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"Marsden Hartley and the West: The Search for an American Modernism"

Exhibition Catalogue Introduction

by Heather Hole

 

This book and exhibition examine a period of Marsden Hartley's career that has been largely overlooked, and bring to light a darker, less confident version of post-World War I American modernism. Between 1918 and 1924, Hartley painted the New Mexico landscape again and again, while living first in New Mexico, then in New York, and finally in Europe. As Hartley moved farther and farther away from New Mexico itself, his work became increasingly characterized by melancholy and yearning for the ever unreachable, already missed encounter with the landscape. In New Mexico in 1918 and 1919, he produced colorful pastels that captured his immediate impressions of the landscape, but translating that vision into the medium of oil painting proved to be a greater challenge. Then, in New York between 1919 and 1921, Hartley painted compositionally strong yet increasingly ambivalent oils of New Mexico from memory. This path culminated in the powerful and complex 1923-24 New Mexico Recollections series, in which the landscapes for self, body, and nation merge in a desolate, even despairing vision of New Mexico.

The American modernism visible in Hartley's evolution during the 1918-24 years is an implicit, though hitherto ignored, component of much of the art of the postwar period. It is characterized by an intense longing for a connection to an American art through the American soil, combined with deep grief and despair over the perceived inaccessibility of an authentic Americanness already lost and an American modernism impossible to create.

As a part of the circle of artists around Alfred Stieglitz, Hartley was familiar with what has been called their soil-and-spirit rhetoric: the idea, broadly put, that the spiritual essence of a new American modernism could be found in the American soil.[1] Much of this rhetoric was resolutely optimistic and even evangelical in tone. Yet by its very insistence this strong and vigorously stated desire to create a new artistic tradition revealed the depth of its opposite and less discussed element, the fear and anxiety over the perceived absence of a usable art history in a world torn apart through the unprecedented, mechanical violence of World War I. This cultural context and Hartley's personal history are explored in chapter 1.

Hartley's art and writings created in New Mexico in 1918 and 1919 are the subject of chapter 2. Hartley came to New Mexico in 1918 with ideas related to, but also distinct from, the Stieglitz circle ideology. He wrote in that year that America was landscape, and that a new American aesthetic could be created through an artist's "definite reaction from the soil itself."[2] The highly representational and visually appealing mountain pastels he created that summer, structured around the immediate and subjective interaction between artist and landscape, bear witness to his attempt to put this philosophy into practice. But while he may have begun with that idea in mind, Hartley's work in New Mexico changed considerably. Finding himself stymied in translating his impressions of New Mexico into oil, Hartley turned to writing, and produced a series of complex and sometimes surprising essays about American art, national identity, and authenticity. By the time he left New Mexico at the end of 1919, Hartley was painting tentative oils of a generalized New Mexico landscape.

The New York City years, from 1919 to 1921, are the subject of chapter 3. In New York, Hartley moved increasingly away from Stieglitz's artistic philosophy and toward the very different position occupied by the Dadaist Société Anonyme, of which he was a part. He produced a number of strong, forceful New Mexico landscapes during his first year in New York, but an increasing sense of ambivalence and uncertainty about his New Mexico project runs through them. His contemporary essays reveal frequent shifts in his critical thinking. Frustrated with American culture, he eventually abandoned painting New Mexico entirely, sold off all his work in a specially arranged auction, and left for Europe.

The New Mexico work finally culminated with something very different and far darker, the 1923 and 1924 New Mexico Recollections, painted in Berlin, which are the subject of chapter 4. These extraordinary works are among the most complex and multilayered depictions of the American landscape produced between the wars. In the New Mexico Recollections, the landscapes of memory, self, and nation merge. Variously the earth becomes water, trees stand in for people, and the landscape itself becomes corporeal. The Recollections are haunted by specific persons lost in the war and by the collapse of Hartley's earlier attempt to form an idealized connection to the soil through art. The paintings depict an internal rather than an external landscape; after all, recollections are by definition landscapes of the mind.

Finally, in chapter 5, the impact of Hartley's New Mexico period on his subsequent work and the continuing use of place as an American modernist concept are explored. While Hartley eventually abandoned his attempt to forge an authentic American art by depicting the New Mexico landscape, artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin, and others continued where Hartley left off.

This project engages multiple art-historical methods of inquiry, and puts multiple forms of evidence to work. First and foremost, it carefully and seriously examines Hartley's writings throughout the New Mexico period. Though these writings have received little scholarly attention, Hartley published essays, poems, and even a book, and also engaged in extensive unpublished correspondence with the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, during this time. In the analysis of Hartley's written work, it is necessary to remember that the paintings do not illustrate the writings, and the writings do not explain the paintings. Rather, Hartley purposefully leaves the two side by side in an uncomfortable, always shifting coexistence that must be examined critically.

In addition, this book focuses on different contexts and interpretive methods to examine the distinct stages of the New Mexico period. Hartley's early New Mexico pastels and paintings call for a reading that examines the social and intellectual context of their production in a deep and careful way. To this end, the post­World War I debates over Americanness in American art, especially as Hartley himself engaged them, are examined in careful detail in chapters 1 and 2 of this book. The complex array of differing artistic philosophies Hartley encountered in New York is especially important to his work there, so that chapter places greater emphasis on Hartley's connections to artistic communities. The final New Mexico Recollections call instead for a method that allows social, psychological, and phenomenological readings to coexist, intertwine, and reinforce one another. In this context, close readings of the paintings themselves, informed by an understanding of the historical moment in which they were created, prove to be the most fruitful method of analysis.

