A title like “Maine Masters of Modernism” – as the show at the Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Falmouth is called (until August 20) – creates quite high expectations. It involves artists at the zenith of their talents doing something revolutionary, iconoclastic and/or at an impressive level of skill and technique. Does “Maine Masters” keep this promise? Usually yes, and sometimes no.
A good number of works confidently present an excellent, compelling case for the title. Among these are “Blue Peninsula” by Lynne Mapp Drexler, “Sunset Island Freeport” by David Driskell and several paintings by Robert S. Neuman.
Drexler’s large 1971 oil on canvas, which catches your eye from its position on a terracotta-colored wall opposite the front door, was painted at a critical juncture in his career. That year, she and her husband, painter John Hultberg, bought a house on Monhegan Island, where they escaped from New York each summer and where, eventually, Drexler lived year-round until when he died.
Until then, his work had been largely abstract, and “Blue Peninsula” certainly was. Drexler’s abstraction, however, was completely original, unlike anyone else. She would eventually be associated with the Pattern & Decoration movement of the mid-1970s and early 1980s, which drew inspiration from so-called “feminine” and “decorative” sources such as Moorish, Byzantine and Far Eastern wallpaper and textile patterns. , although one could also claim an affinity with the pattern-filled canvases of Gustav Klimt.
It’s a mesmerizing tour de force of color, egg shapes and wavy lines, and you can’t take your eyes off it. But the wavy lines (as well as the title) also presage a stylistic shift towards the synthesis of abstraction and representation that would define his later work. When he died in 1999, his paintings would clearly, though still abstractly, suggest the woods, the shore, and the people of the art colony.
David Driskell, currently the subject of a magnificent retrospective at the Portland Museum of Art, was famous for his depictions of pines. If there was any question that Driskell was a Maine master of modernism, the PMA exhibit definitely puts him to rest. “Sunset Island”, with its deft layering of color and otherworldly spirituality, is certainly a very fine specimen of this work.
Neuman’s pieces turn out to be a revelation. A native of Idahoan of Swedish and German descent who studied with, among others, the German Expressionists Max Beckmann and Willi Baumeister, he was influenced by a diverse array of other artists. These included many he encountered during his traveling life: California modernists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Spanish painter Antoni Tàpies, and Italian artist Alberto Burri, to name a few. But his sense of color and some of his symbolist compositions also have apparent links with Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.
Unsurprisingly, the seven works on display, executed between 1961 and 2007, cover a lot of ground. Moss juxtaposed “Mirage” (1977) and “Winter Storm Schoodic” (2001). The only consistencies between them are their bright pop color palette and scale. Otherwise, “Mirage” is analytical, almost mathematical in its calculation and skillfully calibrated assembly of geometric shapes. In this sense, it’s like Klee, but much more rigorous. But by the time Neuman approached “Schoodic”, the rugged nature of coastal Maine had driven him to an exuberant, almost wild abstraction.
Another fascinating pairing is Neuman’s ‘Hommage à Stravinsky’ (1971) and ‘Lame Deer Study’ (2002). The former is all geometry – mostly circles and semi-circles – but composed like Kandinsky’s theoretical Bauhaus period works to recreate the dynamic musical movement of a Stravinsky symphony. Conversely, “Lame Deer” was a series born after a visit to a Native American reservation in Montana. The tipi shapes, rendered almost like primitive petroglyphs, are not hard to discern. But they float through abstract fields of thin, dappled color that offer them no ground to land on — apparently a political reference to the injustices European white men perpetrated against them, forcing Native Americans to be what he has. called “people continually on the run”.
It’s the greatest joy of the “Maine Masters” – seeing how artists have grown and transformed over time, while maintaining signature sensibilities. Will Barnet begins with geometric abstraction in “Untitled, 1954-1959” and moves on to the flat representational images of people, cats and crows with which we most associate him (“The Crows I” from 1996, a photo of his granddaughter, is particularly emblematic). But we see that he never lost his adherence to grids, triangles, circles and rectangles as the underlying organizational structures of his compositions.
Stephen Pace is represented by three undated works that oscillate between the abstract expressionism he absorbed from his teacher Hans Hofmann and the figurative works of rural life whose style reveals the influence of his friend Milton Avery. A painting like Jerusalem Artichokes seems to walk a thin line between abstraction and representation. The guideline here is a love of pure, undiluted pigment.
All of these works live up to the title in one way or another. Just like a pair of etchings from John Marin and Henry Kallem’s “28and Street Bottles” (although his “Psychedelic Raft Monhegan Island”, while certainly iconoclastic, is less interesting).
But there are a few confusing inclusions. Geraldine Tam’s “Rosa Rugosa” and “Lupins” are certainly charming and masterful in their depiction of these plant forms. Yet it is difficult to discern from the accuracy of his botanical reports what makes them modernist. On the contrary, they are even more meticulously precise and unromantic than those of Pierre-Joseph Redouté, the painter and botanist whose patron, Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais, named him her official artist.
The same goes for Charles Woodbury’s “Looking South from Perkins Cove” (1910). Although his work is certainly expressive in a less academic way, Woodbury was essentially a painter of impressionistic sea scenes. It seems a bit of a stretch to call his art modernism. It’s a bit like calling JMW Turner or Winslow Homer, as avant-garde as they were for their time, modern masters. We can only do this if we expand this term in a way that seems to contradict the facts. This in no way diminishes the beauty of the painting, which is quite moving.
There are also a few works that are simply uninteresting and whose winnowing could have had a more powerful impact on the viewer. But it’s a small downside. Taken together, the exhibit proves once again that Maine was an important place of artistic effervescence in America.
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]