Marsden Hartley: The Biography of an American Painter
Lately I’ve been reading about Maine authors and painters (see Great Spruce Head Island, see Art Week!). Actually I’ve always had an interest in Marsden Hartley.
Ever since I saw this painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I was simply drawn in. It is in the same gallery as Night Hawk and Georgia O’Keefe, whose subject matter is somewhat similar. There was something about Cash Entry Mines, New Mexico, 1920 that spoke to me. Maybe it was how big nature is or the color palette: dun, washed red, faded black lines, sand colors. We can never know exactly what will touch us, but I suspect it has to do with peace.
I bought at a library sale a monograph about Hartley and I learned that while living one summer in Nova Scotia with a local family the family lost 2 sons and another family member. Their boat was caught in a storm and the lads were lost at sea. This was devastating not only to the family but to Hartley. He loved the young men. His pictures after this were haunted with images referring to them, the family, and Nova Scotian fishermen, the sea. He could not bring them back; they resided in his memory.
But back to Cash Entry Mines, New Mexico. I learned from reading this biography that Hartley painted this and a series of other New Mexico paintings while in Berlin. He wrote to a friend that he saw New Mexico in his mind. He was last there 4 years prior. Here he was—an expat living the life of an artist in Germany, traveling the continent observing art in all sorts of galleries, yet he couldn’t shake the one summer he spent in the US southwest. Whatever his experiences were in Berlin in the 1920s it unleashed memories. Berlin in the winter: grey monuments stained with city soot, walls closing in, leaden skies, sun late and early set. Deep in his blood stirs a restlessness for elsewhere: open skies, rust-colored canyons, dry arroyos, flattop mesas, islands of sage, air!, a wind-bent cypress—it’s tendril roots threading over bare rock.
The art he was able to produce as a stranger in a strange land was “new”. He sparked. The landscapes contained a vitality, a sensualness, a simplicity. “A certain coming toward repose . . ” He wrote that there was little of “me” in the new work. Just “good old fashioned honest painting.”
The collection when exhibited didn’t excite the critics. One called it a study in liver (referring, I guess, to the color palette). But, as we like to say, the rest is history. Several Marden Hartleys hang in the Art Institute, highly collected, highly sought after. Much of his work is on display in museums all across America. All this to emphasize the power of recollection, the creative buoyancy behind memories—they will surface in the most unlikely of places and at the most inconvenient times, but if we listen to them, let them push and guide us, we might discover something NEW.