Red Grooms, “Slab City Rendezvous,” 1964, oil on canvas with wood and cardboard, 56 1/2 x 60 inches, Collection of the Farnsworth Art Museum, Gift of the Drs. Robert N. Mayer and Debra E. Weese-Mayer Family Collection, 2019.1 © 1964 Red Grooms/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. 

Maine has long been a place where artists – particularly New York City-based artists – would come to work during the summer. While many have come over the years to places such as the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, the Haystack Mountain School, Watershed, HewnOaks and elsewhere, there have long been organic “colonies” of artists who came on their own or in groups to blend relaxation with art-making.

Over time, many of the artists who came to attend residencies or visit with friends and colleagues began to buy property and remain, some as seasonal residents and others permanently.

Beginning with Fitz Henry Lane and Frederic Edwin Church, Maine became one of the key artistic destinations in the country. As the ranks of leading American artists with Maine connections grew – including Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Robert Henri, George Bellows, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, the Porters and so many others – Maine’s role in American art similarly expanded to the point where the state has long been one of the nation’s leading art brands.

These communities constitute critical chapters in the stories of American art. The story of one of these communities is featured in “Slab City Rendezvous,” now on view at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. The protagonists are known to practically every fan of postwar American art: Lois Dodd, Alex Katz, Rackstraw Downes, Red Grooms, Bernard Langlais, Yvonne Jacquette and Neil Welliver, among notable others. Their work headlines museums and major collections around the country (and beyond) and their legacies are key to many important American cultural developments, such as the Lower East Side galleries opened and operated by these artists that were key to building the New York City gallery scene into what it has become today. While artist colonies began to coalesce in Maine as early as the late 19th century, this particular group began to gather in the 1950s.

The exhibition is as charming as it is substantial. While this could have been the basis for a huge, blockbuster show, “Slab City” is unexpectedly intimate, which serves its subject well. Painting in Maine, after all, pressed many of the artists to work outside (as opposed to within their NYC studios). The plein-air approach lent their work a type of urgency, since it was framed by changing light, weather and smaller blocks of time.

Alex Katz (American, born 1927) “Clamdiggers at Ducktrap,” 1956 Oil on Masonite 30 x 40 inches Colby College Museum of Art, Maine, Gift of the artist © 2019 Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Consider, for example, an artist like Alex Katz who is now best known for his super-flat, grand scale canvases. During his summers in Maine, Katz worked on a more intimate scale, an approach that better showcases the logic behind his seemingly simple low-contrast canvases. Katz could alway handle a brush, and the relationship between his marks and his areas of “flat” color is far easier to see and appreciate in the easel-sized works such as his 1953 “Lincolnville,” a simple shack and a 20-stroke brushy tree set against a landscape of four bands of similarly valued colors: yellow foreground, a light green treeline and soft blue mountains under a beige sky. “Clamdiggers at Ducktrap” (1956) uses a similar 4-tiered structure but features a pair of bending figures rendered in a few strokes and colors free of high contrast. The work is fresh, direct and subtle, leaving the viewer’s eye to appreciate the clarity of the structures and Katz’s buttery touch with the brush.

Katz is at his very best (and I mean of his entire career) in the work “Slab City Road,” a portrait of Lois Dodd and her son. She sits in a chair, gazing off contemplatively, while her son, clad in shorts and his playful sailor suit, faces the viewer. Shadowless, they are placed on an ochry green field (“field” both in the sense of grass and color field) that flatly rises to near the very top of the canvas. Katz gives the figures a sense of recumbent calm. While his giant pieces can come across as cold, this is anything but. It could hardly be sweeter.

“Slab City” is a spot in the village of Lincolnville, named, possibly, for granite slabs or the leftover “slabs” from a nearby wood mill.

In the years since she started coming here in the 1950s, Dodd has become a doyenne of Maine painting. And it was in Maine that she truly took to making her initial images almost exclusively en plein air on small panels, which she then sometimes chooses to blow up as larger canvases in the studio. Her 1961 “Six Cows at Lincolnville” is a mid-sized canvas (apparently) made directly from observation. It is loose and overarchingly organic. Her painting of clam diggers, unlike Katz’s, is gritty and echoes the muck of their labor.

Lois Dodd (American, born 1927) “Six Cows at Lincolnville,” 1961 Oil on canvas 47 ½ x 63 ¾ inches © Lois Dodd, Courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York © 2019 Lois Dodd / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY Lois Dodd

“Slab City” also features works by the partners and friends of Katz and Dodd, who, together, bought a house on Slab City Road and founded one of the key Lower East Side galleries along with Dodd’s then-husband Bill King.

The exhibition catalog, particularly Susan Danly’s excellent essay, is a trove of information and offers context about how and why such a colony could happen, even discussing the costs of the properties the artists acquired. At the time, they were able to get old farm houses with barns (excellent for studios) and scores of acres for $1,500 or less. These were not rich folks playing at being artists; for the most part, they were poor and scraping by at the time, so the cost of living was highly relevant. They shared for community, but also out of necessity.

“Slab City” is full of pleasant surprises. We see the humble greatness in Rackstraw Downes’ high-focus painting of the somewhat industrialized landscape, featuring bridges or far-off factories. We see Joseph Fiore’s soft-touch landscapes painted with no less personal warmth than precision. We can feel the energy of Red Grooms’ work not as frantic (as it can come across depending on context), but as his exuberant overflow of energy. His 1964 “Slab City Rendezvous” not only gave the name of the show, but it is an extraordinary group portrait that includes Katz along with his wife and son, Dodd and her son, Rudy Burckhardt as a cutout painting on the roof, the poet Edwin Denby striding like Giacometti’s “Walking Man” in the foreground, the painter Mimi Gross and Yvonne Jacquette with a cat in her lap and a baby at her feet. This group is gathered in front of the little house on a glorious Maine summer day replete with a cotton-puff-dotted blue sky. Grooms’ high energy here finds its mark, and we can feel the blend of fun, happy relaxing and ceaseless creative energy.

On one hand, it’s tough to match up to the likes of Downes, Dodd, Katz and Grooms, but the supporting cast is more than up to the task. The show starts with a group of old trucks, necessary to the experience of getting to the middle of nowhere: Will Brown’s 1953 Ford and the scene at Welliver’s are particularly entertaining and impressive, for example. But all of the work flows from fancifully fun (who doesn’t like paintings on tree fungus?) to unexpectedly excellent. And the surprising punctuation comes in the form of Burckhardt’s films, which are wonderfully witty and amiably amusing. Through these (as explained in the label copy and catalog), we see that these artists could and would gather and do things together. It completes the sense of creative community.

The fact that “Slab City” fits in the space comparable to that of the first floor of a small Maine house feels just right.

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

[email protected]


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