“Marsden Hartley”

No great art without great claims—if modernism could be said to have issued a single rallying cry, that was it. The history of 20th-century art is filled to bursting with fulminating manifestoes and high-minded testimonials to personal distinction. Each revolution, however incremental, was accompanied by a statement of purpose. And what each statement amounted to, ultimately, was an excuse. Until the whole apparatus broke down 30 or 40 years ago, tradition—even the tradition of the new—weighed so heavily on the artist that to make something unexpected was to be required to offer a justification for it.

Such explanations generally had less to do with the way a thing looked than with the ideas that had supposedly brought it into being. Great art naturally outlives not only the artist but also the excuse, and in the case of Marsden Hartley, this should come as a sure comfort. If his paintings truly depended on the hash of spiritualism, primitivism, militarism, regionalism, and solipsism that motivated them, we probably wouldn’t still be looking. It now seems inexplicable that his most forceful expressions of urban dynamism should hinge on “a mystical presentation of the number 8 as I get it from everywhere in Berlin.” Or that one of Hartley’s most assertive compositions, 1932’s Morgenrot, which he subtitled “The hand of the morning born from the triumphant night,” should require us not only to buy into the creakiest, most humid notions of ruddy ol’ Mexico but also to understand—as Hartley biographer Townsend Ludington explains the thought of Jakob Böhme—that “the materialized word of God was to be found in the seventh realm of divine corporeality where perfect order and completeness are found.”

Although the long-awaited Hartley retrospective now at the Phillips Collection is rather too small given the ground it has to cover—the artist changed homes and styles every couple of years—there’s still a lot to put up with. Yet there are pictures here of such terrific visual acuity that they repay all the forbearance we can muster.

Born in Lewiston, Maine, in 1877, Hartley was by 1909 showing with Alfred Stieglitz in New York. Three years later, he was welcomed into the Parisian orbit of Gertrude Stein. But Hartley didn’t come into his own until he returned to Berlin in 1914, having visited the year before. In Paris, he had met German artist Arnold Rönnebeck and his cousin Karl von Freyburg, a young officer in the Kaiser’s army of whom Hartley was enamored, and the three maintained their friendship in Berlin.

Less than four months into World War I, von Freyburg was killed near Amiens, France, and Hartley turned his heartfelt love of Prussian military trappings to a group of canvases that would assure his place in the modernist pantheon. The 24-year-old von Freyburg had been as much a symbol as a person to Hartley, representing all that was youthful, upright, beautiful, and robust to a man who was feeling the pangs of middle age and had never been an attractive physical specimen himself.

Viewed as a memorial to von Freyburg, the War Motif series is almost tastelessly audacious. Its cubist-inspired heaps of military insignia reverberate with the pomp of a full-dress parade; they amount to something like a fireworks display at a funeral. But besides constituting an individual remembrance of a fallen soldier, the paintings form a peculiar and personal requiem for a place, a period, and a way of life that for the first time had made Hartley feel at home. Berlin had been to him a place of tolerance, sophistication, and order that he had found much more welcoming than Paris, and he could scarcely bear watching it disintegrate around him.

Pictures such as 1914’s Portrait of a German Officer hadn’t simply sprung from nowhere. Hartley had already celebrated the modern city in pictures such as The Aero (c. 1914), which took as its central motif a stylization of the flames that sprouted from the tails of the zeppelins that sailed over Berlin. He had made what amounted to altarpieces to the regimented spectacle of the martial processions that filled the city’s streets (Portrait of Berlin and The Warriors, both from 1913). And, as was the custom in ethnographically attuned German circles, he had paid homage to Native American cultures, which he perceived as spiritually evolved although he had no real contact with them (Amerika pictures such as 1914’s Indian Fantasy and Indian Composition). In each of these series, symbols are arranged so as to reinforce what Hartley perceived to be the essential qualities of the sources from which they were abstracted. Helmeted horsemen and headdressed Indian alike—basically the same guy in different hats—are multiplied and ornamentally arrayed in towering symmetrical compositions emblematic of stable hierarchies in which there is honor in playing one’s assigned role. Von Freyburg’s war medals are aligned into anthropomorphic echoes of his body or cast into the zooming arcs of the city’s electric nocturne. All these heraldic paintings were banners that announced Hartley’s emotional and intellectual allegiances, and he waved them to beat the band.

