Modern Masters at the MFA, Boston

Looking at paintings by J.M.W Turner and Philip Guston

“I really only love strangeness,” Philip Guston said, according to a wall text displayed at “Philip Guston Now.” The retrospective of the artist’s work, currently at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is full of strangeness. In an article about its May opening, Forbes magazine called it “America’s most controversial art exhibition.”

“Couple in Bed”

The controversy revolved around Guston’s paintings of hooded Ku Klux Kan figures and began two years ago when the four exhibiting museums postponed the show’s opening until 2024. The museums cited the racial justice movement and the pandemic as factors, saying they needed to “reframe” their programming, “step back, and bring in additional perspectives and voices to shape how we present Guston’s work to our public.”

In The Brooklyn Rail, an open letter signed by almost 100 artists, curators, dealers, and others protested the decision, saying the problem was not Guston’s work but the museums. “The people who run our great institutions do not want trouble. They fear controversy. They lack faith in the intelligence of their audience.” Martin Puryear, Lorna Simpson, and Charles Gaines were among the original signatories, with hundreds more subsequently adding their signatures.

In the New York Times, Kaywin Feldman, the National Gallery’s director, said that before the postponement she had been uneasy about the show. A Black colleague’s comment had stuck in her mind: “Looking at more Klan imagery is like cutting another wound in my arm and pouring salt in it. I’m willing to do that, but it needs to be for a bigger reason.”

Last May, the exhibition opened at The MFA, Boston, “with a more diversified approach to interpretation, more historical references, and inclusion of more artists’ perspectives, led by an expanded curatorial team and guided by many voices,” according to a statement by Matthew Teitelbaum, the MFA’s director.

Meanwhile, a few galleries over, the raging seas, stormy skies, and smoke-belching engines in the works in “Turner’s Modern World” stirred no controversy. Two hundred years ago, the British artist’s approach to painting was considered radical. But on a weekday morning at the end of its run, you could barely have a moment to yourself with a painting, so thick was the admiring crowd.

Both Turner and Guston were modern painters, although they were painting in different centuries and different places. In viewing the two shows, I also realized, both required the viewer to look hard. The Turner, because we approach his paintings as great without question; the Guston because some of his paintings don’t readily yield up answers. As much as we can, to see what the painting before us is all about, we need to get beyond our assumptions and preconceptions about art, what it is, what it should be, what it should do.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1850) lived in a turbulent era. The Industrial Revolution was moving full steam ahead; Britain was at war with France from 1803 to 1815, fending off invasion, asserting its naval dominance; the Romantic poets were extolling nature, emotion, imagination, transcendence.

Turner was endlessly, restlessly curious, drawn to capturing moments of collision between the natural and the manmade, and gravitating to the dramatic and the different. He found both in what was modern in his lifetime. He was an enthusiast for the state-of-the-art technology of the first half of the nineteenth century: cannon foundries, canals, steamships, trains. And he was an unconventional commentator on contemporary events, as in his portrait of Napoleon in “War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet”; the chaotic scene shown in “The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory” and “The Field of Waterloo.”

“The Field of Waterloo,” (detail), Turner

Far from being a British propaganda poster, with the Union Jack flying, “Waterloo” is a somber, murky portrayal of the grim aftermath of battle, where women carrying babies search through the carnage. The dead soldiers, French and British all jumbled together in a horizonless heap, have no dignity, no individuality, no glory, lit only by the flickering light of a torch.

The centerpiece of the exhibition was the MFA’s own “Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – a Typhoon Coming On),” an unflinching depiction of inhumanity and horror (shown at top). Turner added fictional, gruesome details to the scene—the iron manacles above the water’s surface—based on a 1781 event, accentuating its heinousness.

“So beautiful and so atrocious, ‘Slave Ship’ now stands as the most enduring of all abolitionist works of art,” wrote New York Times’ critic Jason Farago in his review of the Turner exhibition, “though in its time, it was the coloring and paint handling that shocked at the Royal Academy.”

A gung ho, undaunted traveller, wherever he roamed, always sketching, Turner was drawn in by the mesmerizing beauty of water: the Laguna of Venice, the Riechenbach Falls, the Thames, calm and rough seas. My favorite painting in the show was “Peace – Burial at Sea,” which shows the burial of Turner’s good friend, David Wilkie. What makes it so exquisite, despite its subject matter, right down to the rendering, in a few strokes, of a duck taking flight and its liquid shadow? I came up with a list: the precision of the silhouetted sails versus the dark blur of the hull, the glowing heart of the painting showing Wilkie’s body being lowered, the rendering of the sea and the sky, light and dark, tragedy and transcendence in balance. When it was first exhibited, critics criticized the black elements. Turner’s answer: “I only wish I had any color to make them blacker.”

The more modern his painting became, the more people objected. The novelist William Thackeray complained that Turner should “stick to copying” instead of “daubing” Nature with “absurd antics.” But ultimately his admirers—Matisse, Rothko, and the contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson among them—won out. As the MFA overview of the show said, “His exploration of luminous color was unparalleled, and his innovative brushwork anticipated by decades the loose strokes of the Impressionists in the 1870s and the gestural paint handling of the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s and ’50s.”

Which brings me back to Philip Guston (1913–1980). Guston was a successful Abstract Expressionist painter when, in 1968, he abandoned the style. He explained later, “So when the 1960s came along, I was feeling split….The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I…sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.”

When the controversy erupted over “Philip Guston Now,” his daughter, Musa Mayer, said, “Half a century ago, my father made a body of work that shocked the art world. Not only had he violated the canon of what a noted abstract artist should be painting at a time of particularly doctrinaire art criticism, but he dared to hold up a mirror to white America, exposing the banality of evil and the systemic racism we are still struggling to confront today.”

But we see through a mirror darkly. Guston’s paintings are strange. Ambiguous, oblique. He had such control of technique that he could paint clunky, cartoony images and make them luscious and immediate, more vibrant, more real than the most meticulous renderings. “My painting comes out of drawing,” Guston told an audience of art students in 1974. “I couldn’t live without drawing.”

The charisma is easy to take when it’s a rendering of a coffee mug or shoe, but then you come to one of the Klan paintings and you’re caught in a terrible contradiction. “Beautiful and atrocious,” to borrow Farago’s words. The mastery pulls you in, the hooded figures repel you. And sometimes they’re painters, smoking a cigarette. (Guston “smoked and drank too much and slept too little,” according to an exhibition wall text.)

Guston’s daughter interprets the Klan figures this way: “They plan, they plot, they ride around in cars smoking cigars. We never see their acts of hatred. We never know what is in their minds. But it is clear that they are us. Our denial, our concealment. My father dared to unveil white culpability, our shared role in allowing the racist terror that he had witnessed since boyhood, when the Klan marched openly by the thousands in the streets of Los Angeles.”

Others have suggested Guston was also pursuing more personal questions. Assuming an evildoer’s persona to uncover things about himself, questioning how much art can do to change the world. Or how much the art of his time wanted to try. Notes of his from the 1970s, found after his death, reveal how fed up Guston was with Abstract Expressionism: “American Abstract art is a lie, a sham… A lie to cover up how bad one can be… It is an escape from the true feelings we have, from the ‘raw’, primitive feelings—about the world, and us in it. In America.”

Maybe the more complicated truth is what art critic Kenneth Baker wrote in a review of Robert Storr’s biography Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting: “Guston’s Klan-related imagery remains more ‘culturally relevant’ than he could have, or would have, wished to imagine.”

Paintings can take on a life of their own, can say more than the artist imagined. In the context of the most disturbing imagery, even a seemingly innocuous picture of cherries looks menacing, or is it helpless, all those stems like stick-figure limbs sticking out. Those conventionally appealing lipstick reds and pinks can also seem creepily visceral.

In a 1964 interview, Guston said, “I think painting is full of illusions and contradictions.” He espoused contradiction: Referring to Russian writer Isaac Babel’s comment about “the privilege of writing badly,” he said, “Isn’t that beautiful? . . . Doesn’t anyone want to paint badly?” He was impatient with theories and with the “thou shalts” of what art should be, the “shibboleths,” he called them, that preoccupied many artists and critics in the post-war era.

At a New York talk to art students in 1969, though, he laid down some rules, or anti-rules, of his own: “Paint what you hate. Paint what disgusts you. Why? If it’s in you. I’m not saying paint disgusting things. Paint true. If you’re disgusted, paint your disgust. I do. Others do. Some painters do. If you’re blessed, and you’re touched by angels every day, dream away. But don’t paint to prove an idea. Don’t paint to prove what’s right. You know what I mean? Don’t paint to be loved. I could make a list.”

On the walls of the MFA is that “list,” paintings that are authentic, unapologetically strange. Beautiful, despite or because of their content, despite or because of their being “bad.”

“The Deluge,” 1969

The Guston show runs through September 11, 2022 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. You can read more about the Turner show, now closed, here.

