So you think you know Maine artists. You probably do, but do you know how many of their studios are still around, somewhat as they left them? A recent coffee-table book highlights a collection of these magical places, as used by some 26 artists.
At First Light has been put together by a triumvirate of professionals. Anne and Frank Goodyear are co-directors of the Bowdoin Art Museum. Michael Komanecky is the Farnsworth Museums chief curator. The book itself is the gorgeous product of a collaboration between the Bowdoin museum and the publisher Rizzoli Electa.
In his evocative forward, Stuart Kestenbaum (Maines Poet Laureate, who retired this month) considers the life of these houses and rooms in their own right. Beyond the presence (or ghosts) of the artists, each is a sanctuary of the everyday. The Goodyears and Komanecky take turns introducing the spaces with a brief overview of the artists life and the various ways he or she became connected to Maine. Walter Smallings beautiful photographs of the actual venues do the rest.
Conceived with the states Bicentennial in mind, At First Light reaches back to Jonathan Fisher, the polymath whose Morning View of Blue Hill Village is one of the Farnsworth Museums gems. It gives about as clear a glimpse of Maine life in 1824 as it is possible to get.
Actually, Fisher (1768-1847) is something of an outlier. Starting with Winslow Homer, the rest of the artists included in the book lived into the last century. They can be broadly grouped as American Impressionists (Frank Benson and Charles Woodbury), whose working years straddled 1900 more or less equally, followed by early modernists (John Marin, Marsden Hartley and Rockwell Kent) whose renown came largely during the first half of the 20th century.
At this point, the authors thoughtful chronology is interrupted by the artistic phenomenon that is the Wyeth Family. N.C., Andrew and James each receives his own treatment, but geographically as well as artistically, they are hard to separate. Smalling, the photographer, has dubbed it Wyeth World. As a further overlap, the house built by Rockwell Kent on Monhegan Island is now Jamie Wyeths studio.
Modernists William and Margaret Zorach put us back on the chronological path. And then there are the Porters, Eliot and his younger brother, Fairfield, the other artistic family who, like the Wyeths, can be said to have imbibed Maines unique sense of place from childhood, in their case, on Great Spruce Head Island. Inland, Berenice Abbott, another photographer, spent her final years around Monson.
Next is what Bob Keyes, in his Portland Press Herald obituary for David Driskell, called a wave of post-World War II artists who came from New York, including Ashley Bryan, Alex Katz, Lois Dodd and, later, Robert Indiana, to wrestle with the landscape in a Modernist way. Several of them discovered Maine as students at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Their studios are all included in At First Light, as is that of Rudy Burkhardt and Yvonne Jacquette.
Another Skowhegan alumnus, Bernard Langlais, was already in Maine, born on Indian Island. His studio in Cushing is one of the few open to the public. (Winslow Homers on Prouts Neck is another.)
Molly Neptune Parker has lived in Indian Township all her life, carrying on the basket-making traditions of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, and letting them evolve from utilitarian forms (scale baskets for collecting fish scales and heads at processing plants) to the most exquisite forms.
Finally, the two, as it were, jokers in the pack are Richard Tuttle and William Wegman. I mean this in no derogatory sense, but they wrestle with the landscape in a totally different way to the other artists. Tuttles response to what he calls the landscapes in betweenness stands out from all the others in its ultra-minimalist approach, while Wegman and his Weimaraners offer a post-modern take on Rangeley Lake and its environs.
The studio waiting, a door opening into silence, shadow and light. Thus Kestenbaum launches the reader on this aesthetic marathon (26 stops). The anticipatory exhilaration is more than rewarded by Smallings sumptuous photographs. They are enhanced by examples of each artists work. A particularly happy arrangement pairs two flower pictures, a painting and photograph respectively, by Fairfield and Eliot Porter.
Unexpected details a pair of long johns on the washing line, the shadows of a man and a dog about to come indoors reinforce the immediacy of some of the living artists spaces. Jonathan Fishers furnishings, on the other hand, have the stately order of a monument. Other spaces run the gamut from various kinds of busyness toys, tools, bric-a-brac to the wide-open space of Alex Katzs studio, and the almost clinical orderliness of Yvonne Jacquettes. In contrast to the artistic singularity on display in some of the other studios, the warmth of Molly Neptune Parkers living room reflects the all-important communal aspect of basket-making.
Each location offered the photographer a different challenge. Sometimes Smalling rearranged furniture. Once, he emptied an entire room, then refilled it with family pieces provided by the artists grandsons.
At First Light was to have been accompanied by an exhibition at the Bowdoin Art Museum last year, but it was covided. We must hope that it was only a postponement. Until then, the book is a stunning consolation prize.
Thomas Urquharts new book, Up for Grabs, a history of Maines Public Reserved Lands, will be published in May.
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