This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. to correct the site of Neill Ewing-Wegmann’s show last year.
I am not an art historian by training, and only slightly so by inclination. Too assiduous attention to the details of history can be the hobgoblin of aesthetics. In the end, art is a matter of passion, and history is its servant. Without passion, art history is history.
These thoughts were encouraged by “Maine Moderns,” a fine show at the Portland Museum of Art. As an event, it strikes a nice balance between a bit of Maine history and a gathering of notable art that assists the narrative.
The story is engaging. In the early decades of the last century, that enveloping presence in American Modernism, Alfred Stieglitz, urged a string of New York artists to take up summer residence in Maine. His influence was not always direct, and the periods of residence could be short, but the work that ensued was consequential.
The artists included Paul Strand, John Marin, Max Weber, Marguerite and William Zorach, Gaston Lachaise and Marsden Hartley. The situs of the story is two long peninsulas that wiggle south of Bath and carry on to the open sea. The artists didn’t form a colony, but there was a level of communal exchange and, based on their work, they appear to have sustained themselves on the physical virtues of rural Maine.
Maine does not account for the attitudes of the artists; they were New York artists (I use the geographic term loosely) with established approaches to their work. Still, there is a quality about some of the paintings, particularly Hartley’s, that touch the deepest level of my sense of place. Amid the flux of my impressions of Maine, some of those paintings illuminate the agitation that lies within my feelings of our state. I sense that the images are utterly right.
There are four fine Marin watercolors in the show, but Marin is too elegant and too aloof to pursue the rural virtues that I find in Hartley. That clarity is a windfall from Hartley. (A separate exhibit devoted solely to Marin can also be found at the Portland Museum of Art.)
Perhaps the best expression of the pursuit of rural virtues in the show is William Zorach’s “Five Island Ice Cream Parlor.” A watercolor, its directness and evident affection for the area is moving. It starts as a nocturne and ends as a love song.
“Walking Woman” and “Woman (Hesitation),” two small voluminous bronzes by Lachaise, have monumentality in diminutive scale. It is a pleasure to see them.
It is also a pleasure to see the photographs of F. Holland Day, Gertrude Kasebier and Clarence H. White. Meltingly beautiful examples of early American pictorial photography, they insisted on entry into the realm of art before photography was accepted as a creative medium. Their idylls and diffusions are of the kind that Stieglitz once championed.
Although there is no apparent record of Stieglitz having set foot in Maine, his imprint appears on a lot that was created in these precincts in years gone by. Perhaps a show about him some sunny day.
JUNE FITZPATRICK MECA SHOW
“Figurative Drawings” at June Fitzpatrick MECA — an increment in a statewide drawing initiative — offers work deeply achieved. Passion comes in many guises — sometimes in images, sometimes in the urgency to create the images. It’s all there in this show.
In starting off with Richard Wilson, a garner of the louche, we’re treated to a gathering of end-of-the-evening adventures. Disrobing figures — some with choreographed passion, some just plain stripping — imply contact events to come.
It’s not entirely tongue in cheek. There’s enough in these low-toned drawings to sustain a minimal level of prurience. Satire and mild salaciousness are the hallmarks of one branch of Wilson’s work in this show.
In other branches, animals take over a nightclub, figures that would be rejected by Saint Anthony swarm, seances flourish, and all in the dimmest light. As a satirist, the artist is brilliantly idiosyncratic.
The watercolor-silverpoints of Pat Hardy treat of the supine female nude. The figure is offered for its classical allusions and the plastic opportunities it presents. There are no sly references, but the work is intensely passionate. It displays a love of nuance and serenity, and an exultation of the ability to define form with enchanting economy. For a love of art as such, these small works are moments of high passion.
There are three drawings in the show by Michael Waterman. Like Wilson, Waterman is a local perennial, but unlike Wilson, his work is seldom seen. I cannot put a label on it, but sense the existence in it of a personal world and of an assumption by the artist of a responsibility for that world’s security.
The images in this show can be seen as macabre events in Waterman’s domain. They can also be seen as achievements in the world of the grotesque, an off-centered but much honored branch of the arts. I never doubt the passion of Waterman.
Two early ink drawings by Leonard Baskin make their way as grace points in this event. One, a tiny exquisite tondo of two dogs, exemplifies his virtuosity with the pen; the other, “Two Boys,” is Baskin in one of his most skeptical moments. It is an intensely felt work by an eminent artist.
Ten or so drawings — largely pencil and pastel — by Thomas Cornell make up the balance of the show. I have disavowed an inclination to art history, but I am aware of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), and have heard his name used in concert with Cornell from time to time.
I mention this because of the singular position Cornell holds in contemporary art. His elegant manner, the clarity and order of his work and the precision of his draftsmanship are embracingly classical, and tie him to Ingres and ultimately back to Poussin. Cornell’s subject matter can be sumptuous, but his translation is steadied by logic and, as I have said, order.
This can be most easily seen in his graphite portraits of David Becker and Gracchus Babeuf, and more pictorially in “Studies for the Four Ages.” The intention in Becker and Babeuf appears to be a precursor to the remaining works by Cornell in this show.
ART HOUSE IN PORTLAND
Going to Art House in Portland is, in itself, a treat. Tucked away in its tiny courtyard, its thimble-sized gallery will hold essays that are too highly pitched for more formidable galleries to handle. Its shows can be more interesting than persuasive, but that’s fine.
All of this does not apply to the paintings of Neill Ewing-Wegmann now at the gallery. Ewing-Wegmann’s extensive show at the Salt Exchange last year was a key to the larger establishment. The Art House show continues the pulse of that event.
Its title, “Industrial Breakdown,” sets the stage for an exposition of modern-day ruins. In his images, our industrial dinosaurs (a term borrowed from the painter) exhaust their last energies.
They are not the America-at-work declaration of a century ago, but rather rusted polluters, working until they stop working. Their ineluctable demise is expressed as much in out-of-the-can color as in complex geometric excursions.
Philip Isaacson of Lewiston has been writing about the arts for the Maine Sunday Telegram for 46 years. He can be contacted at: