Marsden Hartley, “Log Jam, Penobscot Bay” (1940–41), oil on hardboard (masonite), 30 1/16 x 40 15/16 inches, Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Robert H. Tannahill (all images courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Marsden Hartley’s Maine, accompanying an exhibition at the Met Breuer, is as tantalizing for what it omits as for the insights it offers into Hartley’s creative intelligence. Focusing almost exclusively on works made in Maine — early and late land- and seascapes and some figure paintings, with few works from the intervening decades — the show offers a mainline dose of Hartley’s characteristic landscape motifs — most importantly, mountains — and approach to composition.

Whether employing the vibrant “stitched” brushwork of the early paintings or the interlocking, blocky and sinuous forms of the later works, Hartley layers elements to lock in the mass of a mountainside, a logjam pileup, or crashing waves between more or less narrow registers of sky above a rocky shore, lake, or valley below. There is a sense of compression, of barely contained energy, in many of his best works, both landscapes and figures, though he is also able to convey serenity, if only that of a sleeping volcano.

The exhibition most obviously neglects the paintings Hartley made between early 1913 and the end of 1915 while he was visiting and living in Germany. Those works culminate with the remarkable “war motif” paintings done in Berlin, which include the Metropolitan Museum’s masterpiece, “Portrait of a German Officer” (1914), a memorial to Hartley’s beloved friend, possibly lover, Lieutenant Karl von Freyburg, killed in battle in October 1914. These powerful and original syntheses of Synthetic Cubism and Expressionism — enlivened by his encounters with Robert Delaunay, in Paris, and, with the Blaue Reiter group in and around Munich, including Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter, August Macke, and Franz Marc — founded Hartley’s reputation as a modernist innovator. But they also cast into the shadows Hartley’s notionally more traditional mountain and ocean views, as they dominated assessments of his achievement from shortly after his death, in 1943, until the 1980 Whitney Museum retrospective that reignited interest in his wider career.

Marsden Hartley, “The Wave” (1940-1941), oil on masonite-type hardboard 30 1/4 x 40 7/8 inches, Worcester Art Museum

The exhibition’s publication, Marsden Hartley’s Maine, is effectively an extension of the catalogue accompanying Hartley’s 2003 retrospective at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, organized by Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser. Two of the present book’s three principal essayists, art historian Donna M. Cassidy and Met curator Randall R. Griffey, contributed to the Wadsworth catalogue, in which the late Maine landscapes are represented sparsely, though their importance is noted. Kornhauser might have been commissioning the present book when she wrote, “One of the most prolific and successful periods of [Hartley’s] career, his last eight years in Maine, requires focused attention and new thinking. Little concern has been paid to his working methods and materials despite the fact that he is acknowledged to have been a brilliant colorist and an adroit painter.” Besides examining in-depth both the early and late Maine periods, the present book includes a fine essay on materials and techniques, based on careful examination of a dozen works, which shows a surprising continuity in composition and methods across Hartley’s career.

The show feels like a regional museum production, and it is a collaboration between the Met and the art museum at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. But the book also is redolent of regionalism of a different sort, the type that dominated American art in the later 1930s, in response to which Hartley promoted himself, in 1937, as “the painter from Maine.” Visitors to the exhibition are likely to come away with the uncomplicated idea that Hartley was what he advertised himself to be, and the book in part promotes this, opening with a chronology which mentions little about Hartley’s career aside from Maine-related aspects.

Marsden Hartley, “The Silence of High Noon–Midsummer” (ca. 1907–08), oil on canvas, 30 1/2 x 30 1/2 inches, collection of Jan T. and Marica Vilcek, Promised Gift to The Vilcek Foundation

Yet, like its hero, the book is conflicted about the identification of the artist with Maine. Following the chronology, there is an unusual three-author “Introduction” by the book’s main essayists, Cassidy, Griffey, and Colby Museum curator Elizabeth Finch. On the one hand, they buy into Hartley’s late career metamorphosis into a Maine native; on the other — in a more muted voice — they acknowledge the ambition and careerism that prompted Hartley, with a blithe disregard of his own history, to embrace a state where he never established a home, actually or emotionally, after abandoning the place as a young artist. Griffey is most forthcoming in his critical assessment of Hartley. The “reassuring narrative” of the artist fulfilling his destiny by returning to his native Maine woods in the shadow of Mt. Katahdin, Griffey writes, “has served as a frame through which many have interpreted Hartley’s late career as coming full circle” from his early Maine work. “However, a more critical assessment of his public identity as the painter from Maine reveals it to have been a gradual, indirect, even strategic process marked by contradiction and ambivalence as much as by profound connection and spiritual revelation.”