Also in the MFA, Boston, is an exhibition of 10 exceptional photographs by Dawoud Bey, from his 2017 series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, which centers on the Underground Railroad. I was sorry to see people giving them glancing attention, as they moved through the gallery on their way to other rooms. The nearly black photographs don’t leap out at you; they’re another example of art that requires a little effort on the part of the viewer, effort richly rewarded.

Photo credits, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston:

“Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – a Typhoon Coming On),” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“Couple in Bed,” The Art Institute of Chicago, through prior bequest of Frances W. Pick, and memorial gift from her daughter, Mary P. Hines, 1989.435 * © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth * Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago * Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Exhibition image, © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“Untitled” [cherries], Acrylic and ink on illustration board * Private Collection * © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth * Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“The Deluge,” Oil on canvas * Bequest of Musa Guston * © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth * Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Milton Avery: Pleasure and Poetry

Shifting perspectives on a 20th-century American painter

Before I saw the recent retrospective at the Wadsworth Atheneum, I had only a sketchy notion of Milton Avery’s art. Comprising 60 works, Milton Avery, an excellent survey of the scope and development of Avery’s art, is now on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, which organized the show in collaboration with the Wadsworth and The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

Avery and Fairfield Porter were jumbled up in my head, both of them being 20th-century American painters with “Holden Caulfield” two-last-name names, redolent of New England WASP enclaves.

I was uninformed about Avery (1885-1965), but not wrong about there being similarities between him and Porter. Articles about one often mention the other. A Christian Science Monitor reviewer wrote about Porter, “When it came to reducing nature into a few simple shapes that yet evoke the full reality of the subject, he had very few peers. And when it came to the use of color as a primary ingredient in that act of evocation, he had only one, Milton Avery.”

Milton Avery, “Sea and Sand Dunes,” 1955

Fairfield Porter, “Autumn Tree,” circa 1964

Each went his own creative way, “working against the grain, as figurative painters, during the heyday of 20th-century American abstraction,” as a New York Times article wrote about Porter. That same story noted that the pugnacious, autocratic, and highly influential critic Clement Greenberg told Porter, “You can’t paint figuratively today.” (That only spurred Porter on.)

Greenberg liked to throw his weighty opinions around, and at one point, he also dismissed Avery as “retrograde,” according to a Financial Times article.

Avery’s fellow artists thought differently. Among those who knew and admired him were Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman. More than 600 artists and friends turned out for Avery’s funeral in 1965. In a moving eulogy, Rothko said of Avery’s art, “poetry penetrated every pore of the canvas to the very last touch of the brush.”

A page from Rothko’s handwritten eulogy

Greenberg came around eventually. In 1957, when Avery was 72 and in ill health, Greenberg praised “the sublime lightness of Avery’s hand and of the morality of his eyes: their invincible and exact loyalty to what they alone have experienced.”

Milton Avery, “Beach Blankets,” 1960, Wichita Art Museum

Other critics, and curators, cottoned on to Avery only belatedly, although he had an early champion in the influential New York Sun critic Henry McBride, who praised Avery’s work in the late 1920s. An early review in the New York Times called his work “baffling.” In 1956, New Yorker critic Robert M. Coates suggested it lacked conviction; in 1943, he had written that “Avery has always been difficult for me to ‘place’ satisfactorily.” The word place is telling. In 1982 the prominent Times critic Hilton Kramer theorized that Avery was ”too modern for the traditionalists and not modern enough for the avant-garde” and ”too abstract for the realists and too realistic for the traditionalists.”

Reviewing a posthumous solo show of Avery’s in Hartford for the same paper, Vivien Raynor came at the mystery of why Avery was under-appreciated from another angle. “One might suggest that Avery’s humor played a part in the delay. There is an unspoken law against humor in high art, and the painter breaks it over and over again.”

In her book Milton Avery, scholar and curator Barbara Haskell may have seen the problem most plainly: “Because it celebrated pleasure, many critics did not take it seriously.”

“Chariot Race,” 1933

“Milton Avery may be the most frequently rediscovered artist of the 20th century,” was a Financial Times review’s wry assessment of the ups and downs of Avery’s status during his long career.

Given my vague sense of who he was, I didn’t experience rediscovery but revelation, a falling in love. (Sometimes coming to an artist’s work cold can be a blessing.) Many of the paintings bowled me over with their original explorations of color, texture, subject; with their immediacy, with their beauty.

All of them conveyed a strong sense of the artist and the man, that when he painted, he was working through questions he posed himself, always working toward something. Since seeing the show, I’ve delved into the now-substantial body of writing and background material about Avery, including two lengthy interviews in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art of painter Sally Michel, Avery’s wife of 39 years. (She also went by Sally Avery.)

Milton Avery has been described as a “painter’s painter,” because of everything going on and below the surface of the canvas. In a 1982 interview, Michel said, “Each of his paintings grew out of the painting before … he was always attempting something which had nothing to do with the subject … His problem was always a painter’s problem… He really thought in terms of shapes and spaces and colors and things like that.”

“Hors d’Oeuvres,” 1943

Too often, the more we learn about the personal life of a creative person, the less we wish we knew. This one was a murderer, that one a Fascist. Another abandoned his family, or cheated on his wife, or lied to her lovers, turned on friends, kicked the dog. How much should it matter? When does what you know overwhelm your regard for the work? When does your moral repugnance draw the line?

With Avery, fortunately, these questions didn’t come up for me. All I learned about the man reinforced my appreciation of his work. He started from nothing, always worked hard, painted diligently, had a warm circle of colleagues and chums, pursued his vocation with integrity, enjoyed life, followed his heart, and loved his wife and daughter—and cocker spaniel.

The son of a tanner, Avery went to work at age 16, holding various blue-collar jobs, including six years as an assembler, latheman, and mechanic at the Underwood Typewriter Manufacturing Company.

Underwood staff prepare an exhibit for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

By the time he was 30, he was struggling to support his mother, sisters, and nieces, nine female relatives in all. In hopes of a fatter paycheck, he enrolled in a free commercial sign–lettering course at the Connecticut League of Art Students in Hartford. Either because the class was full or discontinued, he switched to a life drawing class. (There are a couple of different accounts.)

Around that time, according to another student, the league’s loft “was exactly the kind of place artists yearn for—capacious, rough, full of shadows and shifting cross lights, a place where you could paint in perfect freedom, a floor of heavy timbers which would take immediate proper care of paint drops or spilled turpentine. The brick walls were full of juts and recesses that made roomy shelves where things could be tossed and forgotten—and later explored with surprising results.”

Avery didn’t toss and forget so much as return and clarify, through lifelong, intensive exploration. In his twenties, he studied art at night, after his factory shift, eventually taking a nighttime job as an insurance clerk so that he could attend the School of the Art Society of Hartford by day. (His widowed sister-in-law’s getting a nursing job also lessened Avery’s financial load.) The Wadsworth was the first place to show a painting of his, as part of a group exhibition, in 1915.

In the 1920s, Avery was able to take time off in the summer and go paint in Gloucester, Massachusetts, The North Shore fishing town been an artists’ colony for decades; Edward Hopper was there that same summer. Whether Avery and Hopper ever met, I couldn’t find out. But that’s where Avery met Sally. They were staying in the same boarding house and, both early risers, they would run into each other on their way out to paint. Michel was 22, Avery was 39. She was from Brooklyn, raised in an Orthodox Jewish home. Her parents didn’t warm to this artist with the frayed collar; but “he chased me until I caught him,” Michel said.

They eloped in 1926 and settled in a one-room walkup, bathroom down the hall, on Broadway at West 65th Street, now the location of Lincoln Center. With spirit and enterprise, Michel took on the role of breadwinner so that her husband could paint.

Sally Michel, “Strange Landscape,” 1970, Milton & Sally Avery Arts Foundation

Until recently, Michel’s wonderful paintings received even less attention than her husband’s. Barbara Haskell described Sally as “an unflagging and optimistic supporter… she prodded him when he despaired, telling him she did not want to be married to a bad painter.”

The Averys lived on her earnings as a freelance illustrator for Macy’s, Progressive Grocer magazine, the Cannon Towel Company, and other clients. She illustrated a New York Times column, “Parent and Child,” for many years. She was working remotely, in a series of small apartments, long before the term was coined. Milton was painting, practically by her side. Every Saturday, they went to museums and galleries. Avery read “every art magazine he could find,” according to Haskell.

Friends—visual artists, poets, intellectuals of different stripes—crowded into their apartment, which was also their studio. During these social evenings, Avery’s grandson Sean Cavanaugh told NPR’s Susan Stamberg, Avery was “a very quiet guy. He’s at the party, but he’s in the corner. He’s drawing.”

In the early years of their marriage, they returned several summers to Gloucester, living on virtually nothing, painting by day, hanging out with fellow artists evenings. “We never drank, no one ever had a beer even because we were very poor,” Michel said, “and at nighttime we’d sit around and have tea and crackers and just discuss painting.”

