America is an unenlightened nation. America is predestination, transcendentalism, superstition, and sin. Walt Whitman famously wrote that “the real and permanent grandeur of these States must be their religion.” Behind the outgrowths of positivism, democracy, and free enterprise, there runs in America that thick grove of spirituality. Thank God.

Spiritualism blanketed the United States in the nineteenth century with its mixture of revivalist bible-thumping, theosophy, and Revelation. This spiritual cocktail produced Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It also unearthed the dark hearts of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe—those mid-century masters who sowed the literary seedbeds of modernism with a combination of primitive spiritualism and cosmopolitan sophistication.

Yet it took the following generation, primarily those born after Reconstruction, to advance the visual arts to where Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe had taken the literary field. Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), Arthur Dove (1880–1946), John Marin (1870–1953), and many others translated the dark spiritual lyricism of these writers to the picture plane in a way that would not just rival but also depart from, influence, and often surpass European models. In the fine arts, there had certainly been many American talents. Yet American painting’s proverbial slavishness to European schools was only underscored through much of its history by transnational talents like Benjamin West and James McNeill Whistler, artists who not only followed European styles but who also became, themselves, Europeans.

No painter has come to embody better the brooding vigor and new, native spirit of American modernism at the turn of the century as Marsden Hartley (1877–1943). In mind as well as action and body, the painter from Lewiston, Maine, a woebegone member of the Stieglitz 291 circle, came to epitomize the dark mysteries and contradictions of his literary antecedents. In photographs, especially in Stieglitz’s iconic portrait from 1915–1916, Hartley’s striking visage stares back—pointed ears, pinched snout, Roman nose, avian brow. His eyes, a milkweed white, seem blind. Certainly no great American painter has more fascinated and eluded art history than this physiognomical sphinx. As a living artist Hartley avoided commercial success in the same way that he now deflects quick judgment. Recalling those words that Charles Baudelaire reserved for Poe, Hartley’s existence might well have been more stable had he “been prepared to regularize his genius and apply his creative gifts in a manner more suited to the climate of America … another—a crude cynic, this one—tells us that however fine may have been his genius, it would have been better for him to have had no more than talent, talent always yielding easier returns than genius.” Instead, his life was

but a vast prison in which he ran about with the fevered restlessness of a creature born to breathe the air of a sweeter-scented world—nought but a great, gas-lit Barbary—and that his interior, spiritual life as a poet, or even as drunkard, was no more than a perpetual effort to escape the influence of that antipathetic atmosphere.

Well, these are rather dire assessments (even ignoring the anti-American undertones in Baudelaire’s harangue). Yet for Hartley, perhaps even more than for Poe, the words hold true. Following a 1943 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and Barbara Haskell’s Whitney Museum of Art survey in 1980, Hartley is now enjoying only his third comprehensive exhibition ever, with over one hundred works at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.[1] This fact alone should give students of modernism some pause. The triumph of Abstract Expressionism and the New York School in the 1950s heralded the absolute supremacy of post-war American art. It also demoted the legacy of the first generation of American modernists, especially the circle of Stieglitz (in deference to regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton). It may be an interesting intellectual exercise in the era of blockbuster cockfights to match up the likes of Mark Rothko with Dove or Jackson Pollock with Hartley. These artists have all now enjoyed major American surveys in the past decade. Who can say which artist would come out on top? Considering the successes of the Hartford show, Hartley should at least get even money.

Whitman wrote that “the whole earth and all the stars in the sky are for religion’s sake.” Few painters have been more attuned than Hartley to the spiritual importance of location both as subject matter and physical place. Writing from Berlin in 1922, for example, Hartley mentioned that: “I am working on some New Mexican landscape recollections… . These landscapes are more vivid in the sense of nature than they were when I worked from the same thoughts in New York.”

