Carolyn Harris, who hails from North Carolina and has already been seen here in a number of group exhibitions, is now having her first solo show of paintings at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. The principal subject is landscape, and Ms. Harris is anything but a novice in dealing with it. She’s traveled extensively in Europe, even essaying such formidable pictorial challenges as the Austrian Alps and the Austrian Tyrol. The focus of the current exhibition, however, is the coastal town of Gloucester on Cape Ann in Massachusetts, which is one of the two places that Ms. Harris calls home. (The other is New York City.)
In this connection, I’m obliged to declare a special interest-not in Ms. Harris, to be sure, but in Cape Ann. I was born and raised in Gloucester, and it was there, thanks to many artists who flocked to Cape Ann in those days, that at an early age I became acquainted with painters and their work.
From the first signs of spring until the last stages of the autumn foliage, artists could be seen working at their portable easels and sketchbooks on the streets and wharves and beaches of the town, painting local subjects in what I afterward came to understand were fairly formulaic imitations of Winslow Homer and other 19th-century American masters. Earlier on, before my time, Cape Ann had attracted the interest of Marsden Hartley, Milton Avery, Stuart Davis and John Sloan, among other recognized modernists, and it was in Gloucester that Hans Hoffmann established his first art school, though he later became better known as an influential teacher in New York and Provincetown. Unlike Provincetown, Gloucester was never associated in the public mind with “advanced” art.
Yet it was in Gloucester that I first saw a modern painting. A high-school friend had met a woman who’d known Marsden Hartley when he painted in Gloucester in the 1930’s, and she owned one of his pictures. When she heard that we were interested in art, she offered to show us her Hartley. It was one of his monumental landscapes of a bleak, undeveloped area of Cape Ann called Dogtown Common, which consisted of boulders, stunted trees, blueberry bushes and not much else. I was familiar with the Dogtown terrain from the days when I, together with school friends, went there to pick blueberries-much against our parents’ wishes. (It was rumored that children were sometimes kidnapped from Dogtown.) Hartley’s painting was about as unlike the paintings produced for the tourist trade as a painting could be, and I was instantly bowled over by it. I still think of it as my introduction to modern art.
More recently, the most accomplished painter associated with Cape Ann has been the late Nell Blaine, who studied with Hoffmann and was something of a mentor to Carolyn Harris. Blaine was a remarkable figure, and in some respects a heroic one: When she was stricken by polio and lost the use of her right hand, she taught herself to paint with her left and went right on working from her wheelchair. She had begun as an abstractionist, much influenced by Hélion and Léger, but produced her finest work as a painter of landscape and still life.
There’s inevitably an aesthetic kinship between Blaine’s work and some of Ms. Harris’ pictures-in the current show, it’s especially evident in the pastel still life Cosmos and Asters Bouquet (1995). Yet in her finest landscapes-among them Out from Wonson’s Cove, IV (2000), Out from Wonson’s Cove, V (2000), Early Winter Night, Outer Harbor (2000), and Perfect Day, East Gloucester, I (2003)-Ms. Harris commands an authority all her own. The sheer variety and luminosity of the greens and grays in Perfect Day and the brilliance of the sky in Early Winter Night owe more to invention and inspiration than to imitation and precedent, and the entire exhibition makes one eager to see Ms. Harris’ future work.
Carolyn Harris: Paintings and Works on Paper is on view at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, through Jan. 8. It’s certainly an auspicious debut, and it’s also a reminder that Cape Ann still has something to offer painters who take a keen interest in vivid landscape subjects.