Throughout the book seriality and recurrence in art are carefully considered. In his New Mexico works, Hartley repeats specific forms and compositional elements, purposely combining and recombining them in different ways. The subtle play of similarity and difference is an essential part of these objects.

This examination of Hartley's New Mexico period is part of a broader movement in Hartley research away from a vision of Hartley as an isolated, angst-ridden genius of modernism and toward a greater understanding of his cultural context.[3] Unlike previous scholarship, however, this book and exhibition purposely examine a period in Hartley's career that is frequently dismissed as inauthentic, because Hartley was not a native of New Mexico, and thus challenge the traditional approach to his body of work. Looking at the New Mexico pictures complicates our perception of nativeness and authenticity in Hartley's work as a whole. Through examining Hartley's New Mexico landscapes, this exhibition and catalog aim to expose this previously overlooked element of the art of the moment, and this previously overlooked period of Hartley's career.

 

Notes

1 Wanda Corn, The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) xix.

2 Marsden Hartley "Aesthetic Sincerity," El Palicio 5, no. 20 (December 9, 1918): 332.

3 See Donna Cassidy, Marsden Hartley: Race, Region and Nation (Lebanon, N.H.,: University Press of New England, 2005) 1-9.

 

About the author

Heather Hole received her Ph.D. in art history from Princeton University in 2005. She has been the assistant curator at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum since 2004.

 

About the exhibition

Marsden Hartley was arguably one of the most brilliant and complicated of the American modernists. A member of the circle of artists around Alfred Stieglitz, the well-known photographer, gallery owner, and husband and promoter of Georgia O'Keeffe, he first became known to Stieglitz and the New York art world in 1909 for his innovative depictions of his home state of Maine. Later, Hartley was at the forefront of the revolutionary experimentations in abstraction taking place in Germany in 1913 and 1914. World War I forced Hartley to return home in 1915, however, and Hartley began to question European-style modernism because he saw it as the product of a culture that had produced the massive devastation of World War I. He then began to look for a way to create an independent, American modern art that did not draw on European tradition.

The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum presents Marsden Hartley and the West: The Search for an American Modernism, an exhibition bringing together 42 of Hartley's paintings and pastels for the first time. The exhibition explores his search for a new American art in New Mexico, and repositions his New Mexico period as pivotal in his career and in the development of American modernism.

Marsden Hartley's path to a uniquely American modernist aesthetic crossed oceans and continents, ran through the desert vistas of New Mexico, and ultimately through his own recollections of the place. Between 1918 and 1924, Hartley painted the New Mexico landscape again and again, while living first in Taos and Santa Fe, then in New York, and finally in Europe.

When he arrived in New Mexico, Hartley created a series of bright, engaging pastels of the New Mexico landscape. He hoped that working directly from nature would purify him and his work, allowing him to develop an original, uniquely American style.

Instead, Hartley's New Mexico work evolved into a complex meditation on distance and loss, and the aftermath of World War I. When Hartley left the United States for Europe in 1921, he could not leave New Mexico behind. He began painting the powerful New Mexico Recollections series (21 paintings are presented in this exhibition) in Berlin in 1923. These extraordinary works are among the most complex and multilayered depictions of the American landscape produced between the wars. When taken as a whole, the tumultuous Recollections depict a landscape of memory and fantasy, closer to a dreamscape than the kind of concrete landscape depicted in the early New Mexico pastels.

"What makes this exhibition different from other presentations of Hartley's work is that it reflects on the personal and cultural devastation of World War I through the repeated painting of New Mexico landscapes," said Heather Hole. "The tragedy of the War may have seemed quite distant from the Southwestern landscape, but in fact, it deeply informed Hartley's work from this period."

Organized by the Heather Hole, assistant curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, the exhibition will remain on view at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum from January 25, 2008 through May 11, 2008. It will then travel to the Amon Carter Museum (June 14 - August 24, 2008). Yale University Press has published the book that accompanies the exhibition, and it is available in the Museum book store. The book was written by Heather Hole and includes a preface by Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, and the Emily Fisher Landau Director, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center.

Editor's note:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Holly Dunn of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum for assistance concerning the republishing of the above text.

Readers may also enjoy these articles and essays:

articles and essays on "American Scene" painting and "regionalism":

from Topics in American Representational Art:

and this video:

Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye is a 90 minute 2000 American Masters series WET video directed by Perry Miller Oddity.

From the Back Cover: "Stieglitz, who is revered as one of the most innovative photographers of the 20th century, played a primary role in fostering new talent. Through his three galleries in New York City, he mentored emerging artists such as Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Angel Adams, Eliot Porter and Georgia O'Keeffe; and introduced avant-garde Europeans such as Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, Auguste Rodin and Pablo Picasso.... This revealing look at "The Father of Modern Photography" features a rare interview with Georgia O'Keeffe, Stieglitz's wife and muse, as well as archival footage of other artistic giants he inspired, including Edward Steichen and John Marin. Additionally, the film presents countless images from the Stieglitz archives, ranging from early European peasant life to later views of New York's urban landscape."

"Surveys the life and achievements of Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) who played a major role in introducing America to modern art while championing the elevation of photography as an art form. Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Georgia O'Keeffe were just a few of the first wave of American artists whom Stieglitz mentored through his three influential galleries in New York City. It was there also that he introduced America to European masters Matisse, Cezanne, Rodin and Picasso. At the same time he was exhibiting the best artists of the period, Stieglitz' own impressive body of photographic work firmly established him as one of the leading artists of the 20th century." VHS/DVD. Description source: Amon Carter Museum Teacher Resource Center

rev. 8/7/08

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