WATERVILLE, Maine — A show that’s full of crooked life and throat-catching particularity, “Bernard Langlais,” at the Colby College Museum of Art, unveils a major artist working in a minor key.
That key, approximately speaking, is folk art. It’s folk art — to get down to specifics — that has been carved from wood and betrays a potentially treacly fondness for animals. And as if all that didn’t sound “minor” enough, we may as well make note of the fact that our subject here is folksy, animal-loving, carved wooden sculpture made . . . in Maine.
As you grope for the adjectives that might describe Langlais to, say, a curious friend, you can feel the listener’s assumption of provincialism plumping up by the second. Any inclination toward serious critical engagement shrinks proportionately.
Perhaps it’s right to admit at the outset that Langlais, who died in 1977 at 56, will never count as a zeitgeist-skewering artist of international stature.
Yet what a brilliant, slyly accomplished artist he was! With what unblinking charm and sideways-glancing mischief he stirs up our assumptions about seriousness and intelligence. Whiskers, he reminds us, are intelligent. Wood is as serious as marble. And an animal’s eyes are always in earnest.
Colby College Museum of Art’s departing curator for special projects, Hannah Blunt, and its director and chief curator, Sharon Corwin, have done an incredible job organizing not only this show, but the timely distribution of Langlais’s work throughout Maine in time for this summer. The just-launched Langlais Art Trail comprises more than 3,000 Langlais works — many of them on a massive scale — displayed in more than 50 sites across Maine.
The project has involved the transformation of Langlais’s old studio in Cushing, Maine, into a public sculpture park. And it has, at its heart, this exhibition at Colby College of more than 180 works, almost all from the museum’s own collection.
Langlais was born in Old Town, Maine, a settlement centered on an island in the middle of the Penobscot River. The son of a carpenter, in whose woodshop he spent many hours as a child, he was the oldest of 10 children. He left Maine for Washington, D.C., after completing high school. He wanted to study art.
He joined the Naval Air Transport Service in 1942, and spent the next few years painting aircraft interiors, making portraits of military officers, and designing propaganda posters. He re-enrolled in art school in 1948, and, during a spell back in Maine at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, devoted his energies to painting.
His studies over the next few years, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Skowhegan, Paris, and Oslo, involved exposure to contemporaries like Alex Katz (a lifelong friend), to teachers like the German Expressionist Max Beckmann, to the influence of Piet Mondrian, and finally to the crucial influence of Norway’s Edvard Munch.
Langlais had earned a Fulbright scholarship in 1954, and elected Oslo as a destination because of his budding interest in Munch. Blunt, the curator of this show and main author of its impressive catalog, describes the year he spent there as an “artistic breakthrough.” The affinities he perceived between the Norwegian landscape and rural Maine jolted him into an awareness of his own deepest creative drives.
“As a creative painter,” he later said, “the subject matter to which I have found myself best attuned is the natural ruggedness of the northern clime.”
He made many hundreds of paintings and drawings that year, some of which are on display in the show’s first gallery. As a prefiguring of what is to come, I wouldn’t call it confidence-building. Much of it is competent enough, but it has a familiar look common to mid-century, School of Paris figurative painting. The colors don’t ever quite sing, the compositions tend to lack dynamism, and there is a frayed and faded look to almost everything.
Langlais married Helen Friend, an accomplished classical singer and Skowhegan native he had met in New York, when she came to Oslo that year. The couple settled back in Manhattan in 1956.
Langlais’s creative engine seems at this point to have stalled. But he found the gears again when the couple purchased a summer house in Cushing.
The critical turning point — it seems to have been a kind of spiritual kick-up-the-pants — came in 1958. Upon completing work on their cottage, Langlais realized he had scrap wood to spare. He loved wood, he hated to waste it, and so he began tinkering with wooden collages.
The resulting works, which fan out across the second part of the show, are — for the most part — satisfying, abstract arrangements of small pieces of wood on a fairly large scale. They have a taut, self-consciously modern look. You can feel how conscious Langlais was of their right-angled borders, how keen he was to emphasize the uniformity of the picture plane, and how responsive he was to the abstract potential of letters and patterns.
These works caught the attention of Leo Castelli, the enormously influential dealer who, although he had only recently ventured out on his own, had already discovered Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Marisol Escobar. Like Langlais, Marisol, as she was known, was responsive both to Pop impulses and to folk traditions. She worked in wood.
For a couple of years, Langlais was, as his friend Katz put it, “red hot.” He was in a category of experimental artists working in two- and three dimensions that included Johns, Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Indiana, Louise Nevelson, and Marisol. But the acclaim didn’t sit well with him.
“Once you are in a big-time gallery, then the pressure to succeed and to make this so-called splash are unbelievable,” he later said. Within a year or two, although he was sticking with wood, he found himself veering away from abstraction and assemblage. He tried a portrait, in painted wood, of Jackie Kennedy (“Untitled (Mrs. J.F.K.)”) that bore all the marks of the incipient Pop Art movement.
But what really had Langlais’s attention was not the slick surfaces or deadpan charm that evoked the media mirage of Pop, but something more basic and raw, something unencumbered by culture or irony, something proudly out of step with the times.
What had his attention were animals. The kinds of animals you might see, oh, in Maine . . .
He made, for instance, in 1964, a work called “Eagle.” The body and beak of the bird are simplified, attenuated, and transformed into something totemic by a vertical orientation that’s reinforced by the frame’s long edges.
Later in the decade, Langlais moved with Helen back to Maine. Before long he had commenced work on several huge outdoor sculptures, including a 65-foot-high Skowhegan Indian, commissioned by the Skowhegan Tourist Hospitality Association to honor Maine’s Native Americans.
He made other images of humans, too — including a portrait of Lyndon Baines Johnson astride a horse. (Interestingly, Native Americans, Jackie Kennedy, and LBJ were all portrayed in painted wood by Marisol too.)
By the 1970s, Langlais’s repertoire had extended to the fauna of Africa and India. He carved, assembled, and painted tigers, camels, leopards, crocodiles, giraffes, dogs, horses, and seals. He returned repeatedly to lions, which became stand-ins for the artist himself.
A beautiful installation of many of these animal sculptures, which channel the spirit of France’s Henri Rousseau and the Quaker painter Edward Hicks but have their own peculiar flavor, graces the show’s largest gallery. It’s flanked by rooms showing a selection of Langlais’s models for his large outdoor sculptures, along with many beautiful animal drawings in ink and studies in oil paint on paper.
What makes these animal works so special? It’s very hard to say. Some may be quite unmoved by them, thinking Langlais’s whole obsession a form of willful regression. But I like them for the way they take on clichés — like a bearded old patriarch taking pairs of animals onboard his wooden boat — and turn them into something fresh, intimate, and full of hope. I like them because they are bright, sincere, and unaffected.
They are also more artful than they might seem at first. Langlais’s drawings, dense with fastidious hatching, are not only brilliantly rendered, but dashingly composed.
His sculptures attest to virile labor and sophisticated conceptions. But they are ultimately propelled by the bright, unbending imaginative vectors of childhood. And all of it, Langlais’s whole post-’60s idiom, is fired by a humor and honesty that short-circuits all possible objections.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.