“Seaside,” 1931

The summer of 1930, they stayed in rural Connecticut, recalled Michel, “wandering after cows and making sketches … picking up apples and pears to eat.” They brought home watercolors and ideas for paintings that sustained them the rest of the year, along with peanut butter, Spam, and the occasional meal of hamburgers shared with Rothko and Gottlieb.

“Why talk when you can paint?” Avery used to say. He was prolific, sometimes producing five or six artworks in a day. And he worked fast. According to Michel, he had a painting all worked out in his head before he put brush to canvas: “Though his paintings looked very free … they’re really tight as a drum.”

“Red Anemones,” 1942

“Art is like turning corners,” Milton Avery Drawings quotes him saying. “One never knows what is around the corner until one has made the turn.”

As was evident in the Wadsworth show, Avery turned, and turned again, experimenting with different techniques, palettes, and genres. In the 1930s and 1940s, he rendered gritty New York cityscapes, rugged landscapes, beach scenes, burlesque shows, circus performances, and tender arrangements of objects—flowers, a letter, a toy alligator.

“Coney Island,” 1931

The sense of humor that Vivien Raynor noted is evident in “Coney Island,” where Rubenesque sunbathers lounge in the foreground, rumps prominent, apparently unfazed by the hordes massing behind them, a sea of beachgoers with no sea in view. He returned to beach scenes again and again, gradually reducing the realism and the number of figures to maybe one or two. (Avery’s wit comes up in friend’s recollections. For instance, when Avery’s doctor told him he was going to take up painting in retirement, Avery replied, “When I retire, I’m going to take up medicine.”)

“Friends,” 1961

I was also amused and charmed by the mysterious, lovely “Twins.” I wanted to know more about these two women, dressed as you might dress twin children, in identical outfits, right down to their green stockinged legs.

Looking at some of the earlier artworks, I wondered if Avery was still mastering technique or just not getting hung up on it. For example, the moody landscape “Fall in Vermont,” done in 1935, looks kind of clunky but taken from another angle, gestural, fresh, free. “I know that sky!” I thought, having one of moments of instant, pleasurable recognition that a painting can deliver. Elements of his later works are already present: his use of color to create perspective, for instance, and its veering away from realism toward the subjective. “He almost gets ahead of himself [sometimes],” in the words of Edith Devaney, the exhibition’s organizing curator. After the show, in Haskell’s book, I came across a 1919 drawing of Avery’s that reveals his technical ability was well-developed before he left Hartford.

Avery worked wonders with color; the Washington Post has described him as “America’s most original colorist.” His palette was variously startling, as in “Still Life with Skull,” 1946, serene (“Blue Trees,” 1945), and dramatic (“Still Life with Nuts,” 1945), in his mid-career paintings.

In “Still Life (Blue Bowl with Nuts),” rich, earth tones, rust red, umber, and cocoa, play off pewter, sky blue, pale pink, and mauve. It’s a pared-down composition, angles and curves, and what’s that enigmatic tan shape, so carefully drawn and shadowed? Is it a stray nutshell, a fortune cookie? Not quite part of the party, that kernel of brightness punctuates the dark upper corner, distracting, attracting, creating a little frisson of tension.

After their daughter, March, was born in 1932, Sally and Milton didn’t cut back on their summer travels but went even farther afield, to the Gaspé Peninsula, California, and Mexico. They had residencies at the artists’ colonies of Yaddo and MacDowell in the 1950s. At MacDowell, Milton taught a delighted Marcel Duchamp to play pool.

The Averys made it to Europe only once, in 1952, three years after Milton had had his first heart attack. (He never fully regained his health and died in 1964, from damage caused by his second attack in 1962.) Lacking the stamina both to visit museums and to sketch, he concentrated on the latter, which resulted in one of my favorite paintings in the Wadsworth show, “Excursion on the Thames.

In the 1950s, when he was in his late sixties, Avery’s painting really took off. Michel saw the shift start after the 1949 attack: “His work became more universal, less topical. If it was a figure, it was not a particular figure, but it was every figure.”

In 1957, they headed to Provincetown. Avery began painting directly on the canvas, with no preliminary sketching. He worked on big canvases. The beautiful light and landscape, and the sense of space that one experiences in that town curled along the toe of Cape Cod, are uplifting, and Avery took inspiration from them, as well as from the comradeship of Rothko and Gottlieb, who were also staying there.

In the late years, Avery was as always painting what he saw, but everything extraneous dropped away. “He married abstraction to an instant in nature,” was how George Dietrie, Matisse’s son-in-law, saw it. “He pushes against the boundaries of abstraction,” is Devaney’s explication, “but he has no intention of stepping over the threshold.”

Detail, “Sea and Sand Dunes,” 1955
“Black Sea,” 1959, Phillips Collection

Reproduction doesn’t do the late works justice. When you are in their presence, they seem even bigger than they are. They’re radiant, absorbing. They have a quiet drama, a sublime quality, lyricism, and that characteristic, subtle sense of play in the flick of a wave, a zigzag line. They reach out to you, they ask you in.

As early as 1929, his work had attracted major collectors, including Joseph Hirshhorn, Duncan Phillips, and Albert Barnes. One of his biggest fans, and the first to buy a painting, for $25, in 1929, was the violinist Louis Kaufman, who went on to fame and fortune in Hollywood and remained a friend and collector of Avery’s works. That same year, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., bought one of his paintings. It was the first museum to do so. It was also the first to give him an exhibition, in 1943. At certain periods, he was represented by New York’s foremost galleries. The Baltimore Museum of Art gave him his first retrospective, in 1952; the Whitney Museum organized two, in 1960 and 1982.

“Speedboat’s Wake,” 1959, Metropolitan Museum of Art

There were times, then, when he received significant recognition, but he never made it big financially. According to Haskell, he exchanged artwork for dental work. One year, in the 1950s, he made only $50. Sometimes, Michel said, he was “plenty discouraged … He would say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing all these paintings for, certainly no one is buying them or looking at them.'”

But she also said this:

“I think he was just happy in his home. That provided him sufficient fodder so that he could exist. He didn’t need to go outside. He had a dog and a daughter. And me. He was very attached to his dog. And he patiently taught our dog—whose name was Picasso—he taught him to do a dozen tricks. And this took a lot of patience. But it was an indication of—this was the way he amused himself. And he found that relaxing. To teach a dog to do a head-on somersault. [Laughter] It takes enormous patience. And yet he did it. Among other things.”

There’s a wealth of material about Avery and his times available online. Here are a few links.

The Wadsworth Atheneum is always worth visiting. For more information, go to its site. You can read more about the Avery retrospective in this Washington Post review.

This New Criterion article contains a general account of Avery’s life and career.

There’s interesting information from the New Britain Museum of American Art about how the role Connecticut played in his life and career.

The Archives of American Art, part of the Smithsonian, has two oral history interviews with Sally Michel/Avery, done in 1967 and 1982. The archives also has Mark Rothko’s five-page eulogy.

And here’s a biography of Sally Michel from the D. Wigmore gallery. Michel’s dedication to Avery reminded me of Helen Friend Langlais, who I wrote about in another post. A talented musician, Helen supported her artist-husband Bernard Langlais in every way during his lifetime and served as a skillful steward of his works after his death. You can read the post here.

Spring at Naumkeag

The grounds of this stately mansion are full of flowers

Every year, even though I know it’s coming, I know it always comes, I’m still surprised by spring’s arrival. The first flowers emerge, the trees start to leaf out, the grass greens up. I hear the white-throated sparrows calling “Sam Peabody,” the blackbirds, the robins, the catbirds.

And I feel that delight, the “it’s really happening!” sensation that comes right before the curtain goes up or the plane starts down the runway. As much as humans have screwed things up, Nature still manages to summon the wherewithal to put on a glorious show.

Sometimes, humans lend a helping hand. For the past four years, Naumkeag, a historic house in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, has celebrated the season with a spectacular display of spring flowers.

During the Tulip and Daffodil Festival in April and May, more than 75,000 bulbs come into bloom, swathes of daffodils, choruses of ruffled tulips, grape hyacinths forming expansive patterns on the lawns. (The latter presumably belong to the “minor bulbs” category the festival PR refers to, but to me there’s nothing minor about the crocus, scilla, and snowdrops that show up, trembling but brave, the last days of winter and the chill days of early spring.)

At the time of my recent visit, white trilliums winked like stars in the groves below the linden allée; a frittilaria meleagris (aka quinea-hen flower, snake’s head, chess flower, frog-cup, toad lily) was asserting its checkered charm here and there in the border of the allée itself. Pansies were being put to work; ubiquitous these days, they seem to have become the spring equivalent of that fall mainstay, chrysanthemums.

Gilding the lily were planters with eye-catching arrangements in plain terracotta pots, glazed-pottery tubs, and classical urns. A particularly charming one combined red leaf lettuce with snapdragons and pansies.

Included in the festival admission fee is access to the first floor of the house—one of the homier of stately homes—where the profusion of flora continues. Someone with a keen eye has placed the bouquets to complement various artifacts and objets—of which, there are many.

