bought Rockwell Kent’s house on Monhegan Island, where he preferred to paint.
George Bellows, Marsden Hartley, Robert Henri, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, Walt Kuhn and John Marin all made some of their best work downeast, as Maine is sometimes called (the term is a nautical one, and refers to sailing downwind from Boston to Maine ports). More recently Rudy Burkhardt, David Deutsch, Lois Dodd, Rackstraw Downes, Richard Estes, Yvonne Jacquette, Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter, William Wegman and Neil Welliverhave also all have been passionate Maine converts. And of course Louise Nevelson grew up in Rockland, where I seem to remember that her father owned the lumberyard.
Artists susceptible to Maine’s spell have certainly influenced the path of American art. In the 1890s, New York City painter and collector Hamilton Easter Field (1873-1922) founded his Summer School of the Graphic Arts in a couple of shingled cottages in the quaint little fishing village of Ogunquit. This busy impresario also started an art magazine, wrote criticism and opened a gallery in Manhattan. Though his cultural contributions are now largely forgotten, Field’s enthusiastic promotion of the art of his era significantly contributed to the development of modernism in America.
Field’s principal heir was French sculptor Robert Laurent (1890-1970). The suave expatriate created his own Ogunquit art school in the 1920s, transforming a tangle of dilapidated fishing shacks in Ogunquit’s picturesque Perkins Cove into even more picturesque studios (which, by the time I was posing an artist’s model there in the ‘60s, were more often venues for throwing amazing parties than for concentrating on making art).
The state’s balsam-scented forests, its moose and lobsters, coastal schooners, salt air and crashing surf -- the sort of things that painters favor -- also serve to reel in the tourists so essential to the state economy, not to mention to the Maine museums, always anxious for attendance. Peak season exhibitions (peak season now extends into October) rarely challenge tourist sensibilities; this summer what’s on view can be described as, ahem, mainstream, with shows more inclined to edify rather than to enrage the fickle visitor.
Nevertheless, much more is worth looking at than you might think. The first stop on this Maine museum tour is the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, founded in the 1950s by painter/philanthropist Henry Strater. This debonair character, who always boasted about hanging out with Ernest Hemingway at the Deux Magots in Paris in the ‘20s, first got to Ogunquit in 1919 via Hamilton Easter Field’s summer art school. He ended up moving to Ogunquit. His legacy is the small museum in a delicate modernist building spectacularly sited at the edge of the Atlantic. It contains a lot of Strater’s own clearly derivative pictures and a gem-like permanent collection of more than 1,600 works of American art (many are -- surprise -- Maine-related!) that includes my favorite John Flannigan sculpture.
This summer the museum’s special exhibitions (Aug. 25-Oct. 31, 2008) feature some mildly charming paintings by Dorothy Eisner (1904-1984). She was a minor poet of the mundane who lived in New York City and summered on Great Cranberry Island off Mt. Desert. Her expressionistically rendered lawn chairs, flowers, kitchen accessories, fish and fishing gear and people playing cards or croquet quietly celebrate domestic life.
More interesting is the little special show of works from the New Hope School (Aug. 25-Oct. 31, 2008), that bunch of early 20th-century artists searching for bucolic bliss along the Delaware River. Edward Redfield and William Langson Lathrop, aka "The Pennsylvania Impressionists," were among the first to paint in and around New Hope, and are considered the "founders" of the New Hope School. Today most of the artists subsequently associated with the Pennsylvania art colony are anything but household names. But Ogunquit’s selection of their plein-air works offer a lesson in how early-20th-century American artists tried to assimilate lessons learned from looking at Monet and Renoir.
