Art review: stopping short of abstraction, James Fitzgerald aimed to convey the inner life of things

James Fitzgerald, “Thunderstorm, Monhegan”, ca. 1955, watercolor and India ink, 15 x 21 inches, Promised Gift of Stephen S. Fuller & Susan D. Bateson

It’s amazing to think that the painter James Fitzgerald, the subject of ‘The Odyssey of James Fitzgerald’ at the Monhegan Museum of Art & History (until September 30) is so little known.

Since the creation of The James Fitzgerald Legacy museum in the early 2000s and the start of its catalog raisonné project (led by Robert Stahl, who has just published a second book, “James Fitzgerald: watercolors”), some 2,400 works have been identified. .

His skill as a painter, as well as his devotion to the purity of materials and processes, were extraordinarily impeccable. Yet, although Fitzgerald’s works are in prominent collections across the country – Portland Museum of Art, Farnsworth, The Phillips Collection, Smithsonian, the deCordova, MFA Boston, etc. – they are rarely exposed.

Again, this is not surprising at all. The least thing Fitzgerald cared about was fame. Reclusive and socially abrupt, he refused to promote himself or his work, believing, he once said, that “it will all be taken care of after I’m gone”. More fundamentally, what interested Fitzgerald was not the actual depiction of the sea, of fishermen or of seagulls – images for image’s sake. His desire was to transmit the authentic inner life of things; not something that was easy to see or understand for everyone.

In Stahl’s first book, “James Fitzgerald: The Drawings and Sketches” (2017), he quotes a quote the artist jotted down in a sketchbook: “The rhythmic spirit of movement underlying real reality things has always been the highest goal of art.” Stahl also writes that Fitzgerald “was quoted by a friend as saying, “Realism is a dead end, a form of philosophical ignorance that believes what you see is reality. there would be no reason to paint. Mere realism is not enough.”

This is precisely what Jackson Pollock attempted to capture with paintings like 1950’s “Autumn Rhythm.” Certainly Fitzgerald was familiar with the Abstract Expressionists (he died of a heart attack at age 72 in 1971). Ever since I saw the show, I’ve wondered why he never took the leap into pure abstraction, especially because he came close to it. His refusal to do so may also have been out of step with the prevailing movements of the time. But I’m moving forward…

The earliest influences on Fitzgerald, who was born in South Boston in 1899, were painters like Edmund Tarbell, Arthur Wesley Dow, and Winslow Homer. Both Dow and Homer abstracted images to some extent, so Fitzgerald may have developed his tendency to distill forms down to their essence during his formative art studies.

He visited Monhegan Island in 1924, but then enlisted as an able-bodied seaman, intending to travel across the Pacific. Instead, he was attacked in Monterey, California by Martha Graham Dance Company member Margaret (Pegs) Mathers, whom he married, and became part of a circle of creative thinkers that included John Steinbeck, marine biologist/ecologist/philosopher Ed Ricketts, and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. It was there that he deepened his study of Eastern art and philosophy, which would influence his work for the rest of his life.

James Fitzgerald, “Cypress”, ca. 1934, Indian ink on rice paper, 19 x 25 inches, James Fitzgerald Legacy, Monhegan Museum of Art & History unknown

There are various works from his Monterey period in the exhibit of the Monhegan Museum. We can see in a painting like “Palominos” (1932) his understanding of the bright, sunny hills of Northern California. And in “Cypress” (1934) his interest in Asian art is undeniable. If “Cypress” were not signed Fitzgerald, one could swear that it is a landscape in Indian ink.

In fact, there are much later landscapes here that reveal his lifelong preoccupation with Asian painting. Perhaps none are more iconic – or more beautiful – than 1952’s “Storm Clouds, Katahdin.” t became like Mont Sainte-Victoire for Cézanne, another of his favorite painters), it would easily be mistaken for an ethereal Chinese painting.

He returned to Monhegan Island in 1943 to live. What he brought to the familiar subject which had also occupied George Bellows, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent and many others who painted here is quite unique. Certainly, Asian sensibilities remained. But his compositions seemed to become ever more simple and essential – human, natural and animal forms distilled into a density in blocks and pieces that conveyed the robustness of both the landscape and the people and wildlife that inhabited it.