Sitting high on a hill above the town center, Naumkeag was built by Joseph and Caroline Sterling Choate in 1884 and designed by architect Stanford White, who went on to design of such landmarks as the New York’s Washington Square Arch.*

Turreted and terraced, the classic Shingle Style, 44-room “cottage” is unequivocally grand. The interiors provide further evidence of its original owners’ good taste, appetite for art-collecting and far-ranging travel … and wealth. One stand-out feature: the tin-leaf ceiling in the dining room. A George Rickey mobile above the table, one of many of his artworks on exhibit indoors and out through October, fits right in.

Grandeur notwithstanding, Naumkeag’s interiors have that appealing “the owners just stepped out” feel: dog beds waiting by couches and desks, straw hats and outdoor chair cushions stored in the closet.

The Choates’ daughter, Mabel, who inherited the estate, no doubt made good use of sun hats. A passionate gardener, from the 1920s into the 1950s, she collaborated with Fletcher Steele, one of the greats of American landscape architecture, to transform Naumkeag’s sloping site into a vibrant collection of gardens.

Its centerpiece is the Blue Steps, an elegant, curvaceous staircase that cascades down the hill, through an ethereal tracery of white birches (or is the staircase ethereal and the trees elegant?).

But competition for pride of place is fierce: contenders include the Chinese Garden, Afternoon Garden, and Rose Garden, and there’s a whole rank of runners-ups, from the enshrined scholar’s stone to the views of fields and the Berkshire hills beyond, beautiful even on a cloudy day.

I’m partial to its ancient trees and drawn to small wonders: an antique stone chair, a bronze rabbit resting by a boxwood hedge.

The pleasures of a spring garden pass too quickly for my taste, but Naumkeag’s gardens are wonderful throughout the summer and into the fall. Their beauty doesn’t depend on flowers; its trees, statues, paving stones, its “bones” all contribute. The sum is more than its parts.

Even the view from the parking lot is beautiful.

Here’s the website for Naumkeag, a Trustees of Reservations property. For more about Naumkeag, you can also read my June 2021 post.

*You can read more about Stanford White in this Town and Country magazine article.

Flora in Winter

A little blast of color before spring arrives

Since 2002, the Worcester Art Museum has hosted Flora in Winter, a long weekend of guided tours, demonstrations, workshops, and live music performances centered around extraordinary floral arrangements juxtaposed with outstanding artworks. Last year, as was true of so many museum events, the show was strictly virtual, but this year the (vaxxed) winter-weary were able to step inside WAM’s stately premises to smell the roses, albeit through a mask.

Flowers and art have been BFFs since … forever. Poppies unfurl in Pompeiian mosaics, leopard’s bane keeps predators away in the Unicorn Tapestries, daisies shelter a cygnet in a Song Dynasty scroll.

In WAM’s own galleries, you’ll find numerous examples of efflorescence rendered in painting and sculpture. A couple of hundred years ago, Philippe-Jacques Van Brée painted the studio of another artist—very meta—where Parisian women in empire gowns were having a lesson amid peonies and pots of primroses. The flower painter Jan Frans Van Dael was one of nine artists working in a deconsecrated chapel—the Soho loft of the early 1800s.

Interior of the Studio of Van Dael and his Students at the Sorbonne (detail), Philippe Jacques Van Brée, 1816

Worcester, Massachusetts, and flower shows also go back a ways. The Worcester County Horticultural Society, one of the oldest active organizations of its kind in the country, hosted its first display of fruit and flowers at a cattle show in 1840. The society “flourished like a tree planted by the rivers of water,” according to an 1848 report. (You can read more about one of its outgrowths, Tower Hill Botanic Garden, in this post.)

For a few years from the late eighties into the early nineties, WAM held Tribute to Flora, in the fall. The end of winter, though, seems a far better time for the kind of sensory stimulus that WAM put on display last weekend (March 3-6).

Picture yourself on a drizzly, dreary, dun-colored Sunday, coming in from the cold, turning a corner, and meeting a luscious bunch of summer blooms spilling out of an oversized urn: creamy roses, rosy carnations, citron tulips, and baby-blue delphiniums as graceful and decorative as a flock of ballerinas.

In the medieval Chapter House, just off the Salisbury Street entrance, the flowers formed part of an elaborate tableau involving candelabras, wine glasses, a straw garden hat, elbow-high white gloves, satin court shoes kicked off under the table, and other evocative touches.

Originally part of the Benedictine Priory of Saint John at Le Bas-Nueil, France, and dating from the late 12th century, this former meeting room of monks, with its spectacular choreography of limestone vaults, is one of the museum’s many treasures.

Elsewhere, arrangements variously dramatic, understated, and lush held court. Oriental lilies were poised on the verge of opening in a delicate Ikebana display, succulents clustered in a giant shell. Pussy willows, heather, hydrangea, and bromeliads stood ready for their close-ups.

Perhaps the most touching arrangement was the bouquet of sunflowers.

By Whistler’s smoky Arrangement in Black and Brown: The Fur Jacket, a cascade of apricot orchids echoed the fall of Maud Franklin’s full-length skirt. Franklin was a painter, and Whistler’s model and mistress.

By all accounts, he treated her badly, pretending to go to Paris when he and she were both in London (he had a friend post letters to her from France) and referring to this work as “a painting of an obscure nobody.” But maybe she has had the last laugh, given the interest she was attracting when I was there.

The setting at the entrance to Love Stories, complete with cans of Worcester’s own Polar soda.

Much as I enjoyed the flowers, the main reason I went to WAM was to see two exhibitions. Love Stories From the National Portrait Gallery, London (through March 13) is a fascinating parade of famous star-crossed lovers, ill-matched couples, and a few happily-ever-after pairs.

Among them are Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton; Lord Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb; Percy Bysshe Shelley and his second wife Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein); Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein; Bloomsburians Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey, and Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell; Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh; photographer David Bailey and super model Jean ‘the Shrimp” Shrimpton; John and Yoko; and Paul and Linda McCartney.

In my next post, I’ll write about the other terrific exhibition I saw, Us Them We | Race Ethnicity Identity, at WAM through June 19.

WAM is offering a virtual tour of Flora in Winter, led by the event co-chairs, who talk about the designs, techniques, and ideas behind the arrangements. It’s free for members, $15 for non-members and available for purchase until March 31.

Hue and Cry at the Clark

Looking at prints and people in a Berkshires museum

On a chilly New England winter day, the preferred “museum-casual” dress of visitors to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, tends to L.L. Bean, flannel shirts, Uggs, and comfortable shoes, with the occasional knitted hat (and masks, of course).

Not fashion-forward types for the most part, in other words, but they take on a touch of the dramatic coloration of the surroundings. The spectacular, impeccably presented art. The luscious wall colors. Natural light streaming through expanses of glass in Tadao Ando’s addition and, in the original marble temple, soft, diffused light through a frosted glass ceiling and French windows.

I’m there to see the art—two print shows, in particular—and, as always, I am awed and entertained by what I see. But I’m also interested in who is there, the interplay between the art and its viewers, the viewers and the setting. The intent, thoughtful, curious forms of contemplation, the leaning in and leaning back.

The Little Laundress, Pierre Bonnard, 1896

Hue & Cry: French Printmaking and the Debate Over Colors, curated by Anne Leonard, the museum’s Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, is an extensive survey of a period when major artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, Bonnard, Cassatt, and Vuillard plumbed the possibilities of color printing, despite the fact that, as the exhibition text explains, “color in print was an outlier phenomenon… frowned upon as a matter of taste.”

With that premise, the show is off and running, and it covers a lot of ground, starting with scenes of pre- and post-revolutionary racy divertissements, then leaping forward several decades to the Belle Époque. If your current travel plans don’t stretch to Paris patisseries (maybe just to Stop & Shop?), this show gives you a chance to inhale the joie de vivre of one of that city’s most vibrant eras.

Some Aspects of Life in Paris, 6: Boulevard, Pierre Bonnard, c. 1898
Child with Lamp, Pierre Bonnard, 1896

Cobblestone streets and concert halls, ice-skating rinks and wall-papered interiors, wasp-waisted redheads and sinister toffs in top hats, as well as tender domestic encounters with children, even a busy market day in Gisors, Normandy: Artists took their inspiration from a variety of subjects and applied a range of approaches to them.

As a whole, these works exude a freshness that apparently was air too raw for some critics of the time: The Paris Salon, the official arbiter of art in France, didn’t accept color prints until 1899, years into this period of experimentation.

Detail, Dance Mania, Philibert Louis Debucourt, 1809

Like many other exhibitions I’ve seen at the Clark, Hue & Cry jogged my brain while bowling me over with beauty. It progresses past gorgeous woodcuts, etchings, and lithographs, displaying variations in technique, composition, and use of color that build an understanding and appreciation of the medium. It quietly calls attention to the complexity of the printmaking process. (Seeing as I never can keep straight intaglio, etching, mezzotints, engraving, I’ve since bookmarked the Clark’s online glossary of terms.)

