OGUNQUIT, MAINE — They were ready, if it came to it. In late June, just a week before the Ogunquit Museum of American Art was preparing to shake off its pandemic-induced slumber with its delayed seasonal opening, just six of Emily Nelligan’s dark, dreamy charcoal drawings hung on gallery walls. There were meant to be 40 more. Ready or not, July 1 would be the opening date. If that meant welcoming people back to a mostly empty gallery, so be it. It would be a fitting tribute, the museum’s management reasoned, to a pandemic year that had taken so much from so many.
The OMAA’s story is one of so many of its kind. The March shutdowns stopped cold the machinery of the art world — fabricators and framers, art handlers and installers, crate-makers and shippers. In Williamstown, the Clark Art Institute is finally set for an official Oct. 6 launch of “Ground/work,” its pandemic-friendly outdoor sculpture exhibition across acres of rolling fields, opening four months later than expected. And museums all over the world, along with the crippling financial toll of shutdowns, have had to deal with the moving targets of logistics, scheduling, and planning thrown into disarray by the gaping hole the pandemic has blown in their calendars.
It hasn’t discriminated between large and small, flush and strapped. The Metropolitan Museum’s “Gerhard Richter: Painting After All” closed for good on March 12, having opened just eight days earlier. (It had been scheduled through July 5.) Here in Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts managed to keep open its prized exhibition of Lucian Freud self-portraits only slightly longer — it was on view for 11 days before the shutdown. For a pair of museums celebrating their sesquicentennials, losing marquee events stung, both emotionally and on the balance sheet. Both shows were expected to be major ticket drivers as well as landmarks in the institutions' long histories of significant contributions to the culture at large.
Despite more modest ambitions, OMAA wasn’t left unscathed. The museum, perched above a rocky cove in the thick of well-tended gardens, is typically open from spring through fall. Nelligan’s exhibition, the first since her death in 2018, was intended as tribute to an artist whose vision grew from the mutable skies and shores of Maine’s Great Cranberry Island.
The museum began working on the installation in February with six works in hand — four from a Connecticut collector who drove them to the museum himself, and two from the collection of Colby College. The remaining 40 ended up in the pandemic’s trap, stuck in the storage facility of Manhattan’s Alexandre Gallery, which represents Nelligan’s estate. The museum’s shipper was scheduled to collect them in early March, but after New York City ballooned into the epicenter of a global health catastrophe, the gallery was locked up tight.
By the end of June, the gallery walls slated for Nelligan’s show at the Ogunquit Museum had been painted a rich mustard. They remained empty but for the half-dozen works in hand until the day before opening, when a final-hour arrival of the remaining works saw the show open, miraculously, in full and on time. When you arrive to the museum now, with autumn beginning to turn the lush green of its grounds toward amber and red, you’ll find Nelligan’s dark and somber pieces — all 46 of them — filling the walls, not a frame out of place. But the work, in this era of loss and discontent, of making no plans for an unsteady future, resonates differently with the anxious moment into which it’s been thrust.
“Nocturne” spans some 60 years of the artist’s work, from early drawings in the 1940s all the way through 2012, where Nelligan’s rough and moody seascapes tumble into darker realms of semi-abstraction, the certainty of place swallowed by tide and time. (In these later works, the titles tend only to be the date — the same scene, seen differently, over and over and over again.) Darkness — that lush and hoary shading of coal on paper, soft and enveloping, without beginning or end — is the shared language of each. With it is a surrender to the unknowable, wherever it may lead.
What I loved about the work was the clear feeling of an artist going somewhere, embracing contingency and circumstance in equal weight to plan and intention as her life progressed. What I liked even more was how that trajectory seemed, in this moment, to be apt — a journey toward uncertainty, acknowledged and accepted. None of us could have planned for or imagined this time. We’ve all had to make the best of it, or at least try, taking it day by day. Nelligan’s work left me with those vexations, but also of the beauty of not knowing what wonders could unexpectedly come to pass because of it.
“Emily Nelligan: Nocturne.” Ogunquit Museum of American Art, 543 Shore Road, Ogunquit, Maine. Through Oct. 31. 207-646-4909, www.ogunquitmuseum.org.