Central to the Met Breuer’s new Marsden Hartley retrospective is a quote from the modernist painter to his dealer, celebrated photographer Alfred Stieglitz: “I want so earnestly a ‘place’ to be.” A collaboration with the Colby College Museum of Art, Marsden Hartley’s Maine organizes Marsden’s legacy as he himself might have wanted it, establishing him primarily as a painter of New England landscapes. But Hartley’s geography of hills, trees and pleasant lakes is also an unveiling of queer anxiety inside an American heartland, and the exhibition at the Breuer smartly clear-cuts through its fixations: mountains here, homoerotic takes on Cézanne there. En masse, it presents a statement not just on a painter’s evolving style, as any retrospective is wont to do, but collectively tackles a painter’s wrestling with the limits of representation and gives us a sense of how they fleshed that world out in their minds and their studios.
Once out of art school, Hartley would not take to painting figures in a meaningful capacity until late in but the Breuer proudly begins with a selection of graphite drawings Hartley made of himself and other local residents. They’re not very interesting and a tenuous connection is drawn between them and the folksy hunks that the Breuer has arranged as the exhibit’s centerpiece, which I could take or leave. More compelling, strangely, was one of Hartley’s earliest professional works that the Breuer borrows from a public library in Hartley’s hometown, “Shady Brook” (1907). A haunting piece of gothy realism, Hartley observes the mouth of a brook with minimal abstraction, are those Monet‘s water lilies in the foreground?
Despite Maine’s presence throughout Hartley’s work on display, the Breuer’s exhibition stresses how far he traveled in order to find an aesthetic home. The French expressionists and impressionists that he, like much of his generation, diligently revered are mentioned alongside archetypical New England painters like Winslow Homer and Albert Pinkham Ryder, who most immediately influenced his work. The Breuer, which opened last year, has made an interesting habit of underlining its connection to the Met by whipping out items from the world of old masters housed a few blocks away in order to visually lay out a curator’s argument for where influences lay. In last year’s Kerry James Marshall show, for instance, a tidy collection of Ingres, Seurat and some Japanese woodblocks were segregated into a little room for quiet contemplation. This time around, the Breuer takes on the more active role of placing, say, Homer’s “Northeaster” (1895) next to a collection of Hartley paintings of waves. Those Japanese woodblocks make another appearance. The Met’s collection cannot contain it all, however, and a small illustration of Cézanne’s “The Bather” (1885) is produced in the vicinity of “Canuck Yankee Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach, Maine” (1940–41). Hartley would know it well, a wall caption reads, “from visits to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.”
The show’s chronology begins with a few rooms of his impressionist renditions of Maine’s great outdoors: the tourist-trap of falling leaves becomes explosions of power and light meant to rival any French Riviera. “Carnival of Autumn” (1908) is the clear masterpiece: a Fauvian palate that transcends Matisse‘s accomplishments across the Atlantic and wrestles out of them something that buzzes like city lights. Nearby, Marsden Hartley’s Maine presents a study in contrasts: “Maine Woods” (1908) and “Winter Chaos, Blizzard” (1909), a set of abstract forestry that render Hartley as something like a primordial woods spirit, here for the sun and here for the snow. But, after a brief dabbling in glass Ogunquit folk art (an anecdote on the wall suggests it as an unfinished frontier in Hartley’s oeuvre, after some uncontrolled smashing he “never had the courage to take it up again”), one turns to the delicious centerpiece of the exhibition: those hubba hubba hunks.