It gets you pondering the push and pull between technology and creativity and what makes up the “mise en place” of an art moment: in this case, can-can dancers, cough-drop advertisers, and ukiyo-e woodcuts, among other things, got the color print movement rolling.

And, of course, there’s the matter of taste. Hard to believe that anyone viewing such dazzlers was not enthralled, but Nietzsche had a point when he wrote, “all of life is a dispute over taste.” Arguments about what makes good art have probably been raging since the pigment was still wet in the Lascaux caves.

I was equally enraptured by the works in Competing Currents: 20th-Century Japanese Prints, which I managed to see just days before it closed. Also organized by the Clark, it was curated by Oliver Ruhl, a 2021 graduate of Williams College’s master’s program in art history. More information about it can still be had online. Here are just a few examples of the exquisite works that were on display.

Solitude, Kyoto, Saitō Kiyoshi, 1948

Snow at Kiyomizu Hall, Ueno, Kawase Hasui, 1929

I finished up my visit with a look in on Constable’s cloud studies and Turner’s View off Margate, Evening, a turn around the glowing silver collection, and a stop at Degas’s wonderfully off-kilter horse, cast in bronze after the artist’s death in 1917, spotting along the way hand-knit sweaters and visitors gazing at the outer landscapes—beautiful in every season.

Hue and Cry is on view at the Clark through March 6, 2022. Imaginary City, featuring the large, abstract paintings of contemporary artist Tomm El-Saieh, opened just after my visit, and runs through 2022. It appears in public spaces around the museum and is free and open to the public. The brilliant colors that distinguish his work might be just what we need.

Note: Several images of artworks in this post were downloaded from the Clark’s online library of works in its collection—a wonderful resource.

An Animal Kingdom in Maine

The Langlais Nature Preserve and its creators

Elephants, bears, giraffes, alligators, and other creatures, including a famous biped or two, populate the Langlais Sculpture Preserve on River Road in Cushing, a village situated on one of Maine’s multitudinous arms extending into the Atlantic. The sculptures are big, rough-hewn, totemic, animated.

In summer a profusion of wildflowers—goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace, thistle, clover, and jewelweed—and sumac, reeds, and tall grasses threaten to encroach on the mown paths. There is birdsong, crickets creak, and chipmunks raise the alarm. The atmosphere is lush, verdant, peaceful.

In winter, snow settles all around a former president, still convinced of victory, sinking into a swamp.

Before I stopped at the preserve, I assumed the artist was a local with an exuberant creative bent. Bernard “Blackie” Langlais (1921–1977) was a Mainer born and bred but also someone who studied at prestigious art schools, traveled to Europe on a Fulbright, was represented by the Leo Castelli Gallery (which launched Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns), and had work in a groundbreaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961.

I admit I’m swayed by credentials, but face to face with a sculpture, I believe, you meet it on its own terms. Langlais’s CV is not the point, except as part of the history of an artist who went his own way—an “around Robin Hood’s barn” sort of way?—to end up on a farm on a back road, about 90 miles from where he started.

N.B.: Maine probably has more artists down its back roads than it has moose, road signs about the latter notwithstanding. Here’s a short list of artists past and present with a Maine connection: Winslow Homer, Rockwell Kent, Lois Dodd, Louise Nevelson, Fairfield Porter, John Marin, Berenice Abbott, Robert Indiana, Marsden Hartley, William Wegman… Also Alex Katz, who was a friend of Langlais, and Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, who lived down the road.

“Local Girl”
Langlais said he wanted to show Christina’s face. Wyeth was amused.

Also not anomalous: Langlais’s weathered pachyderm standing shoulder to shoulder with old apple trees, birches, and white pines. Starting off as a painter, in 1956, Langlais had a revelation as he was fixing up his summer cottage in Cushing with scraps of lumber: Wood was his true medium.

Wood crops up in Langlais’s story again and again. His Chelsea loft overlooked a lumber yard. His French-Canadian father was a carpenter. He was born in 1921 in Old Town, Maine (pop., 1920: 6,956), home to factories that made those traditional New England products, shoes and wool, but also turned the forests surrounding Old Town into lumber, paper, matches, and canoes.

Thoreau’s The Maine Woods describes Old Town as it was when he passed through in 1846: “The mills are built directly over and across the river. Here is a close jam, a hard rub, at all seasons; and then the once green tree, long since white, I need not say as the driven snow, but as a driven log, becomes lumber merely.”

In Langlais’s hands, once-green trees became sculptures and reliefs. The oldest of 10 children, as a boy Bernard had already made a studio of a loft in his grandfather’s barn. In adolescence, he felt the hard rub of his hometown: “[I] was just biding my time, waiting to finish high school so that I could go somewhere else.” Thanks to his Aunt Isabelle, a nurse in Washington, D.C., he was able to start his education at the Corcoran School of Art. He went on to the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, the Brooklyn Museum School (where German Expressionist Max Beckmann was his teacher), and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris.

Langlais’s show at Castelli in 1961

By the mid-1960s, despite successes, Langlais was restless again. “I think I’ve had it with NY,” he wrote friend and mentor, Bill Cummings, cofounder of the Skowhegan School. In her monograph about Langlais, curator Hannah W. Blunt said that he felt “coerced into night after night of parties and distracted by the scrutiny that comes with celebrity.”

Nixon in the swamp

In 1966, he and his wife, Helen Friend Langlais, bought the farm next to their summer cottage, 80 acres of land, with a wood-shingled house and various outbuildings, overlooking fields that slope down to the St. George River. It was rural, but on the main drag to Rockland and Rockport, where Langlais was involved in the early years of Maine Coast Artists, now the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. (I wrote about CMCA here.) And a number of artists either were living or spending summers in the area. But mainly, for the next 11 years, Bernard worked like a demon, producing a menagerie of more than 100 wood sculptures around the nineteenth-century homestead. Twelve still stand on granite ledges, by the winding paths, in the pond.

In Googling to know about Bernard, I ended up falling for Helen.

There are photographs of her in the Bernard Langlais Papers, one of the collections of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. In one, she’s wearing a big smile and a big winter coat, overnight case in one hand, chic leather bag and packages in the other, cleared for departure. In another snapshot, she sits at a kitchen table, in their downtown loft perhaps, looking less readable, more like a farm woman than the chic Manhattanite of the previous shot.

On a rustic porch, she sits with Blackie, petunias and house plants on shelves behind her. Chestnut-haired, smooth-skinned, strong-limbed, with a winsome expression, she’s what might once have called a handsome woman.

Like her husband, Helen was a Maine native. Born on October 6, 1929 in Skowhegan, the daughter of a state senator, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine and a masters from Ohio University.

In 1953, a grad school friend, artist Nancy Wisseman-Widrig, introduced Helen to Bernard  when Helen was visiting her in New York. In their high heels, the two tripped up a fire escape from the first floor to Bernard’s third-floor studio at 212 West 28th Street, to find the artist seated at his easel, cocooned in blankets. Said Nancy, “I wanted them to meet because they both had these funny accents.”

Helen and Bernard, on their wedding day in Oslo

As old-fashioned as handsome, the word helpmate seems an apt, possibly understated term for Helen. In 1955, when Bernard was studying art on a Fulbright in Norway—he was a big fan of Munch—Helen worked for the Norwegian government. (They were married in January of that year at the American Embassy.)

Helen was studying voice when they moved to Maine permanently. She gave up the lessons and became a teacher at the Cushing Elementary School, while Bernard devoted himself to art. They had no children.

After Bernard died, age 56, of congestive heart failure in 1977, Helen kept things going for another 30-odd years. She maintained detailed records of her husband’s artworks (no easy task, as they numbered more than 3,500) and made tremendous efforts and expenditures to conserve the outdoor sculptures, relentlessly exposed to salt air, storms, and insects.

At one point, it seemed she would lose the house because she couldn’t pay the estate taxes on the collection. She overcame that, however, and then some. According to the Bangor News, “Helen was instrumental in creating Maine’s first-in-the-nation artist’s estate tax law, which allows payment of estate taxes in works of art. The first use of the law was in 1980 when the Langlais estate donated numerous works to state institutions in lieu of taxes.”

Helen died in 2010, age 80, at Windward Gardens Nursing Home in Camden, Maine. Aprile Gallant, who curated the Portland Museum of Art’s Langlais retrospective in 2002, was quoted in Helen’s obituary as saying, “Being the widow or widower of an artist is a particularly demanding job … Helen was tough-minded but generous. She devoted her life to preserving Blackie’s work and his memory. His workshop was preserved almost as if he had just stepped out for a moment.”

Before Helen died, she arranged for her husband’s work and their home to go to Colby College Museum of Art, in Waterville, Maine. The museum partnered with the Kohler Foundation in Wisconsin and the Georges River Land Trust of Rockland, Maine, to secure the future of that sizable legacy.

