Robert Henri

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Charles Burchfield, “Moon and Thunderhead”

There are many craftsmen who paint pleasantly the surface appearances and are very clever at it.

There are always a few who get at and feel the undercurrent, and these simply use the surface appearances selecting them and using them as tools to express the undercurrent, the real life.

If I cannot feel an undercurrent then I can only see a series of things. They may be attractive and novel at first but soon grow tiresome.

There is an undercurrent, the real life, beneath all appearances everywhere. I do not say that any master has fully comprehended it at any time, but the value of his (or her) work is in that he had sensed it and his work reports the measure of his experience.

It is this sense of the persistent life force back of things which makes the eye see and the hand move in ways that result in true masterpieces. Techniques are thus created as a need.

–Robert Henri

This is such a simple idea but one that feels so close to my sense of how things are in the studio. It is a metaphor that applies to both the making as well as the viewing of art.

It was my sense of just that—a powerful undercurrent—that knocked me out when I saw Robert Gober‘s brilliant show* of Charles Burchfield‘s work that was on view a few years ago at the Hammer Museum in LA as well as the Whitney in New York. Gober’s selection of work made it so easy to enter into Burchfield’s paintings in a new and revelatory way, something I had never done before. Burchfield was a nature mystic, and he felt the life force in nature. Amazingly he also found a way to capture that undercurrent in his work. Since piercing through and into that sense of things, I cannot approach a Burchfield painting without feeling that energy. Some are better than others of course, but that undercurrent is so present and so there in his work.

(For those of you in the Boston area, I just discovered three new Burchfields. They are hanging unassumedly in rooms adjacent to the Addison Museum at Philips Academy in Andover. Just ask to see them.)

A note on Robert Henri: His book from which the above passage is taken, The Art Spirit, was foundational reading for me when I first became an artist. Henri is probably better known today from that collection of his teachings—assembled by a former student, Margery Ryerson—than from his paintings although many of his works are very memorable. He also left an extraordinary legacy as a teacher. (He taught at the Art Students League, still an ongoing institution in New York, from 1915 til 1927.) Some of his more famous students include George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent and Yasuo Kuniyoshi.

*The catalog for the Burchfield show is excellent: Heat Waves in a Swamp.

Other posts on Charles Burchfield on Slow Muse:

Burchfield on my Mind

The Artist Curator Advantage

The Intuition Deliminator

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Marin Island, Small Point Maine, by John Marin

One of my first memories of moving to the East Coast from a childhood in California was discovering Maine. My first 10 years as an expatriated West Coaster were spent in Manhattan, but almost every summer I made the trek Down East on my way to a friend’s island in Canada.

My love of that landscape was instantaneous. It felt familiar. Looking back, I think that was because it shared some of the ruggedness of Point Lobos near Monterey, a favorite childhood spot. (During a recent visit to Point Lobos, I discovered that a number of movies set in Maine and New England were actually filmed at Point Lobos. It was, after all, significantly closer to Hollywood.)

But my attachment to what is wild and yet welcoming is no surprise and actually rather predictable. Many artists have had a love affair with Maine: Winslow Homer at Prout’s Neck, Robert Henri, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Randall Davey and Leon Kroll at Monhegan Island; Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley and Robert Laurent in Ogunquit, among many other artists and locations.

But what I didn’t realize is that there is also a rich history of artists in and around Small Point, the place I love most of all. Thanks to a fascinating show currently on view at the Portland Museum of Art, Maine Moderns: Art in Seguinland, 1900–1940, I can add the area around the Seguin Lighthouse—thus the name—that includes Phippsburg, Georgetown, Small Point and Robinhood Cove to the list of important early 20th century artist communities.

Many of the artists whose works were being shown at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery (one time husband to Georgia O’Keefe) in New York ended up coming to the area along the coast outside of Bath. Some built homes, some were guests. But the list is impressive: John Marin, Mardsen Hartley, Max Weber, Marguerite and William Zorach, Gaston Lachaise, Gertrude Käsebier, Paul Strand, F. Holland Day, Clarence White. And who knew that the small island that sits in Small Point Harbor, an island I’ve looked at innumerable times, was actually the home of Marin at one point? Many of the houses built by these visiting artists during that period are still standing.

This show, along with John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury exhibit that highlights work from his later years living at Cape Split, Maine, solidifies the significant—and often understated—role the unique Maine landscape has played in the development of American modern art. One more reason for its special place in my life.

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