James Fitzgerald, ‘Oncoming Gulls’, 1950s, oil on canvas, 45 x 32 inches, James Fitzgerald Legacy, Monhegan Museum of Art & History

Clearly it was a way for him to convey a feeling or a phenomenon rather than an accurate depiction of life in a seaside town. There’s a lot of precision in a painting like ‘Oncoming Gulls’, especially the bird in the foreground, which does that clumsy, awkward thing gulls do – webbed feet akimbo to the left while wings flare obviously point to the right. Or there’s “Silvery Sea and Gulls” at the entrance to the adjacent history museum building, in which Fitzgerald incorporated silver leaf to convey the effects of moonlight on birds and the sea.

Yet bird flight isn’t really the subject of either, except on the surface. What we most intuit is sensations swarming and flight. Also, in “Oncoming”, close inspection reveals the composition to be a mass of triangles (beaks, webbed feet, twisted wings – even the negative spaces), or rectangles that sometimes become elongated triangles (the individual wing feathers ). It would have been a small step towards total abstraction from here. If we squint our eyes at this work, it dissolves into a cacophony of pyramid shapes floating freely in a field we once called the sky.

James Fitzgerald, “Plowing Katahdin”, ca. 1960, oil on canvas, 29 x 34 inches, James Fitzgerald Legacy, Monhegan Museum of Art & History unknown

It’s the same with my favorite painting from the show, “Labourer Katahadin”, an oil on canvas from 1960. It absolutely deciphers a peasant and his horse-drawn plow. But, again, the shapes are simplified to what is strictly necessary for representation. What we have instantly feel, however, is horsepower. Fitzgerald is far beyond the more literal portrayal of “Palominos” from 30 years ago. Instead, it focuses on the beast’s most muscular features: the rear end.

It resembles Caravaggio’s “Conversion on the Road to Damascus”, scandalous in 1600 for its representation of Saint Paul, knocked down from his mount, staring at the horse’s posterior. Like Paul, the farmer is nearly parallel to the ground (unrealistically), a diminutive figure compared to those huge hips. Fitzgerald does not paint a man plowing a field; he paints equine strength and strength, which literally seems to drag down the helpless farmer. It’s a powerhouse of a painting. And as Fitzgerald did in a work exhibited here last year, “At the Graveyard,” he composes it with a one-point directionality that feels almost baroque in its forward movement.

Why did Fitzgerald stop short of abstraction? My hypothesis: in order to transmit the inner essential energy of something, he always felt that he had to retain the real thing he was referring to. If his seagulls were just a flurry of triangles in space, how would anyone understand what he had done? If he had stayed in Monterey, it might have been different.

James Fitzgerald, “Irish Coast”, 1966, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches, James Fitzgerald Legacy, Monhegan Museum of Art & History

In “Irish Coast” (1966), Fitzgerald paints rays of sunlight emerging from the clouds above Great Blasket Island in Ireland. Each tree splits into three colors: yellow-orange in the sky, tan-gray as it passes Blasket, and red-brown as it falls into the ocean in front of a darker foreground island. This, to me, foreshadows the work of Richard Diebenkorn during the Bay Area Figurative Movement in the way he breaks down elements of landscape into distinct planes. Eventually, Diebenkorn completely surrendered to abstraction. Driven by his impulse not just to paint a picture, but to depict phenomena (here, the way the landscape colors unique beams of light), Fitzgerald might have it too.

It is worth visiting Fitzgerald’s studio to also understand his meticulously purist approach to his art. There, in the studio he bought from Rockwell Kent, are stacks of handmade Whatman paper (still rare at the time, but he refused to use machine-made versions). We also find pots of a painting medium which he reproduced from formulas used by da Vinci, Titian and Rubens, among others, a toxic and combustible concoction of linseed oil, beeswax and lead monoxide which he boiled at 500 degrees. He did it on the beach so he could throw it into the ocean in case the solution exploded. He also found shipments of genuine Chinese inks from an American art dealer in China.

Hopefully this exhibition, combined with Stahl’s heavy and authoritative double-volume works, and the efforts of the Fitzgerald Legacy Foundation – with Dan Broeckelmann (Fitzgerald’s great-nephew) at the helm – will bring new awareness to this iconic artist.

Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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