The Kohler Foundation played a key transitional role. It took temporary ownership of the collection, restored and preserved works on the property, and eventually gifted hundreds of Langlais artworks to nonprofits in Maine and beyond (see below). The Colby College Museum of Art has 187 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. In 2014 The Georges River Land Trust took ownership of the land and operates it as a preserve open to the public.

“Helen really liked the role of the artist’s wife,” said Wisseman-Widrig, who was Helen’s neighbor for many summers. “She had a great romantic idea about what it meant to be an artist. She loved the idea of the serious artist willing to sacrifice everything to make art. She was just so supportive, of Blackie and everyone else.”

Extending from Kittery to Presque Isle, west to Norway (Maine, that is) and east to Eastport, the Langlais Art Trail encompasses public libraries, museums, art centers, town offices, community centers, the First Baptist Church in Gardiner, the Portland International Jetport, Colby College Museum of Art, and the Langlais Sculpture Preserve.

Under the stewardship of the Georges River Land Trust, the Langlais Sculpture Preserve, 576 River Road, Cushing, Maine, is open dawn to dusk, with a 1/4 mile ADA-accessible path. Admission is free.

The photographs of Bernard Langlais as a child, his letter, the Castelli show, the wedding couple, and Helen on the sidewalk, in the loft, and on the porch are all from the Bernard Langlais Papers, circa 1925-2010. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

For more on the story of how the daunting task of organizing, preserving, and distributing the Langlais estate was accomplished, you can read this article in the Colby College’s alumni magazine.

Farewell to Summer

Savoring late-season sweetness at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

On the eve of the autumn equinox, I thought a last look at gardens in their full, late-summer sweetness would be a way of marking the transition to a season that, except for its wild and crazy color scheme, is all about winding down. Fall is lovely, especially that short-lived flamboyance, but it can be wistful, too. I’m a little taken aback: What, wait a minute, summer’s over?

I took these pictures in mid-August, at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, in Boothbay, Maine.

The CMBG is the largest of its kind in New England, 300-plus acres, and it has an expansive feel, thanks partly to its square footage, partly to the layout, and partly to the use of masses of cone flowers, bee balm, black-eyed Susans, sedum, Joe Pye weed, and grasses across big spaces. As is often true of botanical gardens, the it-just-came-together, naturalistic effect here is the result of artful selection and arrangement of such hard-working, easy-going plants, interspersed with many more delicate specimens.

You could easily spend a day here, given all there is to see: a number of themed gardens, including a kitchen garden, a children’s garden, a meditation garden, and the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses; a greensward or two; ponds, fountains, burbling brooks, and other water features; a vine-covered arbor; a grass-roofed cottage.

The Native Butterfly and Moth House provides temporary habitat for monarchs, painted ladies, red admirals, black swallowtails, luna and polyphemus moths, and other species, at every stage of their life cycle. The Learning Apiary’s hives house honey bees, while the adjoining Native Bee Exhibit calls attention to the fact that there are more than 276 species of the proverbial busy ones in Maine, most of which go it alone.

Several trails take you variously through rhododendrons and woods, past sculptures (watch out for oversized trolls), and, in the case of the Shoreland Trail, along the tidal Back River to a landing that extends far out into the water. If it seems like gilding the lily to set gardens within Maine’s exceptionally beautiful forests and salt-water inlets, the CMBG, and its visitors, successfully manage to have it both ways.

The gardens make the most of Maine’s natural assets, highlighting the good looks, for instance, of the granite outcroppings ubiquitous to the state, by using them as key elements in garden designs, as well as putting granite, Ellsworth schist, and other local stone to work for seating, paving, walls, pillars, and other parts of the hardscape.

The gardens blend together numerous native plants and trees—lowbush blueberries, birches and red pines, lupines, mosses, and ferns—with more exotic flora: dozens of dahlia varieties and cultivars in the Dahlia Garden, hosta, epimediums, “Snowcicle” hydrangeas, a grove of dawn sequoias.

The day I was there, there were lots of families, not surprising given that it was the height of vacation season, and lots of little happy campers (and their moms valiantly pushing strollers along dirt trails). The Fairy Village, which invites DIY constructions, was seeing serious action when I went by, and the table with a caterpillar display outside the Caterpillar Lab was drawing in the curious, too.

The view from the Overlook Bridge…

It makes me happy to see people, especially children, enjoying being outdoors, their curiosity and wonder piqued by the splendor (and oddities) of nature. It’s great to be in a place that encourages environmental literacy—which seems ever more crucial, if we’re to combat climate change and preserve wildlife—in ways that seem unforced and simply pleasurable for everyone. In fact, my overall sense of the CMBG is that it quietly draws attention to the attractions not only of inspired horticulture but also of the Maine landscape, and makes a powerful case for actively appreciating the flora and fauna that dwell there.

… And from the other side of the bridge.

The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens are open 9 to 5, every day, rain or shine, through October 17. As well as its gardens and trails, CMBG offers tours, events, exhibits, and programs, including ones, such as the Winter Gardens Book Club, that are online and held after the gardens close for the season.

Here’s more on the trolls, the stars of the “Guardians of the Seeds” exhibition by Danish artist Thomas Danbo.

Fresh Paint

In the current at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, Maine

I don’t always know what to make of contemporary art, or what it’s asking of me. The critics and historians aren’t along for the ride, murmuring in my ear, telling me it’s good, how good, and why. Of course, contemporary art is a roomy category, so whether it’s gorgeous, mind-blowing, off-putting, or opaque depends on the artist, the style, the medium, the context…

And being on your own with a work of art, even, or especially, a challenging one, can be freeing. Sometimes the best thing to do is just relax and let the art come to you in its own good time.

The Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA), in Rockland, Maine, helps that to happen. Celebrating its 70th anniversary next year, the center presents exhibitions and events year round in an understated, elegant set of glass and corrugated-metal boxes set around an exterior courtyard. Designed by the highly regarded architect Toshiko Mori, the five-year-old building has a youthful energy. Gleaming in the clear, strong light of a Down East summer day, it put me at ease before I walked through the door.

CMCA is on Winter Street, off Main Street, and around the corner from the wonderful Farnsworth Museum. As is true of many of New England’s smaller cities, three-story brick buildings predominate downtown, and against such a backdrop, the architecture of the center stands out. But its kin, the commercial warehouses, are just a stone’s throw away, down by the waterfront.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Rockland was one of the busiest ports on the East Coast, shipping out lime and granite, fish and lumber, and building the ships that carried those raw goods all over. The port no longer sees that level of trade, but the city still come across as vibrant and gritty, as Merriam Webster defines it: “plucky” and “having strong qualities of tough uncompromising realism.” So it seems fitting that Rockland should take on often tough and uncompromising contemporary art.

Artists started CMCA in 1952. Several were from away; they came to the midcoast region looking for a cheap place to live and work. Cheap but beautiful.

They were not the first, nor the last to be attracted to the sublime quality of Maine. The illustrious roster of artists with a Maine connection includes Winslow Homer, George Bellows, John Marin, Rockwell Kent, Marsden Hartley, Andrew Wyeth, Berenice Abbott, Robert Indiana, Lois Dodd, Kosti Ruohomaa, and Alex Katz. Sculptor Louise Nevelson, originally from Russia, moved with her family to Rockland as a small child, captained the girls’ basketball team in high school, and took off for New York City as soon as she could. Winslow Homer and Berenice Abbott, to name two, were off-islanders who chose to spend their final decades in Maine.

The Shape of Things, in the largest of the three CMCA galleries, is an exhibition of 23 works by Maine native David Row (through September 12). Row’s CV is lengthy and impressive and the show beautifully presented, but initially at least, the art took a back seat to the room itself. I couldn’t get over the look of the satiny cement floor and the glowing, rain-puddle reflections of the sharp-edged geometric paintings. The room’s bigness and the light filtering down from the clerestory windows in the sawtooth roof made the space feel like a church between services, somewhere contemplation feels natural.

Although everything about Row’s oil paintings, their colors, textured surfaces, size, meticulous finish, their sophistication, was spot-on, I was truly drawn in by his “lighttraps.” Like outsized jewels, the cast-glass sculptures just seem to have it all, all the qualities of the paintings, but something else, something ineffable, something deeply satisfying.

Kitty corner from, and at an aesthetic slant to, the The Shape of Things, was Will o’ the Wisp, a collaborative installation organized by artists Joy Feasley and Paul Swenbeck. According to the exhibition brochure, the title refers to “the mischievous sprite that leads weary travelers deeper and deeper into a treacherous swamp with its lantern-like, shimmering countenance.” At first glance, I felt less like a weary traveler than a college student stepping into a dorm room, circa 1969—not a bad thing.

The overall effect was the sum of a slew of artworks: Feasley’s circular shag rug, a sort of a psychedelic color wheel; Swenbeck’s Specter Moon, a light show of lunar landscapes; audio, terraria, dangling Indian brass bells, a glass orb, a seeweedy polyester resin sculpture, craft-y objects. The metallic mesh wall covering gave the room its own shimmering countenance.

