PROVINCETOWN — Many date the founding of Provincetown as an art colony back to 1899, when Charles Hawthorne opened his Cape Cod School of Art here, but this year marks another centennial — that of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
In 1914, the onset of World War I sent American expatriate artists in Paris scurrying home. Many set up camp here, and this little fishing village at the tip of the Cape became a vital center for art making. Several exhibitions up now celebrate the fertile decades between the 1910s and the 1960s.
The art association and museum, which has been celebrating its birthday all year, has a sparkling show of works by a longtime Provincetown resident and an accomplished modernist painter, “Karl Knaths: Between Form and Freedom.”
Knaths came to Provincetown in 1919. He had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and seen the groundbreaking Armory show when it traveled to that city. It shook him awake to the possibilities of abstraction. He entered into a cool, methodical lifetime investigation of form, color, and space. Always a Cubist, he broke scenes down into lines and planes; he shuffled foreground and background; he folded realism into his abstracted worlds.
A few terrific paintings here wholeheartedly embrace representation. Knaths made the delightfully strange “Composition” in 1936, when he had a gig with the Works Progress Administration. It verges toward the social realism typical of WPA paintings, but with a screwy Cubist edge. Two men sit at a table; a woman stands behind them with a broom, a cat on the floor scratches its ear.
The figures are peculiarly flat, and one chair’s back tilts oddly to the left. The wall behind looks like a stage set. The scene is dusky, save for the clamor of lemon and lime colors in the furniture and the blue of the woman’s apron. “Composition” is full of odd tensions.
Most of the paintings here, though, lean toward harmony. “Net Mender” and “Clam Diggers” from the late 1950s turn fishing village genre pictures into prisms of color, rhythms of light. Knaths depicts the net mender in sharp and sweeping black contours: The tilted square of his shoulders, the arc of the net. His body gathers greens and blues from the water behind him; the triangle of a sail in the distance echoes his angularity.
When Abstract Expressionism burst into view, Knaths’s thriving career hit a speed bump; he was criticized for his European influences. But he kept on making delicately composed Cubist paintings. This succinct show, which includes loans from the Museum of Fine Arts, the Phillips Collection, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, covers a lot of ground, but throughout Knaths uses his strategies of abstraction not to break things apart, but to unify them anew.
Knaths appears in two other Provincetown exhibitions. In the next gallery, the art association and museum shows off a handsome donation from collector Robert Duffy, including a signature black-and-white geometric abstraction by painter Myron Stout, a figure drawing by Edward Hopper, and an unusual Hans Hofmann with bright gestures radiating out from behind a scrim of green. Then there’s Knaths’ tart “Roosters and Sunflowers,” in which the rooster splays goofily beside a reddened spray of flowers, as if excited by the color.
From realism to modernism
It’s one thing to abstract a rooster, but how do you abstract the heavens? In “Provincetown Masters” at Berta Walker Gallery, Knaths builds “Cosmic” from a bed of angled lines with colors in between. Here, they accumulate into layered, transparent banners in yellow, blue, pink, and green, which intersect with rippling, organic circles. Ethereal and shimmering, “Cosmic” looks like the beginning of all things.
“Provincetown Masters” whipsaws from realism to modernism, as the Provincetown art community did 80 years ago. Painter Ross Moffett often straddled the divide, introducing modernist elements into his representational paintings.
His “Untitled (figures, Goose, Blue Snow)” has a narrative kinship with Knaths’ “Composition.” Both depict people in close proximity, disconnected. In this ominous moonlit scene, several dark figures wander down a winding path through the snow, led by a grim, hooded man with a shovel and a girl in a short-sleeved dress. One man carries a goose. Are they off to dig a grave? Or heading to Thanksgiving dinner?
One wall happily jitterbugs with pure abstractions by Hofmann (in gaudy crayon!), Blanche Lazzell, and Knaths’s sister-in-law, Agnes Weinrich. Across the room hangs a quietly sensual still life lithograph by Marsden Hartley, “Dish of Apples and Pears,” all fleshly curves leaning into one another like sleeping lovers.
Gallery owner Berta Walker’s father, Hudson D. Walker, was a great collector of Marsden Hartley, and this show includes what Berta Walker says is the artist’s first painting, a cramped and shadowy 1905 work, “Walt Whitman’s House.”
It’s not terribly good; it has none of Hartley’s muscularity or vision. But that cramped quality is curiously commanding. Talking about the painting, Walker speculated that Hartley, as a young gay artist, felt kinship with the poet, and so painted this picture of Whitman’s front door in Brooklyn — a cri de coeur, but so boxed in as to come out as a whimper.
Between Form and Freedom
Through Nov. 2
RECENT GIFTS, PART I Featuring the Robert Duffy Collection
Through Nov. 30
At: Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 460 Commercial St., Provincetown. 508-487-1750, www.paam.org
At: Berta Walker Gallery,
208 Bradford St., Provincetown,
through Sept. 14.
508-487-6411, www.bertawalkergallery.comCate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.