New York

Marsden Hartley

Vanderwoude Tananbaum Gallery

Now that issues of identity, and the artist’s identity in particular, have again become fresh sociocultural issues—when we are testing art by the sincerity of the artist once more—Marsden Hartley’s paintings, especially those of the last decade of his life, are freshly pertinent. Faced with the same conflict between internationalism and “roots” that confronts artists today, Hartley forged an identity that remained separate from both in the very act of utilizing them. Thus, in Waxenstein at Hammersbach Garmisch, Bavaria, ca. 1933–34, he returns to the German world of his early Modernist work, but without the Modernist style that he had cultivated two decades before. In The Rope and Wishbone, 1936, he deals with Maine, but as an interior rather than an exterior landscape: out of a shroud in the form of a fishing rope (or a rope that unravels into a shroud), he creates a “poetic” self-portrait (as Elizabeth McCausland recognized). In the first case he has taken an objective landscape, and in the second an object from a specific environment, and made them intimate and enigmatic, peculiarly personal. Through their poetic elusiveness, Hartley’s works invite us to follow him emotionally as he “intimates” a world and finds himself through it. Unlike many artists today, he does not trumpet his identity as if it were ready-made and superior to both the reality of the world, which is its springboard, and the viewer’s own identity.

Hartley shows us art as a flexible response to a world full of symbols of the self. Shell and Fish, 1936–43 is to my mind an ironic Nietzschean allegory of the artist’s highly individuated self among the happy herd, full of odd twists and turns. The shell, however big compared to the fish, is an inert form among their lively if mediocre little forms. Hartley felt himself to be an “odd one” standing out from society, no doubt in part because of his homosexuality. In general, he sought refuge in a kind of allegorical landscape of interiority, at once self-dramatizing and self-disguising.

There is a pathos to these pictures that is brought out both by their smallness—which seems to invite us to peer into their strange world, whose distance sets them emotionally apart—and their peculiar sparseness and moments of intense blackness. It is as though Hartley had performed an autopsy on his self and put its most secret organs on display. His pictures are not as realistic as they may look at first glance. They are a kind of oblique Expressionism, which is more a matter of point of view than of style, as the first Expressionists themselves often stated. To borrow Oskar Kokoschka’s description of Munch, Hartley attempts to show the “most intimate self where fear lodges in our heart” in order to gain “insight into . . . society.” There is a paradoxical escapism in this: the nature used as a symbol of inner nature seems very far from society. But the Expressionist is interested in the self as a victim of society; the generally dark mood of nature in Hartley’s works reflects the self’s unhappy consciousness of it.

Hartley was a poet as well as a painter; some regard him as a dilettante in both. The Expressionists recognized the dangers of dilettantism that could arise from mixing art and literature, but they believed the risk was worth it, as Hartley did. Successful, it produced works of more complex connotation than either alone could ever achieve. Also, it signaled that both were in the service of a purpose larger than art as such—namely, survival in an increasingly inhospitable, inhuman society. For Hartley, poetic painting was not only a consolation, but a fierce, defiant response to a prosaic, indifferent world.

Donald Kuspit