This past week saw the opening of an excellent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art / Breuer annex on 75th and Madison. At a time when the museum had been under severe criticism and even saw the resignation of its director Thomas Campbell, a medieval tapestry curator ill suited for the rigors of New York egomaniac fundraising, this show should provide a respite from the bad press received of late.
Marsden Hartley is described as an American Modernist, a catch all term for a painter who started out as an Impressionist, then a Pointalist, a Cubist, then a German Expressionist. His German phase was superbly ill-timed by the American arrival into World War One on the the side against the Germans, bad luck doesn't begin to describe his career as he was beset by tragedies too numerous to list here.
As a result of his then outside gay lifestyle and constant misfortune he was a talented loner who ultimately found solace and redemption in the wilderness of his home state Maine, where he had been born in 1877, and where he would later die in Ellsworth, Maine on September 2, 1943.
His later work has a brutal almost primitive manner as he dialed back the brushwork to a bare mimimum. Like the cold Maine weather, it is raw, forceful, reduced to its simplest form. A realist, his powerful work gained commercial and critical acceptance in the twilight of his career, with some stating he paved the way for the Abstract Expressionists. What he would have thought of that, we will never know.
He died a mere four years before another student of German Expressionist painters Jackson Pollock, upended the art world with an even more forceful application of paint.
Hartley left the United States for Europe, where he visited France in 1912 before moving on to Berlin. His German paintings are masterpieces, however the era was marked by trajedy when the love of his life, a German soldier was killed in the war.
Hartley returned to the States in 1917 when the market for anything German was at an all time low. He spent the next two decades wandering, first to Croton on Hudson, he then met and followed Mabel Dodge out to Santa Fe, New Mexico, then to Bermuda and to France in the roaring Twenties before returning to Maine in the mid 1930's.
By then his style had matured into this much more austere application of paint and the barest of forms. Somehow his persistance was rewarded at the end of the decade when art dealer Hudson Walker, despite not selling Hartley's work in volume, came into some money and purchased 23 canvases for $5,000 in 1940. Ever used to a pauper lifestyle, Hartley put the money in a National City bank account and never touched it. Other accolades followed such as sales to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1942, the same year the Baltimore Museum rewarded him with a rare museum show. He died one year later after a sketching trip near his adopted home of Corea, Maine.
Marsden hartley's Maine is on view from march 15, to June 18, 2017
Met Breuer located at:
945 Madison Avenue