Art review: How painter, textile artist and part-time Mainer Nancy Hemenway Barton was ‘ahead of her time’

Nancy Hemenway Barton (1920-2008) lived in Maine for much of her artistic life. A concert pianist, working mother and wife of a diplomat, Barton was literally a socialite. She grew up in Massachusetts (summer in Maine) and attended Wheaton College. In the late 1940s, she lived in Uruguay and Argentina. She spent much of the 1950s in Madrid before moving to New York and Washington, D.C. In the 1960s she lived in La Paz, Bolivia, and Mexico.

During these years, as Barton showed her art around the world, she created a strong and regular presence in Maine with annual exhibitions from 1960 to 1983 at the Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset.

Barton began as a well-trained painter and ‘Ahead of Her Time’, concluding a run at the University of New England Art Gallery in Portland, gives enough of his early work for us to sense his seriousness and recognize his abilities. But Barton rose to the upper ranks through her work as a textile artist. Many aspects of Barton’s work set her apart, but on a very basic level, it’s hard not to see her work in painterly terms. Moreover, she pushes sculpture into its painterly logic in a way that reaches with undeniable awareness to Cubism and its Abstract Expressionist reiterations. At the same time, Barton’s sense for material gives his work a sense of fiber art at its finest – somehow both nuanced in its subtle material sensibilities and indulgently exuberant with its physically powerful textures and colors. .

I am regularly reminded of Barton’s extraordinary abilities each time I enter Bates College’s Olins Art Center, home to both the Bates College Museum of Art and some of the college’s busiest performing arts spaces – which suits a gigging musician like Barton perfectly. Visitors to the Olins Art Center see an extraordinary example of one of Barton’s works to the right on a hallway wall above a stairwell. It’s a long, slender, striped piece, but folded with an almost Japanese calligraphic intensity (keeping in mind that the kimono is one of the most subtle, intricate, and historic practices in the textile arts). It is undeniably excellent work.

Barton with “Tipi Waterfall”

“Ahead of Her Time” is another feather in the overflowing hat of UNE’s Ann Zill, whose 20 years of exhibitions at the art gallery are most notable for Zill’s dignified and exacting attention to women artists of Maine.

Barton’s extraordinary achievements might be well represented by a list of his museum collections and major exhibitions, such as his solo exhibitions at major American institutions, from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or at internationally, from Edinburgh to Botswana. But Zill’s presentation shows Barton at his best — through his work. “Ahead of Her Time” is a big enough show in an excellent space. It allows Barton’s best works to shine as they should.

Viewers are greeted at “Ahead of Her Time” by Barton’s “Tipi Waterfall” from 1992 – well, actually a remake of the great work, since the original was damaged after exposure in China (apparently as retribution culture related to the international response to the 1989 Tianamen Square protests). “Tipi Waterfall” is a 9-foot tall tipi in karakul and mohair embroidery on hand-woven wool and alpaca fur. Instead of an accessible opening, it features a beautifully water-like cavalcade of fibers (alpaca?) cascading from the hinges of the teepee’s flared hem and seeming to splash from the base, which is weighed down all around by stones polished by the surf of Boothbay. .

“Bending the Blue”

“Tipi Waterfall” appears as an aberration, a true 3D work in an exhibition of fiber works dedicated to the pictorial logic of abstract expressionism. And yet, it is an excellent response to pictorial logic: we see the surface of the tipi, after all, as a “skin”, a thin flat surface, a bit like a canvas, with a decorative possibility (that is- i.e. pictorial). The effect of “Tipi Waterfall” is less about spatial – sculptural – qualities and more about aspects of the art object, such as material presence like texture, material and design.

Barton was comfortable with color – an apparent point in his later works, such as 1987’s red, white and blue “Bending Blue” – but is at his best with the organic qualities of his base materials. “Rock Lichen” from 1975, for example, is a large-scale tapestry (68 by 50 inches) featuring two basket-like (or barnacle) shapes. The defining factor of the work, however, is the natural feel of the lambswool, the materials of the object rather than the color patterns.

“Machu Picchu”

Barton’s most complete work is 1982’s “Roserock,” a 13-foot-wide form that resembles a beige and gray flag with red highlights flying right from a pole to the left of the fiber object. It is an extraordinary thing, with qualities of design and materials surpassing most abstract expressionist paintings. And that is precisely the point: after World War II, the United States became the economic and cultural center of the world, and the movement known as Abstract Expressionism spearheaded America. While “AbEx” is primarily recognized as a pictorial movement, its logic has become the standard notion of American art culture: anything manipulated in the name of self-expression is legitimately art. This idea is the common driver behind everything from what kids learn in elementary school art classes to what average Americans expect from content when they visit a gallery or museum. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, this logic fueled the American Craft Movement. Artists worked on the assumption that any medium they worked in resulted in “art”, and from this thought artists such as Dale Chihuly (a weaver of fibers who turned to glass) and Peter Voulkos (usually considered America’s greatest ceramicist) joined – or led – the ranks of the nation’s best-known artists.

Barton should be viewed in this light. She hardly gets the recognition that Chihuly or Voulkos enjoyed, but her work shines no less than theirs in the light of American AbEx logic.

“Rock lichen” (detail)

Like “Roserock”, 1982’s “Wave Length III” also twists from the left like a flag, but its organic whites electrify the nuances of matter, color and shading created by shadow. It is a symphony of subtlety.

“Confluence II” from the same year folds back and forth five times with the pulsation of a painter’s brush. Soaring 12 feet into the air, it towers over Roy Lichtenstein’s famous faux brushstrokes – like the example on permanent display at the Portland Museum of Art. This is not to say that Barton gives a bad image of Lichtenstein’s work; on the contrary, without Pop Art works like those of Lichtenstein, Barton’s work would be much more difficult for the average viewer to connect with the painting – or Barton’s quiet allusion than the vast white wall on which the work hangs is his canvas.

And the wall was Barton’s canvas. There is no doubt. Her work as a painter leads the way, with a single abstraction suggesting what she might ultimately achieve. Ultimately, however, Barton makes his own case. His work is monumental, beautiful and brilliant. It’s satisfying and exciting. And, much like the work of Voulkos or Chihuly, the material eventually gives way to Barton’s own expression. Nancy Hemenway Barton’s work makes its own case: its achievement is not the awe of craftsmanship, but the power of artistic expression.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian living in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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