In case you hadn’t noticed, museums across the land have been striving to be more inclusive on many levels – luring new audiences by boosting programming for youth, hosting events for younger collectors, ramping up lecture series and other programming and, not least of all, reinterpreting their collections.
It’s a long overdue survival strategy that began at least two decades ago, when our art institutions realized they were losing audiences who no longer wanted to pay to see rooms filled with art primarily by a bunch of historical white guys who held no relevance in their daily lives.
But it really took recent sociopolitical movements like MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Stop AAPI Hate and the same-sex marriage and trans movements – as well as a whole lot of protest art that laid the ground for them – to shake the consciousness of museums out of its fustiness and into real action.
The Farnsworth Art Museum maximized the occasion of its 75th anniversary to dive deep into its holdings and embark on a program of acquisitions to better represent the infinite diversity of human artistic expression in the state. The Ogunquit Museum of American Art also marks its 70th with “Networks of Modernism: 1898-1968” (through Nov. 12) and, most recently, the Portland Museum of Art opened “Passages in American Art” (through at least 2026).
At the Ogunquit, curator Devon Zimmerman reorganized the permanent collection, identifying Ogunquit as one hub – among others such as Taos, Monhegan Island, Provincetown, New York and Paris – through which various artists and genres circulated and cross-pollinated. Zimmerman parsed the permanent collection, supplementing it with works long hidden in storage and a few borrowed ones, according to several social trends that informed painting and sculpture from the turn of the 20th century until the twilight of the 1960s.
To distinguish amongst the various rubrics, walls are painted pink, green or gray, shades pulled from one of the museum’s most famous holdings, Walt Kuhn’s “Sleeping Girl” of 1922. I’m not usually a fan of colored walls. But I must admit, here they work splendidly. Pink, in particular, makes certain canvases radiate with new life.
The most stunning example is Rockwell Kent’s 1919 “Alaskan Sunrise.” The glacial peaks in the distance, tinted rose by the dawn, veritably float off the wall, as do the fleshy shades in the Marsden Hartley paintings flanking it (“Mt. Katahdin, Winter” of 1939-40 and “Mountains, New Mexico” of 1919). On the perpendicular pink wall, the same occurs with Rudolph Dirks’s 1919 “Mountain Pool” – a revelation from the archives displaying a congregation of female nudes who, in Dirks’s squiggly brushstrokes, barely adhere to figuration as they seem to become part of the thickly impastoed sylvan landscape.
All the aforementioned works reside in a section called “Against the Modern,” which focuses on locales artists sought out to escape the grime and grit of the cities, so they could paint nature.
The section “In the Shadows of Skyscrapers” is the flip side of that coin. Particularly magnificent here is Reginald Marsh’s “The Bowery Drunks,” a double painting of the same scene. Many elements are identical, but the verso represents Marsh’s first attempt, made clear by a newspaper in the foreground bearing the 1947 headline from the New York Daily News (where Marsh worked as illustrator): “Doris Duke Here Without Mate.” The 1948 version’s tabloid carries the headline, “Brooklyn Youth Slain by Arabs.” The headlines alone speak volumes about attitudes both persistent (media fascination with celebrity culture) and – hopefully – outdated (prejudices towards people of Middle Eastern descent).
The “Working on It” section gathers paintings about American labor, placing Kuhn’s “Sleeping Girl” in a context we mightn’t have considered. The subject is a vaudeville dancer. She has fallen asleep in her chair, head on the adjacent table, because she is exhausted from late-night entertaining. Painted in 1922, it would of course have been about the thankless schedule she had to keep to make ends meet. Yet this had never occurred to me. It’s an excellent example of how new contexts expand our view of even familiar works.
The most unusual section is “Seeing Beyond.” It’s fascinating not only because it highlights the emergence of American Surrealism in the 1920s (following Freudian theories about the unconscious) as well as Eastern mysticism and occult practices among American creatives. It also features a surprising coterie of gay painters as well as one of the exhibition’s two African American painters: the little-known Hughie Lee-Smith, who achieved notoriety for surreal scenes of alienated human relationships.
Zimmerman’s wall plaque for this section explains, “Surrealist strategies also provided marginalized artists opportunities to more safely express their identity and critique social norms.” Here we get works like Paul Cadmus’ slightly eerie 1959 “Mobile,” Channing Hare’s 1945 “Portrait of a Woman” (she holds her head in her lap), and Stephen Hopkins Hensel’s 1948 “Séance,” a painting that leaves you wondering whether you’re looking at a drag queen or a woman (Hare “adopted” Hensel – one way gay people skirted anti-sodomy laws).
