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02.13.08

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Marsden Hartley and the West: The Search for an American Modernism

Reviewed by Michael S. Gant


Before Georgia O'Keefe started to paint the sere landscapes of New Mexico in earnest, another painter discovered a psychic geography beneath the sandstone bluffs and sagebrush-dotted plains. Marsden Hartley spent only a handful of years between 1918 and 1924 in Taos, but the results paid great dividends for his career. The exceptional examples in Heather Hole's beautiful study reveal an artist who wedded considerable technique to a deep exploration of his both his sexual longings and his project to adapt modernism to a homegrown art tradition. Hartley (1877–1943) believed that "the spiritual essence of a new American modernism could be found in the American soil." This urge was born of the angst of World War I, which seemed to rip a chasm in art history, forever separating artists from a "usable art history." Hartley's reaction to World War I was also felt at an intimate level; on a trip to Europe in 1912–13, Hartley fell in love with a Garman military officer who died early in the war. Back in the United States, Hartley headed for New Mexico, looking for an "unspoiled landscape in which he would find personal, artistic, and national regeneration." He began with lively pastels in which sandy ravines lead the eye to distant horizons of dark-blue mountain ranges. In his oil paintings (often done away from New Mexico, using sketches), Hartley displayed a more interior interpretation of the desert. The hills become almost garishly red and start to undulate in rough curving strokes. Back in Europe, in 1923, Hartley's New Mexico landscapes turn increasingly dark and abstract. Often, the foreground is dominated by a pair of thickly painted "trees" with dense green heads—they look more like severed limbs than living things. Hole notes the inescapable sexual undertones of these often drooping forms. Hartley's New Mexico period ended in the early '20s, but it continued to influence his paintings, all the way to the dark drama of his famous Maine landscapes. (By Heather Hole; Yale; 166 pages; $50 hardback)


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