Los Angeles County Museum of Art
August 3 – November 30, 2014
The first installation of this exhibition of Marsden Hartley’s Berlin paintings must have been some homecoming, one that likely looked as if little or no time had passed, even though, in this case, it’s been a hundred years. At first I was dismayed that I missed this show in Berlin, having entered the Neue Nationalgalerie just a few days too late only to witness the paintings being packed away and moved from temporary galleries that were configured in the shape of the Iron Cross in Mies van der Rohe’s iconic glass pavilion. This sleek museum, of course, is on the edge of Potsdamer Platz, arguably the hot spot of German culture when Hartley was there from 1913 to 1915, and I have no doubt his paintings would have looked especially intense on-site, absorbing all of the energy of a provocatively layered right of return to a Berlin that is very much happening now.
Los Angeles is pretty happening itself—and, more than we think, was happening a century ago—but I’m sure that my close call in Berlin added a certain jolt to my reaction to how fresh these paintings looked at LACMA. Comprised of 28 pictures (the two versions of the show varied slightly) all produced in the span of a few years, the exhibition’s historical focus reinforced that the passion of Hartley’s pictorial and social fixations would not have happened without the triple play of radical early Modernist art, military pageantry, and, most poignantly, a vibrant Gay Berlin (a catalogue essay by Bruce Robertson is especially revelatory about Hartley’s life in it). Installed in LACMA’s contemporary building, these paintings easily could be taken for current work by an emerging artist, if not for a thoughtful companion exhibition of contemporaneous works from LACMA’s collection that included, for example, Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, but also photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Curtis. As helpful as this material was in contextualizing Hartley’s practice, none of it was capable of restraining the forward momentum that his canvases still possess, a trajectory sustained by the tension of their hybridity.
Greater than the sum of their parts, all of Hartley’s Berlin paintings are powerful amalgams that stake their claims in the space between abstraction and representation. This was, of course, the mode of the time. What makes Hartley’s paintings stand out, however, is the extent to which he galvanized his desire and grief in the guise of deeply symbolic pictures. Hartley’s intense relationship with Prussian officer Karl von Freyburg and the trauma of his death at the outset of World War I are reasonably well reported in the literature, and the complexities of Hartley’s admiration and pain are made manifest in a painting like “Portrait” (c. 1914 – 15), one of several canvases in which Hartley was able to work out Modernist picture-making problems (mindful, one could argue, of everyone around him, but especially the Cubists) while keeping the codes of his love and respect intact—of not only von Freyburg but military pageantry overall. Loaded with insignias, colors, and numbers that remain decipherable, this painting ultimately transcends the grammar of such things and becomes its own painterly body, brushed into place, it seems, with both affection and deliberation. Organized bi-symmetrically, it stands all at once as a portrait of a particular man as well as a material and formal reconstruction of a tumultuous time. These paintings refuse to minimize what we could call their “back story,” cultivating a kind of personality that jibes well with much of the abstract painting made after Modernism.
Hartley also made use of bilateral symmetry in his paintings incorporating Native American iconography. “Indian Composition” (c. 1914 – 15), for example, is organized around a teepee shape that literally grounds the painting as a landscape, despite the large circular forms looming in the foreground of what remains a rather flat picture. Buoyed by his exploration of Native American motifs in the ethnographic museums of Paris and Berlin, it’s as if Hartley comes to these paintings less an American than a European, and also as an artist likely sympathetic to the difference between being on the inside or the outside, not to mention his painful awareness of how oppressive a dominant culture or way of life can be. While still to some extent exoticizing, Hartley’s Native American paintings now provide for us a pathway from Europe to his return to the United States in 1915, and his subsequent travels in the Southwest and eventual move back to his home state of Maine, where he remained quite capable of making work that resisted the regional (even when making paintings of the local landscape) by maintaining the hybrid and the in-between in resolutely personal terms.
ContributorTerry R. Myers
Terry R. Myers is a critic and independent curator based in Los Angeles.