Both urban and rural, Hartley lived in New York, Berlin, Paris, the south of France, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and central America before declaring himself “the painter from Maine” in 1937 (click here to see Mount Katahdin, Autumn No.2, [1939-1940]). As one of the first artists to work comprehensively in all-over abstraction in 1912 (in Paris he became acquainted with Robert and Sonia Delaunay and Gertrude Stein; in Munich he met many of the Blaue Reiter group), Hartley turned to the figure late in life at a moment when the vogue finally came around to abstraction. Mirroring his peripatetic existence, his painting style at various times borrowed from a hatchwork of neo-impressionism (Giovanni Segantini), German expressionism (Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc), French post-impressionism (Paul Cézanne), and Symbolism.

Yet while Hartley’s formal paint handling owed debts to others in the avant-garde, his insatiate desire and spiritual yearning guided his development in sometimes wild and erratic ways that were his own. These are the forces that molded him into a formidable artist. The challenge for any Hartley show of scale is to capture this wild bird in its cage. In Hartford, the curator Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser clearly found some difficulty in holding Hartley down. Hartley wriggles and wanders off at the show’s many turns. Yet in the show’s lack of resolution and through its own distractions, we are perhaps given the more honest assessment of Hartley’s career. Emerson wrote that travel was “a fool’s paradise,” although he elsewhere stated that “all educated Americans, first or last, go to Europe.” Hartley’s wanderlust perfectly captured this contradiction. One might read Hartley’s homosexuality and his antinomian spiritualism, cut with Calvinist sour grapes, as two of the forces that drove him on, yet his movement was both an exploration of emotion and the escape from it. It is not altogether clear what force drove him at any given time, and I doubt he knew himself.

Paul Rosenfeld said of Hartley in 1924: “Someday, perhaps some day not so far distant, Hartley will have to go back to Maine. For it seems that flight from Maine is in part flight from his deep feelings.” It has been said that Hartley never stayed more than two years in a single place, and judging from the wall labels at Hartford—which attempt to declaim his every move—this nearly holds true. In one head-spinning room mid-show, for example, the three wall labels read “New Mexico 1918–1919,” “Europe 1921–1930,” “Return to the United States 1930.” Hartley at times necessitates a roadmap.

While Hartley escapes the declarations and resolutions typical of most survey exhibitions, in Hartford one still finds enough of a critical mass of top work to discern three periods of stylistic development: an expressionism that fades to all-over abstraction in the symbolist fantasies of Musical Theme (Oriental Symphony) (1912), painted in Paris, and the pre-war pageants, officer paintings, and “Amerika” series from his first stay in Berlin; the Cézanne- and Fauve-inspired landscapes from Vence, Aix, New Hampshire, and New Mexico from the 1920s and early 1930s; and the primitive figuration and portrait work from the mid-1930s that carried him through the end of his career.

Hartley’s search for spiritual significance in the everyday was borne less of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s giddy pantheism than the white-washed iconoclasm of the protestant New England aesthetic. Paintings became Hartley’s scrapbook of totemic images, symbols, and idols that he scavenged throughout his travels: New England iceblocks, birds, and fish; teutonic crosses, shields, and cockades; American Indian tepees and war canoes. He stayed remarkably pure in his symbolic assignments. None of the religious and imperial motifs of his Berlin paintings, for example, ever entered into his New England pastiches.

Hartley worked best in series. Highlights of the Hartford show center around those instances where Kornhauser has captured at least parts of them (you always hope for more). The exhibition begins with some splendid neo-impressionist portraits of what Hawthorne called “earth’s undecaying monuments.” Carnival of Autumn (1908) with its gummy clouds and The Ice-Hole, Maine (1908–1909) with its jelly-blue pond are two paintings from a ten-part series of the same mountain range near North Lovell, Maine. The scenes are neo-impressionistic and skilled, although in the heavily mottled paint and earthy tones they evoke a spiritual darkness unlike the positivist chills of Hartley’s European models.