Hartley represents a strain of gay American artistic life that is defined by the restless quest for pageantry, ritual, and fraternity. In the course of his own search, Whitman developed a cult of the self, the body, and nature. Warhol melded the Catholic veneration of the image with the postwar adulation of glamour and celebrity, hybridizing the artist’s workshop with the Hollywood studio system. Haring combined hiphop urbanism with the portable, custom-made family of his jet-setting, clubgoing entourage. In the case of the peripatetic Hartley, the objects of his fantasies changed with his milieu. Whereas his Berlin days found him worshiping young men in uniform, toward the end of his life he forged an idealized, mystical attachment to the Masons, a family of fishermen he had lived with in Nova Scotia, being most drawn to their sons, both of whom drowned in 1936.

Retrospection was the mode in which Hartley felt most himself. Detached from direct experience, linked to his subject by only the threads of memory, he glorified what had been taken from him and reveled in the world as he imagined it to have been. Throughout his career, desire and remembrance were inextricably intertwined. It isn’t clear whether Hartley’s love for von Freyburg was requited or ever consummated, but given what Ludington reports to be Hartley’s reluctance to risk good friendships for sex, there’s a possibility that the soldier was more a crush than a lover, as much a figment as a friend.

Hartley enforced longing by ensuring distance, and when fate didn’t assist, as in the deaths of von Freyburg and the Mason brothers, he’d pick up and move. Though he often drew inspiration from his immediate surroundings, he also frequently cast his mind back to places he had been and people he had known. Thus he painted the American Southwest from the midst of ’20s Berlin; he painted Dogtown, a neglected area outside Gloucester, Mass., from Nova Scotia; and in 1938 he painted Albert Pinkham Ryder, a noted influence, from memory, congratulating himself on his accomplishment: “…I am proud of the memory feat since I saw him last around nineteen seventeen, or eighteen—and besides interesting many people and surely it ought to interest this generation—it will be a valuable document and if sold must have a high price for it.”

Hartley’s sacramental reminiscences of Alty and Donny Mason lapped over in the ’40s into a kind of hieratic beefcake that includes some of the gayest figuration not immediately recognized as such. Just as the circumstances of the First World War undermined the American reception of Hartley’s early Berlin paintings, those of the Second, when Yankee virility was seen as a matter of national security, obscured the unabashed homoeroticism of canvases such as Flaming American (Swim Champ) (1939–1940) and Madawaska—Acadian Light-Heavy (1940). The latter plays it relatively straight with matters of anatomical proportion, but in painting after painting, unapproachable hulks are given small, blockish heads dwarfed by bulging pectorals. The men are venerated from a position of fierce lust and emotional remove.

It was a stance that informed Hartley’s last great series, even though, on the face of it, the subject matter was completely different. If Hartley’s athletes were men-mountains, his paintings of Mount Katahdin simply erased the human element. In 1927, he had moved into Cezanne’s second studio in Aix-en-Provence and proceeded to tackle Mont Sainte-Victoire, a favorite late subject of the postimpressionist master. Back in Maine in the late ’30s, Hartley resolved to make the state’s highest peak his own. In September 1939, he made what he characterized as a “‘sacred’ pilgrimage” to Katahdin’s base and spent a week there. Though, significantly, he never climbed the mountain, he would, over the next three years, devote 18 paintings to its memory, envisioning it in different seasons, cloaking it in First Snow, draping its hills in orange for Autumn. Whether it looms in a violet mass or lies exposed in silver sun, Katahdin exerts the iconic pull of a Down East Mount Fuji. Its eternal contour becomes an idée fixe, a template to which even the surging foam of 1940’s The Wave was made to conform.

It’s possible to develop an appreciation of Hartley piecemeal—picking up a landscape here, an Amerika there, a War Motif somewhere else—without having to come to terms with his prickly personality, by turns self-flagellating and cocksure, or his dubious intellectual preoccupations. But the Phillips show holds your hand to the fire: There’s no avoiding the Hartley who positioned himself as an obstacle between the world and his art.

The painter’s habitual self-importance once led Stieglitz to remark, “What an ass a man like Hartley is in spite of his talents.” Such exasperation comes as no mystery to anyone who spends several hours in the company of Hartley’s pictures, particularly the one in which he conflates his own likeness with that of Abraham Lincoln. But what shines through is the intensity of the artist’s feeling: Though he might have been overbearing, pretentious, and possessed of obscure enthusiasms, Hartley’s pictures radiate his fervor for the things he was denied, both by society and by himself. CP