Less than an hour north of Ogunquit, the Portland Museum of Art on Congress Street anchors an architecturally distinguished downtown still struggling to revive from mall evisceration. Here the major summer offering is "Georgia O’Keeffe and the Camera: The Art of Identity." This worthy co-venture of the Portland Museum and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe showcases 60 mostly hagiographic photographs of O’Keeffe along with 18 of her related paintings and watercolors. O’Keeffe’s longevity and stubborn individuality made her one of those female art stars who in old age successfully captivate popular press and public alike. The show efficiently discloses her as a canny self-promoter. It also unfreezes her a little, conveying multiple dimensions of her personality and emphasizing the specific context of her love for New Mexico.
Along with the well-known portraits by her lover and subsequent husband, Alfred Steiglitz, and photographs of her and various cow skulls and empty mesas by Arnold Newman, Yousuf Karsh and Todd Webb, there’s an Ansel Adams image of Georgia actually smiling. John Loengard’s black-and-white photos of her studio recorded paintings in progress that the curators have been able to include in the show as finished works. The pairing is satisfying. I also liked Balthazar Korab’s 1965 color pictures of her Abiquiu house. Korab recorded the artist’s jaunty modernist touch with interior décor that successfully combined mid-century modern furniture with Navaho rugs and her own paintings. O’Keeffe pepped up her black Bertoia bird chair with a red and white pillow. It’s a relief from the customary iconic starkness associated with the great ascetic. The exhibition is on view through Sept. 7, 2008, and then travels to the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.
College museums are a mainstay in Maine (if you can forgive the pun). Last fall the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick reopened its venerable but formerly handicapped- inaccessible Walker Arts Building after two years of construction. The expansion features an at-grade off-center glass pavilion much in the spirit of I. M. Pei’s Louvre pyramid. The Boston architectural firm Machado and Silvetti Associates designed the transparent cube to serve as a very snazzy new entrance to the old McKim, Mead & White building. Now the facility boasts elevators, climate control and spacious new underground galleries as well as the refurbished old main galleries housing the reinstalled eclectic permanent collection. This includes grand ninth-century B.C. Assyrian reliefs, Greek and Roman items, Federal furniture and 19th-century American portraits of grim worthies.
When I was there the staff was still installing the exhibition, "James Bowdoin III: Pursuing Style in the Age of Independence" (opening on Sept. 9, 2008, and running through next June), an institutional adaptive reuse of material from the college’s major benefactor. This very conservative show "re-imagines" the benefactor’s study, filled with objects such as an 18th-century air pump and books from Bowdoin’s noted library, plus numerous paintings from the patron’s original bequest.
Hanging in the brand new galleries was a recently acquired painting by the contemporary artist, Michael Mazur, titled Fall Mountains for Kuo Shi. It’s a large, skillful homage to traditional Chinese landscape painting educationally paired with a traditional Chinese landscape on an opposite wall (through Jan. 25, 2009). Nearby another small gallery was reassuringly full of selected storm-tossed etchings Winslow Homer made during the 1880s (through Aug. 24). These staple images of perfect storms and shipwrecked fishermen are all from the museum’s collection. Next door in the Center Gallery is a modest show of modern and contemporary landscape photography (through Oct. 29).
The strangest art object at Bowdoin is Lewis deSoto’s Paranirvana/Self-Portrait, a multicolored 26-foot-long inflatable Buddha reclining on the marble floor of the Rotunda Gallery (until Jan. 26, 2009). This weird bouncy toy, with the face of the artist replacing that of the Buddha, is inflated each morning and deflated each evening. It is a bracingly odd contemporary intervention in the neoclassical formal space that used to be the museum’s grand foyer.
Heading north, I recommend a pit stop for pie and coffee at Moody’s Diner, the landmark roadside attraction on Rte. 1 in Waldoboro, before you tackle the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland. (FYI art trivia: Hilton Kramer now spends several months a year at his house in Waldoboro). The Farnsworth is usually thought of as a shrine to three generations of Wyeths. It also has a major stash of Louise Nevelson material. Its Nevelson collection, which has been on the road for the last four years, has now been reinstalled. The current Nevelson show includes paintings, etchings, sculptures and assemblages, spanning her more than 40-year-long career from the late 1920s thru the mid-1980s, and includes the brilliant white 1959 Dawn Column. Whether you like it or not, except for Kurt Schwitters’ 1920 cathedral-like Merzbau, Nevelson essentially owns wooden collage sculpture.