Hartley flipped the pulsing anima of these earliest works inside out in the near-abstract paintings that soon followed. In the Paris and Berlin series, one gets the sense that Hartley has mined the depths of his most personal work for us to see (click here to see Military [1913]). The War Motif series from 1914, seven of which have been here collected, depict the abstracted dirge for Hartley’s German lover Karl von Freyburg, who at twenty-four had perished on the front. These paintings marked a high-point in Hartley’s artistic achievement. He called the style “subliminal or cosmic cubism.” With their paste-up assemblies of flags, shields, esoterica, and glyphs, much of it does resemble the synthetic cubism of the time. Picasso’s writing of “Ma Jolie” may read as a challenge and sendup to formal concerns. Yet Hartley’s “Kv.F” in the lower left register of Portrait of a German Officer (1914), like the hex of Hawthorne’s scarlet letter, communicates an epitaph and death sentence. The gravity of Picasso’s and Hartley’s letterings are completely at odds.

While the return to landscape, now in a Cézannean and Fauvist mode, was a significant step and advance for Hartley’s development in the 1920s—in these far-off landscapes he mitigated his loss from the Great War—it was his discovery and his new flirtation with figuration that proved to be his next great contribution to American modernism. Here we find his most majestic, idiosyncratic, and perfected treasures. In his Portrait of Albert Pinkham Ryder (1938), the skullcap, eyebrows, beard, and haircoat all seem to run into each other on this American old master. In The Last Look of John Donne (1940), the white chalky stripes of a death shroud embrace the angular face of the dying with two white hands. In his primitivist Mason series, the Maine family becomes a stand-in for a biblical passion play that gets sadly acted out through the real-life drowning of the Mason sons. Then there are the beefcakes: the muscle-bound beach boys, fishermen, and jock-strap sport heroes of Maine that represent not only Hartley’s spiritual longing but also, most likely, his earthly desires (click here to see Down East Young Blades, [c.1940]). The times of Hartley’s life allowed room for such sexual ambiguity.

If Hartley garners additional attention in the near future, it will most likely be due not to painterly achievement but to his new place at the table of queer theory. This is regrettable not because Hartley was gay, but because enlisting him in this ideological program seriously undermines the mysteries and depth of his work. It gives a political spin to the profound spiritual questions of his career. It also turns typically decent critics into armchair postmodernists with disastrous results. Here is what John Updike had to say about some of Hartley’s Berlin paintings in the New York Review of Books:

Just as one should not hasten to patronize Hartley’s positive view of a more innocent Germany, one should not rush to read anal symbols in his celebration of military manhood. But inviting sphincterlike rings dominate Himmel (circa 1914–1915) and the thrust of phallic penetration is alarmingly vivid in Military. The Aero (circa 1914), the catalog explains, “takes its name from the flaming red spot in the upper half of the canvas, which is meant to depict the flames at the rear of a dirigible engine.” Zeppelins with their flaming anuses frequently passed over Berlin—“a fascinating thing which transports one somehow every time one sees any of them,” Hartley wrote Stieglitz in June of 1914.

“Flaming anuses passing over Berlin”? Hartley deserves more. Yet as we contemplate the upcoming Matthew Barney spectacle at the Guggenheim, it would seem that a restrained, academic, and difficult show like “Marsden Hartley” does not stand a chance. Not in the New York of today, at any rate. Like a single-occupancy vehicle, Hartley is currently banned from Manhattan. What will it take to bring this American modernist to the forefront of public attention? We may need to wait another twenty-five years to find out for sure.

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  1. “Marsden Hartley” opened at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, on January 17 and remains on view until April 20, 2003. The exhibition will also be seen at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., from June 7 to September 7, 2003, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, from October 11, 2003 to January 11, 2004. A catalogue of the exhibition has been published by the Wadsworth Atheneum in association with Yale University Press (304 pages, $55). Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 7, on page 49
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