Driving across the Piscataqua River Bridge, connecting Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with Kittery, Maine, a magnetic force seems to pull me to the end of the North American continent, east to the sea. Stately evergreen trees bordering the highway end as pines appear, their fragrance and statuesque beauty announcing that northeastern state where the sun first rises on America and a new Maine day.
My Maine college art museums tour begins at Bowdoin College, with some of the oldest American art in any museum. With over 5000 art objects in its collection, and a statue commemorating the bear brought back from 1898 graduate Donald B. MacMillan’s 1915 Arctic expedition guarding its campus and Andy Warhol’s 1983 graphite drawing “Polar Bear” in its permanent collection, The Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s Maine-focused work emphasizes the state’s wild environment and constant struggle with natural elements: storms, mountains, roiling seas.
Alfred Bierstadt’s “The Mountain Pool,” 1870s, oil on paper on Masonite, features a dark, romantic foreground and stream leading back to unknown territory. Storm clouds gather, threatening our journey into the unknown. Martin Johnson Heade’s “Newburyport Marshes: Passing Storm,” 1865-70, oil on canvas, references a Maine marsh painted when numerous comets and the Aurora Borealis shone brightly in the Maine sky, leading Mainers to wonder if an environmental apocalypse was imminent. That added to the uncertainty of the post-Civil War years, which Lincoln called “a coming storm,” made the gothic dark paintings appropriate and timely.
Andrew Newell Wyeth’s “Night Hauling,” 1944, tempera on Masonite, painted in Port Clyde on Maine’s coast, originally called “The Poacher,” depicts a night scene. Lobstermen haul traps in the dark, lit only by a lamp. This portrayal of Mainers’ occupation, surrealistic in its gothic horror, was painted when German submarines were sighted in nearby waters, exacerbating the danger of lobster fishing. “The Nineteenth Century: American and European Art,” on view in the Boyd Gallery through January 12, 2020, includes “Leatherstocking’s Rescue II,” 1832, a dark painting of windblown figures in a forest by American John Quidor, again recalling the man against nature theme in Bowdoin’s permanent collection. Bowdoin’s Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum documented last year’s Bowdoin students’ Arctic study and will exhibit “A Resounding Beat: Music in the Inuit World” until December 31, 2020, furthering interest in the Arctic world.
Bowdoin’s upcoming show: “African American Lives from the Revolution to the Civil War,” which opens on November 7 and continue till February 9, 2020, will focus on African Americans’ social, political and cultural contributions before slavery’s abolition.
Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s artists’ and subject’s diversity shows in its “Art Purposes: Ongoing Lessons for the Liberal Arts” exhibition that runs through November 10. Opening with Kara Walker’s cut-paper silhouette, “your essentialist-token slave maiden in midair” (as it was described by Walker), the show continues with Barkley Hendricks’ oil triptych, “Northern Lights,” 1976, of a shiny-coated, fedora clad, Boston flaneur and Glenn Ligon’s 10 lithographs mimicking 19th century notices of runaway slaves, “Runaways,” 1993.
This show also features Chilean Alfredo Jaar’s C-print of “Angel,” a triptych of a young boy who “adopted Jaar” during filming in Angola, gesturing blessing and hope; Judy Glickman Lauder’s gelatin silver print, “Prayer Shawls (Talesim), Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland,” 1990; and Japanese artist Yukinori Yanagi’s “Loves Me, Loves Me Not,” 1997, a rug depicting a chrysanthemum inscribed in 10 Asian languages from Japan’s former colonies and two internal colonies of indigenous people visually informs us of past and present discrimination and terrorism in Japan. American Iranian Shirin Neshat’s digital photographs, “Sayed” and “Ghada,” from his 2013 “Our House is on Fire” series, inspire empathy with those less advantaged and less free.
The Bates College Museum of Art, located in the school’s Olin Art Center, was opened by Marsden Hartley’s niece, Norma Berger, in 1955 as the Treat Gallery. It presents work by contemporary and historic Maine artists including Delbert Dana Coombs’ painting of “Mount David 1860,” 1901, on the edge of Bates’ Campus. It houses Marsden Hartley’s memorial collection and archive. “The Painter of Maine’s” watercolors and charcoal drawings include his close-up view of Maine’s highest mountain, “Mt. Katahdin No. 4,” 1939, charcoal on paper. Bold charcoal strokes recalling Vincent van Gogh’s linearity form hard-edged mountains; bolder renditions of his soft, linear watercolor marks contrasting Maine’s water-colored lyrical summers and dark, icy winters.