The intertwined issues of “authentic” American culture, homosexuality, and primitivism play out spectacularly during Hartley’s halcyon years in Berlin and they return in the 1930s. Besides nativism, that era is known for a resurgence of homosexual repression. (Thomas Hart Benton, the leading Regionalist, was notorious for his anti-gay diatribes.) It was a period of tremendous tension in the art world. Hartley’s supporter William Carlos Williams witnessed it and wrote, “two cultural elements were left battling for supremacy, one looking toward Europe, necessitous but retrograde in its tendency — though not wholly so by any means — and the other forward-looking but under a shadow from the first. They constituted two great bands of effort, which it would take a Titan to bring together and weld into one again.”

Marsden Hartley, “Madawaska—Acadian Light-Heavy” (1940), oil on hardboard (masonite), 40 x 30 inches, the Art Institute of Chicago. Bequest of A. James Speyer, 1987.249

Champion of “the American grain,” Williams means “forward-looking” toward America, but the footloose, cosmopolitan, homosexual Hartley had to be a Janus, looking both ways, and he needed to assume multiple masks to fit the role of the hardy, hyper-masculine Maine painter. Setting aside careerist calculation, Hartley did also subscribe to some degree (as did Williams and their friend Ezra Pound) to the racist and populist impulses behind the Regionalism.

Hartley was enthralled by Germany when he first visited — Berlin was then famous for its liberal attitude toward homosexuality, which was widespread in the military and the court of pageantry-loving Kaiser Wilhelm, who is thought to have been bisexual. Hartley wrote his financial backer and dealer, Alfred Stieglitz, that he “lived rather gayly in the Berlin fashion — with all that implies.” Germany felt like home — perhaps the only place in his adult life that could make that claim. In 1933, while staying in Bavaria, he wrote an autobiography, unpublished until 1996, in which he stated, “A week in Berlin made me feel that one had come home — and it is easy to see what four years of constant living there has done. I always feel I am coming home when I get into Germany, quite as I used to feel when I crossed the line of the State of Maine at South Berwick — I always knew I was in New England.”

Hartley was smitten from the first. Accordingly, this critically acute artist could be willfully blind to the political implications of situations he encountered, for example, German militarism. “Of course the military system is accountable for many things,” he wrote in a letter to Rockwell Kent, “and to some this military element is objectionable—but it stimulates my child’s love for the public spectacle — and such wonderful specimens of health these men are — thousands all so blond and radiant.”

In the 1920s Hartley spent considerable time in Europe; in the 1933 text he recalls a 1922 visit to Florence. “But I knew nothing of Fascismo then — and little about it now — save that being in Germany or Bavaria at the moment and seeming somehow to look like a native — is it my fine green plush hat — I bought in Paris in 1913 — and never found a real place to wear it until this year? Or is it my mountain cape, or is it both? But I get the N.S.D.A.P. salute” — the Hitler salute —“very often and never know quite what to do — because in quite the same way I never can cross myself in a Catholic Church and I frequently go in them — especially in Europe.” Art historian Gail Levin, in the catalogue for a show of Hartley’s Bavarian work, reports that at one point, the artist had the idea of asking a Nazi friend to introduce him to Hitler, who, according to Hartley, was “from all accounts” a “nice person, and, of course having wanted to be an artist, he likes artists.”

Marsden Hartley, “City Point, Vinalhaven” (1937–38), oil on commercially prepared paperboard (academy board), 18 1/4 x 24 3/8 inches, Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Gift of the Alex Katz Foundation, 2008.214

Hartley’s strange combination of ambition, vanity, erotic attraction, and childlike naiveté underlies his response to Dürer’s famous self-portrait at the age of 28, painted in 1500, which Hartley saw in 1933, descending from the mountains to visit Munich’s Alte Pinakothek. He said of Dürer that he seemed “to have all that the eye can have, he saw things exactly as they were, he knew how to convey that impression. … I would like to make a painting of a mountain and have it have all that this portrait has ….”

His comments on the Dürer suggest that he understood the late landscapes to be conceptual self-portraits, with landscape elements standing in for personal qualities, just as the insignia, banners, helmet, and initials of the painting “Portrait of a German Officer” stand in for his lost lover. But he took the idea of symbolic portraits (a concept he shared with the circle of artists he knew in the teens, including Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Charles Demuth) and naturalized it, rooting the symbolic portrait in his own memory and experience, not in publicly shared motifs.

Like his regionalist sentiments, the bold primitivism of Hartley’s work is largely a construction. In his first German period, he was already signifying “nativeness” in an embarrassingly flatfooted way, drawing on clichéd American Indian motifs for his odd Amerika series, painted in Berlin at a time when he had never encountered Native Americans. In later work he graduates to styles signifying primitiveness and authenticity, assimilated from artists as different as the untutored John Kane, Georges Rouault, and perhaps Max Beckmann. But as in his German masterpieces, he always had a powerful ability to synthesize style, technique, politics, and desire, subordinating them to a unique vision, his own private Maine. Or Germany.

Marsden Hartley’s Maine continues at the Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 18.

The exhibition’s catalogue is published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

Christopher Lyon is the publisher of Lyon Artbooks, Brooklyn, and writes on art and art publishing. He is the author of Nancy Spero: The Work (Prestel, 2010) and is presently at work on a social history...