Central to the Met Breuer's new Marsden Hartley retrospective is a quote from the modernist painter to his dealer (and celebrated photographer) Alfred Stieglitz: "I want so earnestly a 'place' to be." A collaboration with the Colby College Museum of Art, Marsden Hartley's Maine organizes Marsden's legacy as he himself might have wanted it, establishing him primarily as a painter of New England landscapes and manscapes. Inside Hartley's geography of hills, trees and pleasant enough hunks is an unveiling of queer anxiety inside an American heartland, one the exhibition smartly juxtaposes: mountains here, homoerotic takes on Cézanne there. En masse, it presents a statement not just on a painter's evolving style, as any retrospective is wont to do, but collectively tackles a painter's wrestling with the limits of representation and gives us a sense of how that world was fleshed out mentally and were contained inside their life's work.
For instance, after leaving art school, Hartley would not take to figure painting in any meaningful capacity until late in his career but the exhibition sees no reason to wait until then. Marsden Hartley's Maine begin charismatically with a selection of graphite drawings Hartley made of himself and other local residents as a young draughtsman. They're not very interesting but a tenuous connection is drawn between them and the folksy hunks that the Breuer has arranged as the exhibit's centerpiece, the heavy-set blue-collar types that would take Hartley's fancy. A more compelling reach, on the other hand, could be found in one of Hartley's earliest professional works, which the Breuer borrows from a public library in Hartley's hometown: "Shady Brook" (1907). A haunting piece of gothy realism, Hartley observes the mouth of a brook with minimal eye for abstraction, are those Monet's water lilies in the foreground?
The French expressionists and impressionists that he, like much of his generation, diligently revered are mentioned alongside archetypical New England painters like Winslow Homer and Albert Pinkham Ryder, who most immediately influenced his work. The Breuer, which opened last year, has made an interesting habit of underlining its connection to the Met by whipping out items from the world of old masters housed a few blocks away in order to visually lay out a curator's argument for where influences lay. In last year's Kerry James Marshall show, for instance, a tidy collection of Ingres, Seurat and some Japanese woodblocks were segregated into a little room for quiet contemplation. This time around, the Breuer takes on the more active role of placing, say, Homer's "Northeaster" (1895) next to a collection of Hartley paintings of waves. Those Japanese woodblocks make another appearance. The Met's collection cannot contain it all, however, and only a small illustration of Cézanne's "The Bather" (1885) is produced in the vicinity of "Canuck Yankee Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach, Maine" (1940–41). Hartley would know it well, a wall caption reads, "from visits to New York's Museum of Modern Art."
The show's chronology begins with a few rooms of his impressionist renditions of Maine's great outdoors: the state's tourist-trap of falling leaves becomes explosions of power and light meant to rival any French Riviera. "Carnival of Autumn" (1908) is the clear masterpiece: a Fauvian palate that transcends Matisse's accomplishments across the Atlantic and wrestles out of them something that buzzes like city lights. Nearby is a a study in contrasts: "Maine Woods" (1908) and "Winter Chaos, Blizzard" (1909), are a set of abstract forestry that make Hartley something of a primordial woods spirit, here for the sun and here for the snow. But, after a brief dabbling in glass Ogunquit folk art (an anecdote on the wall suggests it as an unfinished frontier in Hartley's oeuvre, after some uncontrolled smashing he "never had the courage to take it up again"), one turns to the delicious centerpiece of the exhibition: those hubba hubba hunks.
It was around this time, the placards tell us, that Hartley had declared himself "the painter from Maine," with an emphasis on the possessively definite article. After some decades in Europe, he had decided home was where the heart was or, at least, used to be. Academics at the time liked to call it an establishment of self-conscious regionialism, an American version of Monet suddenly choosing to chase haystacks. But Marsden Hartley's Maine wants us to read it as something else: "Hartley associated his elusive search for a permanent home with a regional symbol of loss and vulnerability" is one of the prettier curatorial touches. Until we enter a small empire of strapping chests and Schwarzenegger jawlines, Hartley's art is, notably, barren of flesh. The landscape motif, that little human painter in the corner so common in the Hudson School, is unused by Hartley, and suggests that his relationship with the land is personal and his alone. Yet, suddenly, people are here. "The Bather" is the smart analogue to draw—Hartley adored Cézanne—but there is something of postcard photography here, those black and white chests you buy in the gas stations of tourist towns. A narrative of possessiveness comes across in some of the quotes that the Breuer pulls from Hartley's writing (e.g: "I went down into the bowels of the Y.M.C.A. and pulled up this 'true beaut'") but the paintings themselves insist on grander emotions at work. Filled with life, with light and with an energetic intensity that for decades had been read as folk art homage touched by Whitman, we can now finally read as reverent love. "Lobster Fisherman" (1940-41) is a Village People of maritime fun, a world of self-containment. Another quote of his—Hartley was published as a poet, as well—appears on the wall: "I do want so much to swing out a little…for a few days as it seems too bad not to enjoy so lovely a spectacle as that five mile beach covered with handsome humanity."
Among the Met's possessions not in view is probably Hartley's most well-known work, "Portrait of a German Officer" (1914)—the First World War abstraction of military imagery meant as a tribute to its titular German officer which Hartley took on as a lover while living in Berlin until 1916. The officer, a Karl von Freyburg, would die alongside nine million others; within a year of Hartley's departure, our doughboys would be in the trenches as well. A number of Hartley's male colleagues would similarly die: the poet Hart Crane would jump off a steamship and two people identified by the curators as dear chums "Alton and Donny Mason" would die in a sea storm. The wall text suggests these events to be behind the series of turbulent waves and maelstroms that occupied Hartley in the early 1940s, shortly before his own death in 1943. Gathered in a single room, they evoke nothing less then sea monsters, devouring the horizon line and any sight of land. A good home is all too hard to find.