Nevelson is considered a native daughter, but after Winslow Homer and the Wyeths, Alex Katz is a major Maine art icon. The dapper octogenarian painter went to Skowhegan School in 1949 and has been attached to Maine practically ever since. (He has a summer place in Lincolnville and local subjects -- lakes, birch trees, swimmers, canoes, and moose -- abound in his paintings). Lately the Alex Katz Foundation has been making substantial gifts to the Farnsworth and also to the Colby College Museum of Art. Katz has played an important role in increasing their holdings of contemporary art. At the Farnsworth "Alex Katz and Friends," a tribute to his talent and his generosity, contains more than 30 works by him that he has given to the Farnsworth. His foundation also has donated the pieces by Francesco Clemente, Janet Fish, Juan Gomez, Red Grooms, Sylvia Mangold, Julian Opie, Philip Pearlstein and Hunt Slonem that enliven this non-threatening roundup of friends, colleagues and former students (though Oct. 26).
Down in Rockport, Maine Media Workshops is the school for photographers and film-makers that began in 1973 as the Maine Photographic Workshops. Recently reorganized, the place radiates new energy and an admirable resolve to embrace the challenges of the digital age. "Two Generations: Paul Caponigro and John Paul Caponigro," the MMW featured summer show, celebrated another Maine-affiliated artistic dynasty, the Caponigros, père et fils photographers who still work as master printers. Paul, a classic modernist, is known for his elegantly formalist black-and-white images taken from nature, while his son, John Paul, is a pioneer in digital imaging. The MMW revitalized program is attracting some additional major talent.
Though he’s had his camp near Rangeley Maine for years, Bill Wegman exhibited his photographs, showed his videos and taught a workshop in Rockport for the first time earlier this summer. Down the road at Rockport’s Center for Maine Contemporary Art on Russell Avenue, an exhibit of of Wegman’s recent paintings and drawings runs through Sept. 13. He has been having a great time extending scenes on old picture postcards into sprawling, eccentric landscapes.
Wegman, Katz, Downes and many other marquee American artists went to and/or taught at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, the place that first introduced them to the seductive charisma of summer in Maine. In 1949, after World War II, painters Willard Cummings (1915-1975), Henry Varnum Poor (1888-1971) and Sidney Simon (1917-1997) and sculptor Charles Cutler (1914-1970) decided to set up a summer art school inland in Skowhegan on an old farm on Lake Wesserrunsett. Portrait painter Cummings was also key to the founding of the Colby College Museum of Art in 1959, when he convinced his family to donate an important collection of American paintings and watercolors to the nearby new college museum a decade after he had started the art school.
In the old mill and lumber town of Waterville the Colby College Museum of Art, where (disclosure here) I am on the advisory board of governors, just keeps growing. Los Angeles architect Fred Fisher, who rehabbed P.S. 1, in 1999 designed its most recent addition to resemble the rooms of a traditional New England house. The 9,000 square foot Lunder Wing has 13 galleries devoted to the museum’s excellent 19th-century American art collection. The first associate director of the Museum of Modern Art, Jere Abbott, endowed the acquisition fund that has allowed the Colby Museum to buy good examples of work by Robert Henri, Robert Mangold, Paul Manship, Agnes Martin, Robert Rauschenberg, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Kara Walker. And you’ll find a Richard Serra sculpture in the courtyard and a Sol LeWitt mural in the lobby.
