NEW YORK — The Met Breuer has a sign at the start of “Marsden Hartley’s Maine” that’s so small and discreetly placed it’s easy to miss. Visitors should go right, so as to follow the show in chronological order. Makes sense. Once they’ve reached the final gallery, though, with its seven Hartley paintings of Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain, they might wish they’d gone left. Concepts like chronology and development disappear in the presence of such work. How often does delay improve the experience of magnificence?
The show, which consists of more than 90 paintings and drawings, runs through June 18. The Met organized “Marsden Hartley’s Maine” with the Colby College Museum of Art. For those who prefer going north to south, it’ll be at Colby July 8-Nov. 12.
It’s not that the preceding galleries aren’t worth seeing. Far from it. They provide a rich and often arresting view of Hartley’s evolution as an artist and of his relationship to his native state. It’s just that the majesty of the Katahdin paintings so plainly announces the culmination of both those evolutions.
Hartley once expressed a desire to be seen as the mountain’s “official portrait painter.” The one time he visited the mountain, in October 1937, it required an 80-mile drive followed by a four-mile walk in the rain. That was no small effort for an unfit 60-year-old. Hartley not only deserved the title, he earned it.
“Marsden Hartley’s Maine” addresses a seeming contradiction in the painter’s career. A few years before his death, he dubbed himself “the painter from Maine.” Born in Lewiston, in 1877, Hartley died in Ellsworth, in 1943. His ashes, as his will instructed, were scattered on the Androscoggin. Sites he painted, some many times over, include Schoodic, Oqunquit, Kezar Lake, the Camden Hills, Vinalhaven, West Georgetown, Corea, Penobscot Bay, and Millinocket.
Yet Hartley spent most of his adult life elsewhere. He painted his best-known work in Germany, in the mid-1910s, flirting with an abstraction distant from his paintings of Katahdin and such declaratively Maine subjects as lobsters, logging, rocky shores, and Old Orchard Beach, all of which figure in the show. “I come as near being a man of no land as anyone I know, spiritually speaking,” Hartley wrote in 1917 to Alfred Stieglitz , his great early champion.
The show includes Stieglitz’s 1916 photograph of Hartley, his melancholy eyes made all the more haunting by the nattiness of his broad-brimmed hat, white scarf, and fur-trimmed coat. The portrait is among several works in the show by other artists that relate in some way to Hartley as influences, admirations, or parallels: Hokusai and Hiroshige prints of Mount Fuji; a Cézanne “bather” lithograph; paintings by Albert Pinkham Ryder and Winslow Homer. Their presence is a mark of the show’s thoroughness and acuity.
“Marsden Hartley’s Maine” begins with his stay in the western part of the state, in 1908-09. There are sketches of Maine types (including two self-portraits) and White Mountain landscapes, the latter chromatically inebriate and hectically painted. “The Silence of High Noon — Midsummer” is proto-Fauve in its assertive use of unexpected colors.
Already, Hartley’s canvases and paperboards (a material he frequently used for his paintings) have a distinctive thickness and solidity. Three decades later, in “Smelt Brook Falls,” the rushing waters look like pretzeled chalk.
Hartley’s work can be unsubtle to the point of crudeness. Midway through the show, a large gallery offers portraits from the ’30s: a hunter, a swimmer, a lumberjack, beachgoers. They’re cartoonish: types rather than actual people. Landscape better suited Hartley’s talents. Nothing in the show is as characterful as Katahdin. Hartley’s being more at home with the natural world than society imparts a strength and purpose that gives the work a consistent power. Hartley described his paintings once as “little visions of the great intangible.” There’s an unmistakable fineness of feeling, but not of technique.
Hartley was a founding father of American Modernist painting. A key attribute of Modernism, whether in America or Europe, and regardless of medium, was a dialectic between the particular and universal. Proust’s Combray, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, Morandi’s bottle-laden table in Bologna, Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire: All are specific locations, whether real or imagined, that aspire to near-cosmic significance.
In that sense, Maine, for Hartley, wasn’t just where he was born and died. It also grounded and enlarged his art. The reference to Mont Sainte-Victoire isn’t incidental. The show includes a very nearly psychedelic Hartley painting of the mountain, c. 1927, and Cézanne’s many renderings deeply inform Hartley’s own visual dialogue with Katahdin.
Hartley intuitively grasped the importance of place. A dozen years after declaring himself “a man of no land,” Hartley could write again to Stieglitz, this time from the south of France, “You don’t transpose a New Englander — he can’t escape himself ever — he can only widen his width — and that’s what I’ve done. . . .”
A decade later, when Hartley returned to Maine, he went beyond widening to deepening and raising. That return coincided with the heyday of Regionalism in American art: proudly representational in style, aggressively local in content. If at times Hartley’s late work can recall Thomas Hart Benton or Grant Wood, Benton and Wood very much suffer from the comparison.
As seen by Hartley, Maine is beloved but never idyllic. In 1937, he described the state as “a strong, simple, stately and perhaps brutal country.” It seems to exist outside of time. Logging excepted, he includes no signs of industry or anything like the modern world. Instead we get crashing waves, clapboard churches, lighthouses, Katahdin. Even Hartley’s people are almost never seen in the context of a landscape or social setting. In these final years, the work seems at once generic and specific. Such simultaneity rarely happens in art. When it does, we call it archetypal and are rightly moved to wonder.
MARSDEN HARTLEY’S MAINE
At Met Breuer, 945 Madison Ave., New York, through June 18. 212-923-3700, www.metmuseum.org/visit/met-breuer
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.