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Friday, September 2, 2011

Marsden Hartley

It's an interesting irony that today, Abstract Expressionism is thought of by the art world as faintly quaint, while the general public still considers it "far out," to misappropriate a 50s term, in defining it.  "They" just don't "get it" while artists have "gotten it" and long since gotten over it.  It's not like Americans haven't had enough time to get over it.  Did you ever wonder who the first American was who painted the first really abstract painting? The year was 1914--not exactly yesterday. It happened not in this country but in Germany, before the First World War. He was a mountain boy (actually, he was 37 at the time) from the state of Maine by way of  Cleveland. He was rounding out his art education studying art in Europe, first in France where he'd been influenced by the work of Cezanne and then assimilated Cubism. From there he was on to Munich, Der Blau Reiter group, and then to Dresden and Die Brucke. His name was Marsden Hartley.

Portrait of a German Officer,
1914, Marsden Hartley
It was a classic art educational experience on the outskirts of modern art of the time. It was in a country bursting with rampant militarism on the one hand and radical political movements on the other. Political tensions from the Balkans to the English Channel were stretched like the proverbial rubber band waiting to snap. Hartley incorporated these tensions in two paintings, Portrait of a German Officer, and Iron Cross both from 1914. Working out of Berlin, the heart of the German tinderbox, both works are an amalgamation of the strident military fever that gripped the country at the time, and ultimately led it to war. In Berlin he was influenced both by Kandinsky and Max Beckmann.  German colors, numbers, symbols, banners, and bravura dominate both paintings which have the feel of still-lifes though without settings or real subject matter. They exude a "feeling" rather than recognizable content.

Iron Cross, 1914, Marsden Hartley
Give him credit for this, Hartley knew when to go home. Back in New York during and after the war, Hartley fell in with Alfred Stieglitz and his group of avant-garde artists who displayed from Stieglitz's Gallery 291. And, having gotten abstraction out of his system, Hartley began painting stark, expressionistic, landscapes he recalled from his boyhood state of Maine. For nearly a generation, until abstraction began to gain some acceptance amongst artists and critics in this country, he dwelt upon the landscape, pushing it closer and closer to those early excursions into abstraction which he'd made as a student in Germany. In the 1920s, he followed the mass exodus of New York artists who discovered Taos, New Mexico, exchanging his Maine landscapes for those of the desert Southwest, in bold, western colors, often heavily outlined in black. 1914--96 years ago--wouldn't you think by now abstraction would be seen by Americans as something more than "fraudulent globs of paint by artists who can't draw?"

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