Alex Katz is a big force here, too. In 1992 he gave 414 of his works to Colby. An 8,000-square-foot wing houses a huge Katz collection of paintings, prints and cutouts that now has ballooned to include some 700 items. And the Alex Katz Foundation recently has bought a lot of very contemporary work for the collection. This summer the museum organized a special exhibition of the foundation’s recent gift of 20 mixed media images from Joe Brainard’s endearingly kinky "If Nancy Was" series [see "Joe & Nancy," Apr. 24, 2008]. Chuck Close, a longtime member of Skowhegan’s board of governors, is represented by a small special exhibition of related works. "Self Portrait/Scribble/Etching Portfolio," is a series of etchings where the he methodically deconstructed his own familiar face (through Sept. 21).
Other 20th-century artists and their families have been very generous to Colby. So have several collectors. Gifts include the biggest collection of John Marin’s work in an academic museum in America as well as 150 prints and drawings by Richard Serra and Terry Winter’s complete print output. Another summer show, "Whistler’s Waterscapes: River, Sea and Canal Views from the Lunder Collection," (through Oct. 26) was selected from the more than 200 Whistler prints the Lunder family recently donated to Colby as part of its recent gift of some 500 works of art estimated to be worth some one-hundred million dollars.
Maine is folk art heaven and this summer and fall, as part of the 2008 Maine Folk Art Trail, 11 museums and historic sites are showing selections from their extremely rich holdings of New England folk art which are among the finest in the country (www.mainefolkarttrail.org). Several of these places are off the beaten track. In fact most people who live in Maine have never set foot in some of them. At the brand new brick red Remick Barn next to the 18th-century Jefferds Tavern in York Village are quilts, hooked rugs, pottery and furniture from the Museums of Old York. Other places on the trail are the Farnsworth, the Maine Historical Society (Portland), the Maine Maritime Museum (Bath), the Maine State Museum (Augusta), the Penobscot Marine Museum (Searsport), Rufus Porter Museum (Bridgton), the Saco Museum (oldest in Maine) and the Sabbath Day Lake Museum (New Gloucester) celebrating the Shakers, some of whom are still living in the Sabbath Day Lake colony.
The Colby Museum and the Bates College Museum of Art, further south in gritty Lewiston, are also part of the Maine Folk Art Trail. Colby’s contribution, 50 "Masterpieces of American Folk Art" (through Oct. 19) has some fine American primitive landscapes and a whole gallery of marvelous portraits. I liked best Sturtevant Hamblen’s 1852 painting of clear-eyed little Adelaide Endora Smith with her playful cat.
As part of the trail, the Bates College Museum organized "Flourishing Folk: Decorated Works on Paper and Document Boxes from the Deborah N. Isaacson Trust" (through Dec. 14). This rather charming little show contains some abstractly painted 19th-century document boxes, early valentines, bookplates, elaborately designed family genealogies and memorial pictures.
Bates also has a summer selection of Marsden Hartley’s sketchbook drawings (through Dec. 14) from the museum’s collection of Hartley material. In 1951 Hartley’s heirs donated the contents of the Lewiston native’s studio in Corea, Me., studio to the college and in 1955, when the museum was founded, Hartley’s niece gave 99 of his drawings. On Bates’ faculty is the African-American performance artist William Pope.L who, in his provocative 2002 performance, The Great White Way, crawled from the Battery at the tip of Manhattan all the way north to Harlem, all while dressed in a Superman outfit.
In the strictly contemporary vein, rare in Maine, I also must mention that Bates has weighed in this Olympic summer with something diametrically different from folk art. The topical "Stairway to Heaven," is an exhibition of Chinese contemporary art dealing with the radically changing urban landscapes of China. The exhibition includes work by Ai Weiwei, Chen Shaoxiong, Gu Wenda, Gu Zheng, Hong Lei, Liang Weiping, Liu Bolin, Lu Yuanmin, Luo Yongjin, Ma Liuming, Wang Jing, Weng Fen, Xing Danwen, Yang Yongliang, Yening, Zhang Dali and Zhu Feng (through Dec. 14). It travels in 2009 to the Kansas City Art Institute and California State University in Los Angeles.
ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY lives and works in New York City. She grew up in Maine.