Marsden Hartley’s current exhibition, entitled Marsden Harltey’s Maine, on view at The Met Breuer is a splendid little show to see. It is quietly holding ground on the 3rd floor and it’s a show that continues the succession of the highly sophisticated exhibitions at this expanded museum. It begins conventionally at the beginning of Hartley’s artistic journey, around 1908, and it gives a glimpse into the life of an artist through his surroundings and what is explicitly inferred to as his influences.
As the title suggests that influence is Maine and Hartley’s relationship to this place is a familiar one. Born, raised, spent years wandering with artistic itinerancy and then the return and death at the place of origin. It’s all very romantic and I’m not saying that glibly. You can see it in the paintings from early school days to sagacious finale.
The paintings are lovely in all the ways a good painting is but there is more to them then pretty little landscapes. As the subject is ‘Maine’ the primary focus is on landscapes. Hills, lakes, ocean, sky, all the normal starter kit standards of plein air are on view. They are familiar in their compositions but there is this something else that makes them almost tragic. As I was looking at these lush scapes I felt a sort of sadness. It seemed as if there was something being communicated, or the attempt of it, that felt like a calling out, or perhaps a faint sob.
The coloring in many of his works is dark and only the sky at times seems to be alive or redemptive. But the darkness is also dense and the way his landscapes are composed they seem to push forward even as they are depicting depth. This feeling of pushing through the surface is continued with his later works where landscape and bodies become almost brick-like in their forms and colors. Waterfalls feel like steps, male bodies feel like passageways. This is not abstraction in the formal way but a type of empathic slanting that skews feelings.
Hartley’s biography is a part of the story and is important as it always is to an artist/person but when I was looking at these paintings I thought less of that and more about the idea of how place and nature can develop or ensnare you within yourself. The places depicted in these paintings are intimate and private. They are like bedrooms or the freckles on a lover’s body. They are places where one is usually alone. They are places that are revisited and known. They are bookmarks that stay perennial even as the story of one’s life changes around them.
Going to a place in nature is a form of escaping but it is also a return to something to the past and to one’s self.
Living in New York and not having a country house to be able to maroon off to makes the contact with nature extremely diminished, and it sort of hurts both physically and psychically. I know that my lack of contact with nature, even if in a somehow manicured way, is affecting me in some deeply cosmologic way. I think a lot of people feel this way and access to even the small bits of trees and grass in this city are explicitly connected to wealth. Walking on the blocks near Central Park makes you know that there are very different fiefdoms in this city.
Does this lack of nature and of retreat affect how we understand ourselves? I think yes. The need for solitude and reflection with something within nature and being reminded of the sense of continuity/renewal is frankly, natural. We need it. We crave it. We go on expensive jaunts to reconnect to it. When it storms or there is crazy weather in this city the whole psychic energy changes and we almost yearn for natural cataclysm. We want to be snowed in. We want the lights to all turn off. We want to feel that we are specks and be overcome by forces outside of our control.
Marsden Hartley’s life was complicated, at times tumultuous, at times sad, but he had this steady force and place that was a place of return and reflection. There is such a gift in that and when you look at these paintings, although they are sometimes messy, flat, and possibly even drafts of grander things, they pulse with this intimacy, which makes them generous, vivid and still alive.
Maybe we can live our lives without nature in a day-to-day way. Maybe just a weekend here and there is enough to recharge our primordial selves but I think that this lack impacts us deeply. We may be the person we are but perhaps we are missing out on something deeper that only the interaction with nature can bring. Hartley was lucky to have this and even if we didn’t experience it ourselves his paintings remind us that it is out there and if we want it, we can find it too.