A lot going on, but then the sensory overload sorted itself out into its component parts. Swenbeck’s Four Crinoids, brass sea flowers, seemed almost to sway in the air, or in an ocean current, in one corner. Kelsey Halliday Johnson captured the surreal spirit of fungi in her Biomediation (mushrooms at the end of the world) nine prints in an oval, each in an oval slice of Maine wood.

Across the room, Shannon Bowser’s watercolors of lichen took a different light-handed, loose tack to convey the otherworldly nature of forest life. I thought about how easy, and unfortunate, it is to pass by a toadstool or minuscule pixie cups sprouting on moss or a tree stump without a glance. (Did you know that, according to the Virginia Native Plant Society, “lichens are not plants, but an association, often called ‘mutualism’ of two, and sometimes three different organisms”? Cohabitation, also very sixties.)

For those tending to the neurotic, the show might provoke an unease related to that “treacherous swamp” atmosphere it’s going for: To think all this is going on around us, without our knowing. That nature does its own thing can be both a comfort and a stimulus of existential anxiety. The artists have tapped into the confounding, and unsettling because ultimately unknowable complexity of the natural world.

Remarkable how an assemblage of work in several media by eight artists could coalesce into an installation so richly satisfying on both sensory and emotional levels. And so smart of the CMCA to exhibit The Shape of Things and Will o’ the Wisp together. The concept of generating a “dialogue” between art works comes up so often it risks becoming a cliché, but in this case, it was happenin’.

Maine fungi.

The CMCA’s website has a terrific gallery of photographs of the center’s founding members and a full schedule of upcoming exhibitions and events.

“When the Artists Descended on the Midcoast” is a fun, candid account of the period when the center got its start, as recalled by Stell Shevis, 100 years old at the time of this article’s publication.

And here’s another post I wrote about midcoast Main, the Farnsworth, and Rockland.

Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway

At a moment when a New York Times headline, “Should I Mask? Can I Travel?,” reflects a wide unease, the Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway exhibition at the Clark Institute of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts, offers a means of escape to another place and time. It’s a wonderfully presented show, right down to the passageways with photomurals of Norwegian settings.

Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928) was born, grew up, and lived most of his life in western Norway, and as an artist, he took as his subject matter the place he knew so well. Among the 85 works in the show, pastoral landscapes and scenes of rural life predominate. They constitute a visual inventory of Nordic elements: fields of marsh marigolds, Midsummer Eve bonfires, rhubarb stalks, hay drying poles, grass-roofed farm buildings, berry-picking children, foxgloves in forests, flinty blue fjords, glacier-streaked mountains.

Small apple trees blossom against brooding skies; modest houses huddle at the foot of looming mountains. His art conveys the wild, somber, fragile beauty of the region. The brooding, moody, melancholy-leaning quality of many of the paintings and prints syncs nicely with the current zeitgeist, in fact.

But partly because the scenes are beautiful and partly because they’re beautifully painted, the effect is restorative. When I reached the end of the exhibition, I felt as if I’d been tree-bathing. Afterward, walking on one of the Clark’s trails, I saw the trees, tiny woodland flowers, and the cows in the woods more keenly, as if through Astrup’s eyes, a sure indicator of an artist’s talent.

During Astrup’s lifetime, art was moving at a clip toward modernism. The first big show of the Impressionists was six years before his birth. Seurat was pixelating in the 1880s. In 1904, Cezanne was advising his friend, Post-Impressionist painter Émile Bernard, “Treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone.” (Cubist Georges Braque was so impressed by Cezanne’s published letters that he memorized passages.) In 1911, Kandinsky wrote, “Must we not then renounce the object altogether, throw it to the winds and instead lay bare the purely abstract?”

Astrup studied in Paris, hung out with a cool crowd in Berlin, and was well travelled, visiting London, Vienna, Algiers, and elsewhere. He would have gone farther afield if his poor health hadn’t stopped him. He kept himself well informed about what contemporaries were doing: “I would like to study the abstract painters a little more closely—Kandinsky and the other Russians—basically they interest me more than the French—Picasso and Matisse—although I would really like to have a French painter such as Le Fauconnier as a teacher.” (Le Fauconnier was a prominent Cubist artist.) He also greatly admired Henri Rousseau’s paintings and in London went to the Tate to see Constable’s landscapes.

So the artistic choices he made were deliberate, and he chose to color within the lines. While he wanted to paint the world around him, he said, “as ordinary people [saw it] straight through the air right into the thing,” his way of seeing was individual, original, and forward-thinking. He didn’t “renounce the object” or dispense with perspective, but he made use of aspects of modernism that worked for him.

For example, Spring in Jølster (1925) incorporated several perspectives, looking up, looking down, and straight ahead all at once. Mildly vertigo-inducing, the painting also features a pair of trees reduced to Cezanne-like green diamonds, other foliage rendered in almost hyper-realistic detail, and a tree planted dead center, dividing the canvas in two, in disregard of compositional conventions. Yet it all hangs together, a rich swirl of houses, mountains, sky, water, flora, and a wild creature or two.

Color plays a big role in Astrup’s work, his use of vibrant reds, pink grays, brown grays, and blue grays, and every green in the universe, among others, has a modernist feel. “The raw colors of western Norway,” as he once described them, add drama and movement and sometimes serve the artist’s intent to show a psychological landscape. If you go to the show, be sure to see his wooden palette, daubed with all his favorite colors.

One of the paradoxes of art is that constraints can foster creativity. Damp air tamped down Astrup’s health all his life; he made it a focal point of his work. You can almost feel the mist on your face when you look at The Parsonage in the Rain.

When he was young and poor (he was never well-off), he used old trousers for canvas. No matter the seam in one corner, an early painting that isn’t at the Clark, Old Woman With a Lantern, is atmospheric and evocative. And from an inhospitable patch of land across Lake Jolster from his childhood home, Astrup wrested a farmstead, Sandalstrand, now known as Astruptunet, terracing the rocky, steep slope to grow crops, constructing and restoring outbuildings, and sowing wildflowers on their grass roofs. In his studio there, he made art that showed the magic of his home turf.

In the midst of the magic, you might succumb to the dangers of romanticizing Astrup’s experience. The exhibition wall text makes clear his life was no picnic. A recurring landmark of his work, the rustic parsonage of his childhood permanently damaged his lungs, and three of his siblings died there, of diphtheria, in one week. A Financial Times article about Visions of Norway notes that Astrup, beset on and off by depression and anxiety, in middle age told a friend, “I find myself in an artistic ‘backwater,’ and every time I approach the right current—I am driven mercilessly into the backwater again.” When he died at age 48, he was still struggling to keep his head above water artistically and financially. The Clark tells his story straight, giving equal weight to the good and the sad.

Visions of Norway is the first North American exhibition of Astrup’s works. Coverage of the show invariably notes that while well-known in Norway, Astrup lacks the international name recognition of fellow Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. I guess it’s inevitable that the comparison be made, and it makes a great editorial “hook,” but it leaves me indifferent. Who doesn’t know (and relate to) Munch’s iconic The Scream, which encapsulates a sentient being’s response, on a bad day, in a bad era, to modern life? Maybe it’s better to be Astrup, spared having his work turning up as Internet memes. Dodging around the tropes—starving artist, tormented artist, neglected artist—I’m just delighted to meet Astrup the artist at last.

All old paintings take us to a place we can’t go. They bring us within two feet of the past, and no closer—that’s part of their allure. As much as we can learn from paintings about the people who made them, the worlds they show, and about art itself, finally we remain tourists. But it’s worth packing a bag with your curiosity and an observant eye and spending an hour or two with Astrup’s remote world.

Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway is on view at the Clark through September 19.

Other things Nordic: The Unseen, White Shadow, and Eyes of the Rigel, by contemporary novelist Roy Jacobsen, form an utterly enthralling trilogy about life on a cluster of Norwegian islands above the Arctic Circle. The writing and the stories are both extraordinary.

Seeing Saint-Gaudens

What do monuments have to say to us?

A vast sloping lawn, perennial gardens, towering hedges, murmuring fountains, a classic New England Federal-style house, beautiful views at every turn … the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park in Cornish, New Hampshire, is an idyllic place. And home to more than 100 works of Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), from coins to monuments.

This pre-eminent sculptor of the Gilded Age spent many summers in Cornish, relaxing and working. Over time, his home became the nexus of a settlement of painters, musicians, actors, writers, landscape designers, and other artists—the Cornish Colony. The last seven years of his life, he was a “chickadee,” what colony members called a year-round resident of the area.

In Cornish, in the mid-1880s, he created what is probably his most famous work, Abraham Lincoln: The Man, also known as The Standing Lincoln, the original of which is in Chicago. Other larger-than-life tributes—the Admiral David Farragut Monument and the Sherman Monument in New York, the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment Memorial in Boston, and the Adams Memorial in Washington—made his reputation. His lithe Diana once stood poised with bow and arrow on the roof of Madison Square Garden.