Bates daringly exhibits contemporary, political work, including Lalla Essaydi’s “Grand Odalisque #2,” C print, wherein the artist covered an odalisque’s curved body with Arabic words, merging Eastern and Western art history. DeWitt Hardy’s watercolors, on view until October 5, show southern Maine’s coast and its interior woods. His harsh realities include Wyeth-like gabled, mansard-roofed farmhouses in “Yes, by Jove, It is Winter,” 2000; children in bed under warm quilts and “Boy Asleep,” 1974. Then there’s his rendering of Victorian furniture that perfectly wraps around the female figure languishing in its arms in “Reclining Figure on Victorian Couch” and a view of a young driver at the wheel of a car, gazing away from the water, accusingly looking at the onlooker, us, in “Night Driver.” Not surprisingly it is in Stephen King’s collection. It looks like one of his characters.
“Uncovered: Selected Works for the Collection,” on view through October 5, shows contemporary work from Bates’ permanent collection that is rarely exhibited or is being shown for the first time by artists including: feminist Judy Chicago, French photographer Christian Boltanski, Japanese printmaker Chiaki Shuji, Joseph Delaney, Charlie Hewitt, Robert Indiana, African-American Martin Puryear, this year’s representative at the Venice Biennale and others.
The Colby College Museum of Art, located on the bank of the Penobscot River, exhibits its collection of Native American and Canadian objects in the present show, “Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry,” bringing together arts and culture from the Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Abenaki peoples, together known as the Wakanabi. Beautifully made crafts and art objects native to Maine and Maritime Canada’s original peoples, with acknowledgement recognizing that the museum’s land sits on the original home of the Wakenabi, remain on view through January 12, 2020.
Political concern is evident in a set of 1930-37 prints by Pablo Picasso, commissioned by French art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, depicting Picasso’s drawings of classical sculpture juxtaposed with his images of raging bulls, falling doves and skeletal bodies underlying classical warriors. Satyrs raising a glass to classically dressed women acknowledge women’s subordination to the pleasures of men. A field of three women: one a sculpture, one the sculptor, and the last, a male looking on, illustrates this depiction of the male gaze, a concern of contemporary art historians and critics.
Colby’s collection of 400 works by Alex Katz, donated by the artist in 1992, is installed in the Paul J. Schupf Wing. Katz taught at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1949-50 and later bought a house, summering since then at Lincolnville, Maine, close to Colby. His “West 2,” 1998, oil on canvas, with black trees silhouetted against a blue and yellow sky, shows a setting sun. “Apple Blossoms,” 1997, oil on Masonite, with green and pink blossoms against white strokes (of snow?) and “Green Dusk,” 1996, oil on canvas, show landscape devoid of figures with freer brushstrokes than his tight figurative work — green foregrounded against an aqua sky.
John Marin’s work documents houses rising from Penobscot Bay’s shores where he vacationed and at his Cape Split home. His linear, monochromatic watercolor, “Cape Split,” in blues and greens and accompanying black-and- white drawings of Cape Split, illustrate Maine’s man-made environment. The Lunder Collection, exhibited as “Whistler and his World,” is a comprehensive survey of James McNeill Whistler’s etchings and paintings.
“Occupy Colby: Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, Year 2” is a compendium of work initiated by the Brooklyn Rail, illustrating threats to the environment including “Baked Alaska,” Justin Brice Guariglia’s 2018 inkjet print; Lauren Bon’s 2007 “Honey Chandelier,” with honey from war-torn countries collected in jars; Mel Chin’s 2016 humorous but frightening video, “L’Arctique est Paris,” showing a flooded and frozen Paris and more. The show runs through January 5, 2020.
These three Maine-based university museums provide beauty and courage to rival the natural beauty seen in the landscape on the way. It is well worth the trip.