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ROCKLAND, Maine — Since the early 1800s, artists have come to Maine for its rugged coast, deep forests, and quality of light. Modernists such as Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Max Weber, and Marguerite and William Zorach made their summer homes there. Following World War II, when a 20-acre coastal property near Lincolnville, Maine, could still be had for $1,200, the state became a draw for artists seeking refuge from their hardscrabble lives in New York City.
Some were lured by Skowhegan, where they’d studied or taught. Many of these artists had simple needs: a barn to paint in, perhaps a place to swim, and a dirt road on which to have an epiphany while taking a walk. They painted outside, favoring realism and figuration when Abstract Expressionism reigned. Some, such as Lois Dodd, Mimi Gross, and Yvonne Jacquette, even painted under the night sky. They influenced, nurtured, collaborated with, and painted one another, merging into one big happy family, and learned to survive with no running water. Slab City Rendezvous, on view at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine captures their sense of community.
The exhibition title comes from the name of the road on which Alex Katz and Lois Dodd (onetime classmates at Cooper Union) bought a house in 1954 — “slab” was a term for leftover lumber or granite, both produced in the region. It is also the name of a 1964 painting by Red Grooms in which filmmaker Rudy Burkhardt is painting on a rooftop. Grooms himself is walking through the door to the house in the painting, and the poet and dance critic Edmund Denby strides across the canvas “like a gangly elegant bird,” in the words of Edith Schloss.
The artist Mimi Gross, then married to Grooms, with whom she collaborated on such projects as “Ruckus Manhattan,” is seen rocking in an antique wooden chair on the front lawn, reading a book (lent to her by Denby). Painter Yvonne Jacquette is in another chair, and Ada and Alex Katz are there with their son — it is, after all, their house. The exhibition is like a reunion of the group: Burkhardt, Grooms, Gross, Jacquette, the Katzes, and Schloss, as well as Emily and Will Brown, Jean Cohen, Lois Dodd, Rackstraw Downes, Neil Welliver, and Bernard Langlais.
Katz still lives in the house on Slab City Road in Lincolnville. Along with his first wife, Jean Cohen, he bought the property with Dodd more than half a century ago; each put in $600. After a decade, when Katz had a new wife and new child, he bought Dodd’s share, and she acquired a new residence in nearby Cushing, closer to the sea, where her son, Eli, could indulge his interest in boating. There is a tender painting Katz made of Dodd and Eli, the latter wearing a white sailor cap. Dodd still summers in Cushing, with a rambling old barn as her studio. Her “Six Cows at Lincolnville,” a pattern of bovines and their shadows, grew out of the textile design she studied at Cooper Union.
One needs a chart to keep all the relationships straight: Burkhardt was first married to Schloss and then to Jacquette, with whom he remained for 40 years. Each marriage produced a son. After ending his marriage with Cohen, Katz married Ada. And Gross and Grooms ended their marriage in 1976. Yet here they all are at the Farnsworth, reliving the good times.
In Katz’s painting “Lakewood” (ca. 1948-49) of a red cottage under a royal blue sky, with billowing white clouds swimming by like fish in a sea, we see the structure where Dodd and Cohen once had a gallery, not far from Skowhegan. They also sold clothing and jewelry they designed from this space. Cohen’s “Skowhegan,” a colorful cluster of shacks, is one of her few surviving works of the era. Over time Schloss turned toward abstraction: her “Barbours Shore, Deer Isle Maine” (1958) is a traditional seascape compared to her work from the 1970s.
Some of Burkhardt’s short films were made during this time, including “Lurk” (a Frankenstein parody) and other community collaborations. His fusion of “documentary-type photography with fairytale storyline is nearer Keystone than avant-garde,” wrote Denby, who also wrote the script and performed a role.
Those in the group who survive are 92 (Dodd and Katz), 88 (Will Brown), 84 (Jacquette), 79 (Downes), 78 (Gross), and 76 (Emily Brown). In Maine they found, in the words of Schloss, “the oozy summer life untidiness … the burny smell of old fires, the mustiness of summer clothes … a trace of the scent of painting medium.” And a cohort of artists that sustained their work.
Slab City Rendezvous continues at the Farnsworth Art Museum (16 Museum Street, Rockland, Maine) through February 9, 2020. The exhibition is curated by Judith E. Stein.