“Her Room” by Andrew Wyeth; tempera on panel, 1963 Images courtesy of Farnsworth Art Museum

Thanks to a $1.3 million gift from Lucy Copeland Farnsworth upon her death in 1935, the cornerstone was laid, in 1947, for an institution that would ultimately become what we know today as the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. To celebrate the 75th anniversary of this event, the museum has completed a total, months-long revamp of its galleries with works from its extensive collection of over 15,000 paintings, sculptures, videos, drawings and objects.

The result is “The Farnsworth at 75: New Voices from Maine in American Art” (through Dec. 31), which amounts to nothing less than a critical rethinking of the museum’s holdings that makes it feel like an entirely different institution from the one we have known for decades. The Farnsworth’s august galleries now seem to pulsate with life and a vital, up-to-the-minute relevance.

Visitors will still find the Wyeths – N.C., Andrew and Jamie – that form an important core of the collections. Some popular works, such as Richard Remsen’s installation of glass lobster claws and Marguerite Thompson Zorach’s large painting “Land and Development of New England,” have retreated to storage, while other works have emerged into the light from it. Consequently, the Farnsworth’s mission to illustrate Maine’s role in American art looks decidedly different.

“Camden Mountains from the South Entrance to the Harbor” by Fitz Henry Lane; oil on canvas, 1859

Most importantly, there is a far greater diversity of voices and experiences on view than ever before, which makes the galleries teem with nuance and subtlety in the manner of novels told from the perspectives of different characters. In this way, we can see how the same place, livelihood, practice or event can mean so many different things to so many different people. Our view of Maine’s history, then, transforms into something multifaceted rather than monolithic.

The show is organized around specific themes, with galleries devoted, for example, to works about the sea, industry, identity and so on. We are immediately summoned to attention in the first gallery. There are familiar Maine landscapes beginning in the 19th century with the likes of Fitz Henry Lane, Thomas Cole and George Inness, as well as more modern views by artists such as George Bellows, Richard Estes and Walt Kuhn, and abstracted scenes of the state’s nature by David Driskell and Lynne Drexler.

“Wabanavia” video work by Jason Brown, aka Firefly, 2022

But these are also presented in the company of contemporary works that take a divergent view of the natural world, one that happily includes the region’s First Peoples. There is “Wabanavia,” a hallucinatory video by Jason Brown (aka Firefly), a multidisciplinary Penobscot Nation artist whose heritage is part Swedish. His view of Maine is decidedly mythical and fantastical, populated by glittery snow spirits, a Wabanaki basket maker and forest animals, all dwelling within a psychedelic version of the state’s woods and streams. The Wabanaki Confederacy’s presence is also represented with a masterfully woven basket by Passamaquoddy artist Clara Neptune Keezer.


“Scrying 7” by Lauren Fensterstock; shells, mouth-blown glass, obsidian, rubber, 2017

And Lauren Fensterstock’s “Scrying,” a mixed-media sculpture of a mirror encrusted with seashells, obsidian and rubber, can be read as a decadently sumptuous and slightly creepy reference to the ever-threatened coastal ecosystem of Maine. Scrying is a form of foretelling the future through reflective objects (the mirror). What future it portends for Maine in a time of rising sea levels, pollution and efforts to save endangered species can only be guessed. On the other hand, “Scrying” could also refer to a world or object out of a dark fairy tale, making it more of-a-piece with the otherworldly intentions of Brown’s video.

“Stormy Sea No. 2” by Marsden Harley; oil on Academy Board, 1936

A gallery downstairs is devoted to the life of the sea, which, in the eloquent narrative of the works on view, reveals a much more complex portrait of one of the state’s distinguishing geographical features. There are works that passionately chronicle the sea’s many moods: Lane’s “Owl’s Head Light, Rockland, Maine,” Marsden Hartley’s “Stormy Sea No. 2” and Randall Davey’s “A Blow at Monhegan.”

Billy Gerard Frank, “Indigo: Entanglements No. 5,” silkscreen, natural pigments, vintage African fabric, newsprint, acrylic, 62 x 69 Image courtesy of the artist

Yet a recently acquired work by Grenadian artist Billy Gerard Frank, “Indigo: Entanglements No. 5,” reminds us that the sea also carried the slave trade from Africa, which was forced to work without pay on American indigo plantations. Reggie Burrows Hodges’s painting “Drifters,” of two Black figures in a boat, might be a tranquil scene of two people of African descent on a nautical outing or, just as plausibly, those same people escaping their enslavement. The power of the painting is precisely in its ambiguity.

Interesting juxtapositions abound. In another gallery, Neil Welliver’s “Prospect Ice Flow” telegraphs the awesome natural beauty of winter on the Penobscot River in Maine. But it carries on a fascinating dialogue with Eric Aho’s “Ice Cut (Violet Kennebec),” a painting of the void created when humans cut a square out of a sheet of ice. This painting could allude to the human exploitation of natural resource (ice being one of Maine’s turn-of-the-century industries) as well as a popular winter pastime (ice fishing). Like Hodges’s painting, its ambiguity asks us to contemplate both.

“Painted Room” by Lois Dodd; oil on linen, 1982

Less potentially loaded is the pairing of Andrew Wyeth’s evocative “Her Room” of 1963 with Lois Dodd’s witty “The Painted Room,” actually a canvas depicting part of a mural she created around a window in the bedroom of her Cushing home. They are both interior views onto nature – Wyeth’s is of the ocean; Dodd’s of the woods – but rendered from completely different perspectives and aesthetic intentions. Wyeth’s is respectful and romantic, while Dodd’s isn’t exactly not these things, but she injects it with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Galleries feel literally animated by videos like Brown’s “Wabanavia” and Erin Johnson’s consistently mesmerizing “Lake,” where she filmed fellow artists swimming in a lake during a Skowhegan residency (and in the process intimated “collective queer and desirous exchanges,” according to a former statement about the work).


But they are also animated by the wealth of media, both conventional and unconventional, which elicit perceptions of varied textures as well as contemplation of how innovatively artists have conveyed their messages. In the same gallery where Dodd’s and Wyeth’s works hang, for instance, is a particularly delicate clay sculpture by Kathy Butterly and Carly Grovinski’s “Canning the Sunset #5,” in which she meticulously layered colored sands into recycled canning jars to simulate Maine sunsets. So, in the same room we have conceptual work, craft-based work, hyper-realist and not-so-realist painting, photography (by Cig Harvey) and abstract painting (David Row, Tom Burkhardt).

In cases like this, individual elements lead to a collective and thoroughly absorbing whole. But in every case, even when a gallery is installed only with paintings, the diversity of voices – people of color, LGBTQ, white, traditional, deceased, modern, contemporary, and so on – is what comes across loud and strikingly, resonantly clear.

“New on View” labels next to some works helpfully indicate new acquisitions or long invisible ones unearthed from the Farnsworth’s extensive holdings. Come for these. Come for the familiar works you’ve enjoyed. But come, first and foremost, for the thrilling conversation the Farnsworth now offers regarding Maine’s place in American art.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: jorge@jsarango.com 

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