Saint-Gaudens’ training as a sculptor began at age 13, when he was apprenticed to a cameo cutter. He augmented what he learned during that five-year stint through classes at the Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design, then study at the L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and trips to Rome. Like Renoir, whose artistic education also started when he was 13, painting dishes in a porcelain factory, Saint-Gaudens got technique under his belt early and never looked back.

Renoir once said, “How difficult it is to know just where the imitation of nature in a picture might stop.” The question doesn’t seem to have bothered Saint-Gaudens overly much. His considerable energy was focused on coaxing granite, marble, and bronze into looking like the ripples of a wave or the folds of a bow and whipping those obdurate materials into monumental shape. With sorties into symbolism: victory, loyalty, and courage took the form of solidly built females, looking, depending on your point of view, solemn, fierce, or grumpy. He put heroes of the era on literal pedestals, ready to honor and inspire, but firmly based in representation.

When I visited Saint-Gaudens’ summer home, I met up head-first with the question of how much imitation is too much. I looked at the outsized sculptures and reflexively thought, nope. The furniture of every public park, the perch of pigeons, statues of bygone notables, even those we still respect, often seem to have said all they had to say. (Yet the Princess Diana statue, recently unveiled at Kensington Palace, is not only proof of how art can imitate life to a disappointing degree, but also proof that the taste for the doggedly representational lives on.)

So while duly impressed by the sheer scale of the big statements—the technical feat of making them, never mind getting giant plaster casts from a hilly New Hampshire estate to the foundry—I gravitated to the intimate stuff. I studied the pleated waves of the Farragut memorial, the curvaceous brass fish making real ripples in a marble pool. Admired the medallions on the walls of the New Gallery & Atrium, delicate profiles of Saint-Gaudens’ son Homer and others; the very lifelike but rough-around-the-edges horse’s heads, a gilded one in the main room of the studio, a plaster version in a small workroom off the main room. A big bronze hand on a shelf above old letters reclining in a cubbyhole.

And the place was so seductive! The park’s layout encourages you to wander and linger at will. So on a perfect summer day in a beautiful spot, I moved around like a tourist rather than a museum-goer. I strolled the allées, poked around the stable, moseyed among tall delphiniums at their peak and peonies just about to call it quits, and ended up on the veranda of the house, Aspet, looking out at pointy-headed Mount Ascutney on the horizon.

I’d breezed by the vigorous Puritan caught in midstride and the bust of Lincoln. I’d hardly given The Standing Lincoln the time it deserved. Familiarity was working against the last two: I’ve known what the 16th president looked like from the first time I had a penny to put in my pocket.

Fortunately, well-versed scholars have been more conscientious. Writing about Abraham Lincoln: The Man, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Thayer Tolles points out that the statue was distinctive in its time because Saint-Gaudens portrayed Lincoln “not as a man in action, but as a man in an intensely private, introspective moment.” As innovative as its intimacy was that Saint-Gaudens’ portraits “melded accurate likeness with projection of character, the result of research, observation, and instinct.”

To get Lincoln’s likeness right, Saint-Gaudens used a Vermonter, six-foot-four Langdon Morse, as his model. He had him walk through fields to rusticate his shoes and pants. As for Lincoln’s character, maybe the artist’s having glimpsed his subject a couple of times gave him a sense of the man. During his apprenticeship, Saint-Gaudens had seen Lincoln on the way to his inauguration. The next sighting was also in New York, when Lincoln was lying in state after his assassination. After waiting in an “interminable line,” as the sculptor recalled years later, the 17-year-old Saint-Gaudens filed past the bier, then rejoined the queue to view the dead president again.

Saint-Gaudens took monumental sculpture even further into the future by conceiving of it as a composition of several elements, the figure, but also the base and inscriptions, and integrated with its surroundings, a Victorian version of today’s “immersive” experience. (He often collaborated with the architects McKim and White on the bases.)

As shamelessly breezy as I was on my Cornish visit, I was stopped in my tracks by its version of the Shaw memorial, cast in 1997, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the original’s unveiling. It stands at one end of a long garden room, enclosed by tall walls of hemlock and white pine. The setting is just the beginning.

“There was no clear precedent for the audaciousness of the Shaw Memorial, nothing quite like it in its fusion of two major forms of public sculpture, the grand equestrian statue and the narrative relief,” wrote Deborah Chotner, assistant curator, American and British paintings, of the National Gallery of Art, for the NGA’s 1997 exhibition on the memorial. She noted, “Saint-Gaudens reinterpreted his sources to create a new and totally original public monument that democratically united a commander with his troops.”

It’s big, detailed, dynamic, cinematic. A loblolly pine cone lies tucked in one corner and Memory hovers just over the heads of the men. Even on a sunny midsummer day, the bronze glows dark and mysterious. Like the past, the memorial’s full of shadows, but its ambition is to put what’s past before you.

The Massachusetts 54th was one of the first regiments of Black soldiers to be formed in the North during the Civil War, headed up by 25-year-old Robert Gould Shaw, scion of a family of fiercely abolitionist Boston Brahmins. There was considerable skepticism, not confined solely to rebel forces, that the soldiers would pass muster.

On July 18, 1863, the 54th led the charge on Fort Wagner, the first stage of a Union Army plan to take Charleston. Nearly 300 soldiers, 42 percent of the regiment, were killed, wounded, or captured.

Frederick Douglass’s son Lewis, who was among the wounded, said, “Not a man flinched.” The assault failed, and Shaw died in the attempt, but “the courage and sacrifice of the 54th helped to dispel doubt within the Union Army about the fighting ability of Black soldiers and earned this regiment undying battlefield glory,” according to the National Archives website.

Joshua Benton Smith, an African American businessman, proposed building a monument to Shaw in 1865. Shaw’s family lobbied for one that honored the Black soldiers as well as Shaw. The effort to create the memorial stretched over 32 years, including the 14 years Saint-Gaudens took to make it.

“My own delay I excuse on the ground that a sculptor’s work endures for so long that it is next to a crime for him to neglect to do everything that lies in his power to execute a result that will not be a disgrace,” Saint-Gaudens once explained. “There is something extraordinarily irritating, when it is not ludicrous, in a bad statue. It is plastered up before the world to stick and stick for centuries, while man and nations pass away. A poor picture goes into the garret, books are forgotten, but the bronze remains to accuse or shame the populace and perpetuate one of our various idiocies.”

Shaw Memorial, Boston; Library of Congress image; glass negative, 1900.

When it was unveiled in 1897, some 54th Regiment veterans were still alive to march by and doff their hats. Three years later, Harriet Tubman, who had worked as an intrepid scout for the 54th (and had cooked Shaw’s last meal), visited the memorial by the Common and, reported the Boston Herald, “dropped a silent tear for the departed dead.”

Last year, many a Robert E. Lee sitting on Traveller, and his confederates, came crashing down. The Shaw memorial has come under scrutiny, too. He knew about idiocies, but Saint-Gaudens probably didn’t foresee the objections.

The points of debate are more complicated than those related to glorification of white supremacists. It was the first public monument in the country to honor African American soldiers, but Shaw is on a horse, front and center. Then again, thanks in part to the 1989 film Glory, the monument is probably better known today for its celebration of the Black troops who surround him.

As my eyes played across the frieze, the movie’s climactic scene of the charge played in my head. Then the dramatic film images died away, and the memorial did its job, bringing home to me that these bronze figures stood in for living, breathing, dreaming, thinking, feeling humans. I tried to imagine all “the things they carried,” to quote the title of Tim O’Brien’s short story collection about soldiers in Vietnam.

As a Harvard student, Shaw complained to his parents, “Everything is stupid here,” and later he moped at his job in his uncle’s mercantile firm. In soldiering, he found his purpose, and in the way Saint Gaudens’ Shaw holds himself, straight as a plumb line, it shows.

But what I found most compelling was the tight, determined squad marching all around him. Canteens on their hips, rifles on their shoulders, eyes forward, in step, no doubt scared to death, but resolute. With no battleground in sight, I couldn’t help reading the procession as an inexorable, and extremely brave, march toward a momentous struggle.

Where the figurative becomes symbolic here, the monument monumental, is in its representation of more than a moment. The memorial tells us, Black lives have always mattered. By the end of the Civil War, some 37,000 African Americans had died serving in the Union forces. The monument honors the essential, heroic role African Americans have played so many times in this country’s history and continue to play. (Thank you, Black women of Georgia.) It speaks to me of a debt owed, not yet recognized or repaid.

Currently, you can visit the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park and see just about everything—the studios, the stables, the grounds, the sculptures—except the interior of Aspet, the house. Here’s a link to learn more.

This Thayer Tolles article gives more background on the artist.

This NEH article has good information on the Shaw Memorial, the Fort Wagner battle, and Saint-Gaudens.

To read more about the controversial aspects of the Shaw Memorial, this Commonwealth article from 2019 is a good place to start. Another interesting perspective can be found here.

And for more on the amazing Harriet Tubman and her work with the 54th, see this National Park Service article.