Marsden Hartley Was One of a Kind, Poet and Painter

It has taken an awfully long time for our art institutions to grant full recognition to the achievements of the American painter Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), but it’s beginning to look as if that day might finally be dawning. The retrospective Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser has organized at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., is the most comprehensive survey of the artist’s pictorial accomplishments that anyone has yet attempted, and Hartley is an artist whose work has to be seen in depth if his many-sided talents are to be fully comprehended.

At the beginning of his career, Hartley was one of our most original abstract painters, and this was at a time when abstract art was still in its earliest period of development. At the end of his career, he was one of our most audacious figurative painters. From start to finish, he was one of our greatest landscape painters, and along the way he also produced memorable portraits, still lifes and some oddball pictures less easily classifiable. He was also an accomplished poet, and some of his essays on art, literature and other subjects are among the best that any American painter has given us.

Exactly why it has taken so long to recognize Hartley as one of the great American originals remains to be explained, but the current retrospective leaves no doubt as to his stature. New Yorkers may, of course, look askance at finding themselves obliged to travel to Hartford to see an exhibition that the Met or the Modern should have orchestrated long ago. But the Met has never given Hartley his due, and the Modern hasn’t paid him much attention since it mounted a memorial exhibition in 1944. New York hasn’t seen a major Hartley exhibition since the retrospective that Barbara Haskell organized at the Whitney in 1980, and now we’re unlikely to see another for decades to come.

So my advice is: Swallow your irritation and go see this show anyway. It’s marvelous. Newcomers to Hartley’s work will be amazed, and even dedicated Hartley fans, among whom I include myself, will see important pictures they’ve never seen before. Besides, if you’ve never been to Wadsworth Atheneum, you’ll be stunned by the quality of the permanent collection.

Of the first-generation American modernists whose work Alfred Stieglitz exhibited at the “291″ gallery in New York in the early years of the 20th century, Hartley was, in my opinion, the greatest. Like other members of his artistic generation, he was greatly influenced by the Paris avant-garde, especially Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse. Yet it was in Germany that Hartley became an active participant in the European avant-garde. In Paris, despite the support he received from Gertrude Stein, he was made to feel an outsider. In Germany, he was invited to exhibit his work with Kandinsky, Klee, Franz Marc and other members of the Blaue Reiter group in Munich. One important consequence of this was an invitation to exhibit his work in the 1913 Berlin Herbstsalon, in the company of Kandinsky, Klee, Leger, Chagall, Boccioni, Delaunay and other luminaries of the European modern movement. Five paintings by Hartley were hung between pictures by Kandinsky and Henri Rousseau. He was the only American artist in the exhibition-an extraordinary distinction for an artist still so little-known in his own country.

His German friends offered Hartley something more than artistic recognition: comradeship in which his homosexuality proved not to be an obstacle. That was something he seems never to have felt confident of in America, even in the relatively permissive atmosphere of the Stieglitz circle. The fever of inspiration in which Hartley hastened to join the German avant-garde was thus fueled by a fusion of sexual passion, aesthetic daring and intellectual ambition unlike anything he felt before.

It wasn’t until Hartley went to live in Berlin, however, that he was able to give full expression to the erotic impulse in his work. Berlin was clearly the great romantic idyll of Hartley’s life. The sexual freedom he experienced there, which centered upon a young German officer he had met in Paris, was never entirely distinguishable in his own mind from either his mystical beliefs or his aesthetic aspirations, all of which disposed him to find in the colorful pageantry of German military life both an imagery ideally suited to the artistic imperatives of abstraction and a pictorial correlative for its erotic subtext. It was in this sense-with what Hartley called his “cosmic Cubism”-that he made abstract painting first the vehicle of a sexual romance and then, when his beloved German officer was killed in the First World War, an elegy to lost love.

It was another episode of passion and grief that prompted the audacious figurative paintings of muscular fishermen and athletes in the last phase of Hartley’s career. These are some of the boldest paintings of male figures in the history of American art. In the excellent exhibition catalog, Hartley is compared, albeit briefly, to Max Beckman-and high time, too, for he’s indeed an artist of similarly high quality and power.

The Marsden Hartley retrospective remains on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum through April 20. It then travels to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D. C., (June 7 to Sept. 7) and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. (Oct. 11 to Jan. 11).