Valley Road, Marsden Hartley, oil painting, 1919-20
Guest blogger Brad Ford Smith is a Dallas artist and art conservationist.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of joining Manny Mendoza to see Marsden Hartley and the West: The Search for an American Modernism, the exhibit at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth. We made the mad dash from Dallas to the Fort Worth Arts District in just under 40 minutes. This got us to the museum in time to hear Dr Heather Hole’s lecture on how New Mexico played a pivotal roll in Hartley’s artistic development.
Dr Hole authored the book that accompanies the exhibit. She not only knows a lot about Hartley’s life but has also read his journals and his personal letters to people such as his long time friend and supporter Alfred Stieglitz. The lecture focused mainly on Hartley’s visual and symbolic development. This brought to light some of the fascinating recurring themes of death and mourning, but I was hoping for more enlightenment on the issues that caused him to be labeled as a difficult artist. I guess I’ll just have to buy the book or rent the movie, Cleophas and His Own, which is about some terrible event that happens much later in his life.
So here is my take on what makes this show worth seeing. It is mostly landscapes, but it is also a tour of art history as translated through the hands of a highly receptive artist. It is also a portrayal of the distance between visual rationality and emotional reaction.
This exhibition focuses on what is known as Hartley’s New Mexico Sojourn, his first attempts to find what he calls a true American art form. This search later became the foundation for the American Regionalist movement, which included artists such as Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and Ben Shahn. This movement had a local spin off known as the Dallas Nine, which included the artists Alexander Hogue, Jerry Bywaters and Otis Dozier.
I had assumed this would be a collection of works he did while staying in Taos and Santa Fe. This assumption was only partially correct. The first part of the show is composed of pastels, which are direct renditions of the mountains and arroyos around Taos. The second part is a year later when he returns to New Mexico to produce pastels and paintings of the area around Santa Fe. These later works show the first signs of imaginative adaptation. The last part of the exhibit is comprised of oil paintings he did of New Mexico but interestingly he did them while living in New York, Paris and Berlin. This body of work known as the New Mexico Recollections is where I found the paintings of New Mexico that he is best known for.
Marsden Hartley is a hard artist to categorize because he had the lifelong habit of jumping head first into new art movements, borrowing ideas from fellow artists, and recycling his own ideas. So he could be listed as a Fauvist, a Blue Rider, a Constructivist, a Surrealist, a Symbolist, or a Regionalist. He is in fact all of these, so typically he gets tagged with the label “American Modernist.” But I think the consistent center in his work is his creation of a visual diary of experiences and thoughts.
In the first pastels he very consciously jettisoned all the influences of European painting in an attempt to find what he terms as “a true American Art language.” But it seems to me that his struggle with pastels, a medium he doesn’t seem very comfortable with, quickly becomes infused with Cezanne’s blocks of color and Manet’s sense of flatness. He focuses in on a mountain ridge as a theme, which is strongly derivative of the paintings Cezanne did of Mount Saint-Victoire in Provence, which by the way was inspired by the Japanese wood blocks, 100 Views of Mount Fuji.
I don’t think he ever succeeded in his romantic quest for a true American Art form. He was as this exhibit exemplifies, too much in love with the world of art. The very concept of hiding away among the Indian tribes of New Mexico in order to tap into an artistic purity could have been taken from the life story of Paul Gaughan.
In Hartley’s second trip/ sojourn to New Mexico the pastels and paintings start to become more imaginative and less rigid in their interpretations of the landscape. The rivers and mountains become rounded and repetitive. The color pallet is reduced in order to heighten the vivid contrasts. These are direct links to the Fauvists and his experience with the Blue Riders.
After he leaves Santa Fe and moves back to New York, he hangs out at Stieglitz’s gallery, and briefly joins up with Societe Anonyme, a group of surrealists that includes Man Ray and Duchamp. The paintings that he creates at this time seem to reflect a New Mexico sensibility, one of alienation and isolation, but they also seem to be a bit undirected.
When Hartley moves back to Berlin, a city that for a brief time was highly tolerant of lifestyle variations, he begins painting the New Mexico landscape not as a depiction of a real place but instead he is using a real place as a vehicle or support structure onto which he explores all the vivid emotions and influences that Berlin and the German Expressionist movement have to offer. Here are his most compelling images of New Mexico. Here are the daily influences of an artist community made up of people such as Otto Mueller, Emil Nolde, Franz Marc and Max Beckmann. Here is also were you see his symbolic representations of death and mourning as seen through the eyes of a man whose sexual orientation was for most of the world at that time considered to be illegal, depraved and morally corrupt.
Wow, now that’s a lot of stuff to pack into a couple of dozen landscapes.
To sum it up, I think this show is a great example of one man’s artistic journey that in the end has little to do with finding a true American art form and more to do with the assimilation of the European art experience.