In a Marsden Hartley painting beats the dark heart of the twentieth century. The thin slice of globe-trotting work from 1913-1915 presaged some of the most ecstatic and iconic tropes to come.
In a Marsden Hartley painting is the synthetic seed of Pollock’s urgency and John’s cool, detached symbology. Both men seemed to filch from Hartley’s rainbow palette, alternately whipped into creamy pastels or shot through with matte, inky blacks.
The brief period straddling the outbreak of World War I that is the whole of this show covers three distinct styles from these three crucial years in three modest rooms. There is an an almost ecclesiastical triangularity in the clamoring, upwardly mobile composition of the paintings done in pre-war Berlin, on a Steiglitz-funded jaunt through Europe intended to “complete” the then 36-year-old’s education. The plaintive joy of pageantry in The Warriors (1913) is anchored by a central curving shape, like a pope’s hat, or a section of cupola off the Florence Cathedral, or a seated Buddha—yet the ultimate point of convergence seems just out of frame.
Marsden Hartley, Portrait, c.1914-15, Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 x 21 1/2 inches; The Collection of Frederick R. Weismen Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Bequest of Hudson D. Walker from the lone and Hudson D. Walker Collection.
In a Marsden Hartley painting is a picture of Modernism as a broken promise.
After the death of Lieutenant Karl von Freyberg, a young soldier whose exact relationship to Hartley is never fully parsed, the colors grow bolder, popping against those heartbreaking chalkboard-black backgrounds. (The conservationist’s referendum makes it yet unclear if this development is a straightforward act of mourning or simply a by product of Hartley’s reuse of canvases at that time.) The spectacle of war is no longer an orderly parade, but an inextricable field of signs. Portrait of a German Officer (1914) is not a neatly arranged stack of traits, but a wrangling of evocations, a radial composition on the verge of explosion.
Marsden Hartley, Abstraction (Military Symbols), 1914-15, Oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 32 inches; Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1980.
In a Marsden Hartley painting is the wintry tang of a college crush—the aloof magnetism of that well-traveled American boy who somehow alighted in the periphery of your mundane suburban topography. You can never know this boy because he loves boys, but this hurt allows the interiority of men to be as vast and unknowable as your own. Maybe it allows you to leave as well.
In a Marsden Hartley painting is hidden the key to its own mysteries, made just for you: “What I have to say is not local or material.”
(Image on top: Marsden Hartley, The Iron Cross, 1915, oil on canvas, 47 ¼ × 47 ¼ inches; © Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis; university purchase, Bixby Fund, 1952)