After World War II, America emerged as the military, economic and cultural leader of the Free World. However, the artistic regionalism that had preceded the war wasn’t grand enough for our gleaming new international stage.
So America invented new art that was both fundamentally American and worthy of inspiring the rest of the world. This is best illustrated by jazz and Abstract Expressionism. Both are based in real-time improvisation and personal vision. So the educated erudition of European Sense was dropped for American Sensibility.
“Contemporary Works from the Collection” is a smart and enjoyable exhibition that gives an excellent view from a Maine perspective of the transition from postwar modernism to postmodern contemporary art.
I like seeing Neil Welliver paintings in the context of contemporary art rather than traditional landscape. His “Prospect Ice Flow” (1976) feels even colder and bolder next to Celeste Roberge’s 1987 floor sculpture of steel-wrapped granite stones and burnt wood.
Welliver’s “Silas in a green canoe” (1970) is as cool as the nearby Alex Katz portrait “Rudy” (1980), while the intentional awkwardness of the green canoe smartly stands up to the silky elegance of Will Barnet’s “Infinite” (1975-76) hanging next to it.
Robert Berlind’s “Damaged Woods II” (1991) looks better than ever next to Ellen Phelan’s minimal black and white sculpture “Cassel Earth” (1976) and Ellen Berkenblit’s “MarsBar Avenue” (2007). The Berlind is an austere, snowy forest made impassable by broken trees, but in the context of Berkenblit’s manically energized, black-and-white cartoon fantasy, the Berlind appears surprisingly lush and dynamic. Next to the Phelan — a curved rhomboid behind a thin, rectangular monolith — we see the landscape as formally complex and visually dense.
These three works seem to have almost nothing in common, but they help reveal great qualities in each other.
Similarly, Janet Fish’s cacophonous “Fruit Juice Glasses” (2005) and Beverly Hallam’s heavily stylized floral still life (1985) make for a comparison that outstrips the accomplishment of either painting alone.
Another interesting pair comprises a 1958 abstract expressionist painting by Stephen Pace hanging next to Juan Gomez’s “Arauca” (2006). The Pace features colorful patches of thickly brushed paint hinting of a DeKooning with rounded forms. The visceral sliminess of Gomez’s loaded, wet brush on the other hand systematically snakes around like an old river — or intestines. Quite the opposite of the opulent theatricality of the Pace, the Gomez fascinates through its grotesque and introverted logic.
Some of the best works in “Contemporary Paintings” achieve both the optical modernist sensibility and the logical gamesmanship of postmodernism.
Henry Pearson’s “Invictus” (1961-62) features myriad shaky black lines running parallel from top to bottom over a brown ground. It is part op-art, part all-over, part system/process art, and yet it somehow finds a way to revel in the brutal romanticism of William Henley’s 1875 poem “Invictus”: “Black as the Pit from pole to pole … It matters not how strait the gate … I am the captain of my soul.” It is extraordinary.
Kenneth Noland’s “Mysteries” (2002) reprises his momentous series of target paintings started in the 1950s. “Mysteries” is a blue-and-green symmetrical target form on a blue ground with a red center. It is insistently symmetrical yet scintillatingly jumpy. While its logic is immediate, it exudes a square-root-of-pi irrationality that never allows the viewer’s eye to settle or stop.
Richard Bosman’s luxuriously brushy “Munch’s Closet” (2002) fascinates me. I usually think of Bosman as a bad-boy version of Alex Katz. (He’s cool when he shouldn’t be and neurotic when you don’t want him to be). The wet-on-wet painting shows a campy, cedar closet in which a man’s brown coat, fedora and white scarf are hung from kitschy bull horns. While the outfit is more Marsden Hartley than Edvard Munch, the content and metaphors travel further with the self-cloistered Munch. The painting’s wit is unsettling: It insists on but mocks worldly sophistication, and it pines like a lonely guest.
At first glance, “Munch’s Closet” could hardly be more different from Andrew Wyeth’s “Mischief Night” (a star of the concurrent Andrew Wyeth winter exhibition) that shows a jack-o’-lantern in an empty room reflected in the window. But in the end, both works slip back and forth between play and somewhere mysterious — even sinister. Both are firmly bracketed to important American figurative painting with roots in Maine. And both revel rather indulgently in the opulence of painting.
It’s easy to lose yourself in front of Andrew Wyeth’s work: Its metaphysical dreaminess has the power to dislocate you almost instantly. But seeing it in the context of American modernism is a great reminder of its brilliance. I was especially reminded of this while viewing a couple of his works never before shown at the Farnsworth, including a masterful pencil drawing of a cormorant and a nocturnal landscape with haystacks.
I was stunned by the drawing because Wyeth worked the pencil over the curves of the bird so many times that the paper itself was sculpted to follow its contours. Looking at the drawing, you can practically feel Wyeth etching the forms into his mind.
These two shows at the Farnsworth are certainly handsome enough if you want to indulge your eye, but they offer a thoughtfully smart side as well if you care to stimulate your brain.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: