Maine’s art institutions have been thriving. The most obvious recent success stories have been in the major renovations of campus art museums at Colby and Bowdoin colleges. Space Gallery, Maine Media Workshops + College, River Arts, Fryeburg Academy and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies also have all opened excellent new spaces in the past five years.

The Portland Museum of Art not only opened the Winslow Homer studio on Prouts Neck, but is now expanding its campus (maybe with the ambitious goal of overtaking Colby as Maine’s largest museum?). And the latest news item is the Center for Maine Contemporary Art’s impressive new building going up in downtown Rockland.

While nothing has been more exciting than the quantum leap in the quality of programming at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Portland’s Maine College of Art (which also happens to have one of Maine’s best art spaces), the most impressive improvement has been quietly percolating at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art.

Seated on a cliff overlooking the ocean, Maine’s most gorgeously situated art museum, the Ogunquit Museum has renovated its galleries and stepped up its programming. As a result, museum attendance has doubled in five years.

This summer’s Richard Brown Lethem show, for example, was impressive. Lethem is an extraordinary colorist both in terms of intellect and sensibility, while what we usually get in Maine are masters of light or local color. (Lethem’s Ogunquit show closed Aug. 31, but his two works in the University of New England’s new “Coyote Connections” are the strongest in the large exhibition.)

In addition to the sculptures on the grounds, the rotating historical installation about Henry Strater’s Ogunquit art community and the main gallery’s annual crop culled from the permanent collection (Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, Walt Kuhn, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and more), the museum is now presenting a smartly assembled trio of exhibitions in the main hall and two adjoining spaces.

Most impressive is the show of Linda Bean’s collection of works by Andrew Wyeth. Most notable is the exhibition of 30 framed pencil drawings by Amy Stacey Curtis. And most interesting is the exhibition of animal-themed art from the permanent collection.

The dialogue between these three small exhibitions works quite well, with Wyeth (the old-school master) and Curtis (the emergent contemporary voice) bookending a showcase of the permanent collection.

Highlights of Bean’s Wyeth collection include the dry and scratchy autumn scene, “Bullock Road,” in which fallen leaves flee the wind brought by biting gray skies. Down the road, we see a farmhouse appearing as to a traveler in the final stretch of his journey. “Wishbone” is a stream-caught stick rising up like a ghostly Pre-Raphaelite echo of the deer’s antlers in Winslow Homer’s famous watercolor sketch for his controversial “Hound and Hunter,” in which a young hunter in a boat holds his floating quarry by the antlers. And “Carol on the Beach” features a standing woman taking in a late-summer moment with a lingering, pensive look out to sea.

Because the Wyeths are from a private collection, it is likely you will not have seen these works before and may never have the chance to see them again. And while exhibitions of private holdings of major artists often mean dragging every scrap in the collection, no matter how lame or questionable, that is hardly the case here.

All of the 13 drawings and watercolors by Andrew Wyeth are worthy, and they are joined by a mixed media scene of bees in front of a lighthouse by his son, Jamie Wyeth, and a powerful whaling scene by his father, N.C. Wyeth.

The whaling scene provides a particularly interesting context. While N.C. Wyeth wanted to be known as an oil painter, his great fame came as an illustrator.

This painting makes significant use of marks made in underdrawing, most notably in the harpoonist’s musculature and on the whale’s back. This is interesting because it acts like publication printmaking (engraving) and because it relies on the transparency of the oil paint to reveal the marks. From any distance, the verisimilitude looks like the product of the brush; so it’s a drawing up close and a painting from afar.

The whaling scene serves to remind us that technically apt watercolors are far closer to Renaissance and 19th-century art than is most modernist painting. While we have been myopically programmed by art snobs (yes, oil painters, I am talking about you) to look down our noses at watercolor as a medium, we should remember great artists like Homer, John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper and John Marin looked to watercolor because it encompassed qualities of painting and drawing.

We can see this logic in Reginald Marsh’s 1927 “The Pink Elephant” (which intriguingly predates Salvador Dali’s pink elephant scene in “Dumbo” by a decade). It would be easy to misread Marsh’s pride in his technical abilities as retrograde, but his subject and his subtle, primary palette of red, blue and yellow were prescient. To its great curatorial credit, the Ogunquit Museum label copy discusses this work in terms of the painting/drawing dialogue discussed above.

Other highlights include a pair of totemic animal images by Morris Graves (the late Northwest mystic painter whose star has been steadily rising), a print and a drawing featuring Will Barnet’s cats, a translucent alabaster bird by Frances Lamont that glows when sunstruck in its picturesque window placement, and a howling coyote by Bernard Langlais.

This museum is one of the best places to see Langlais’ sculpture placed outside and provides an excellent complement to Colby’s current Langlais retrospective.

Similarly, Curtis’ show is an addendum to her current “Matter” in Parsonsfield. While I prefer her contemplative drawings to her obsessive and bossy mill installations, Curtis’ series of mill-sited biennials deserves props as one of the most ambitious works of conceptual process art in the history of Maine art.

Here, her set of 30 framed drawings of household items (pencil, safety pin, scissors, etc.) is nicely displayed in a grid with sufficient space and breathing room to convey its conceptual underpinnings. It ties the museum’s project to contemporary art in Maine while furthering the discourse about the status of drawing set up by the other exhibitions.

The Ogunquit Museum of American Art has focused on better, rather than bigger, and its success is now on fine display.

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

[email protected]

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