The central section continues some themes (i.e.: works by gay painters Marsden Hartley, Mark Tobey and, on loan from Jay DeMartine, Carl Sprinchorn), but adds in sculpture (William Muir’s “Danseuse Comique” is especially beautiful), and some outliers (Lynn Drexler, on loan from Berry Campbell, and Romare Bearden). You will look at works you’ve seen often in a whole new light.
An excellent concurrent exhibition, “Shifting Sands: Beaches, Bathers and Modern Maine Art,” examines the evolution of our ideas about the beach through similar themes of labor, race, sexuality and so on. And it all looks terrifically immediate with the new uninterrupted window onto Perkins Cove installed last year.
ART BY COMMITTEE
Anything done by committee tends to get a bad rap. But in the case of “Passages,” it is a stroke of genius. It’s not the first time the PMA has engaged community voices. But this approach is ever more critical as we continue to wrestle with the divisiveness stubbornly attached to subjects of race and treatment of Indigenous people or anyone seen as “other” in America. If museums can’t do this, they become increasingly irrelevant in the context of contemporary life.
We feel the reverberations of this undertaking throughout the second floor of the museum. One of my favorite sections is an area I used to breeze by near the elevators. The space was devoted to objects – Colonial glass, silver and other table accoutrements that most none of us use today and, so, offered no incentive to stop and learn about their use at 18th century American tables or about the makers who produced them.
Now, however, these have been edited down and put in the larger context of the transatlantic slave trade. We can understand an ivory rum measure and rum decanter, a covered sugar container and other objects against the origins with which they were inextricably linked to colonial sugar production, made possible, of course, by thousands enslaved on plantations in the Caribbean. A rare commodity, it was shipped to America – both Northern and Southern states – to cater to the elite tastes of wealthy whites.
Sugar, we learn through works like “Sugar Cane Harvesting in Cuba” (William Chadwick, 1873) and an eerily surreal video called “Sour Solvents” by Asha Tamirisa, was big business in Portland, which had the largest sugar refineries in the U.S.
This needn’t diminish our admiration for the accomplished craftsmanship that made these exquisite objects possible, but it might make us think of ways this sort of pattern continues today, such as in the use of child labor at unregulated factories of the developing world to feed our insatiable hunger for fashionable clothing or Tibetan rugs.
You encounter these first if you arrive from the elevators. But if you ascend the steps, you come upon another part of the American story – that of the First Peoples that were displaced by colonization and left out of wealth and development. We’ll find Winslow Homer’s “Weatherbeaten” exactly where it has hung for years and, as one of the PMA’s signature masterpieces, rightly so. Grouped under the theme of “Water Lines,” we also have Edwin Church, Fitz Henry Lane, Harrison Bird Brown and Alfred Thomson Bricher.
But there’s another presence in the room, and it is almost overwhelmingly powerful: a Penobscot birchbark canoe made in the 1880s. It is at perfect height to contemplate the beauty and mastery of its construction, as well as to absorb the almost ritualistic role it served in the Native Americans’ more holistic view of the universe. However, it also emanates a kind of immediate, primal connection to the water that goes toe-to-toe with Homer’s masterpiece (also about the abundance and supremacy of nature), but makes the other paintings, as gorgeous as they are, feel distanced from the kind of spirituality the canoe and “Weatherbeaten” convey.
Adama Delphine Fawundu’s moving video in the “Island Stories” section also carries this sort of mystical connection to the elements even as it visualizes a horrific event in Maine history: the removal of a peaceful, mixed-race community by whites to build a hotel on Malaga Island. You should not be surprised to feel a rush of upsetting emotions when Adama’s Malaga woman whitewashes her face. The work exudes the same primal immediacy as the canoe, as well as an air of deep sadness.
Some inclusions feel odd. In the section designated “Whose Land? War and Westward Expansion,” we get many excellent works that chronicle white conquests of Native lands, the painful effects of the Civil War and other conflicts. But we also have sweet domestic scenes such as Homer’s “An Open Window” and Eastman Johnson’s “The Quiet Hour.” Are we meant to contrast the these paintings of white comforts with the bloodshed and conquests of the putative theme of this gallery? It’s not clear.
Overall, however, it’s a show where labels really matter because they give new, contemporary context with which to consider the works on view. They really push us to think in new ways about who gets to write the history of art in America, who was left out of it and how that is – thankfully – changing.
Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]