Whether it’s the price of paying what you wish, or whatever you consider the walk from school to 75th Street and Madison Avenue to be worth, you can see two very different artists under the same roof at the Met Breuer. The two artists currently on display are Mardsen Hartley and Lygia Pape. Marsden Hartley’s: Maine is located on the third oor of the old Whitney building, and Lygia Pape: A Multitude of Forms inhabits the fourth floor. Both shows, although very different, can be tied together in that both artists produced art that was strongly rooted in their “roots” — where the artist hails from.
Mardsen Hartley (1877-1943) was an American modernist painter and writer, who was born and died in Maine. His work embodies the state, as he obsessively represents the state in his art. Mardsen Hartley’s Maine exhibition begins with an expansive empty room featuring a projected video of crashing waves onto a white wall of what is assumed to be, or thought of as, Maine. When entering the space, the video of crashing waves in no way prepares the spectator for the galleries of art one is about to enter. The first gallery to the right began with early drawings of his from 1908 that consisted of loose and active portrait sketches on paper depicting locals he encountered on his visits to Maine. The museum label indentations indicate that Hartley most likely did these sketches one after the other, speeding through a hefty stack of paper to quickly capture the person on the page. Hartley’s work in the next sprawling galleries seem to effortlessly blend together, featuring countless landscape after landscape of Maine. They start with an almost impressionist-like painting style before leading into a more rigid, structured, and highly stylized. At times, Harley was away from Maine so he subsequently painted these landscapes from memory. One painting of his titled The Dark Mountain (1909) took him 4 years to paint in order to “develop a sense of how to go about painting those hills”. His large body of work aptly shows how he spent years constantly trying to capture and represent Maine on canvas after canvas. He later returned to painting locals, whether they be lumberjacks at the beach or portraits of lobster sherman. Hartley at times abandons the blatant forms of the subject he is painting to instead represent such in his own way.
What was particularly notable about the exhibition were the paintings of Paul Cezanne, Winslow Homer, and prints from Utagawa Hiroshige that were also featured among Hartley’s work. They were cited as Hartleys’ inspiration. I observed during my visit that the prints of mountains by Hiroshige and Northeaster by Homer drew large crowds of people to them; the patrons were taking the time to focus on these rather than Hartley. If you weren’t looking close enough or perhaps didn’t have any knowledge of these artists might assume that they too were by Hartley, even though the work is vastly different. In some ways those paintings and prints forced the viewer out of the Hartley show, whether they knew such or wanted it. What you are left with at the end of exhibit is the same video you saw entering Hartleys’ world of Maine. Upon leaving Hartley’s Maine of paint and graphite, you enter something that perhaps is more rooted in the familiar and the modern. Being met by cascading nondescript waves with each exit and entrance leaves more focus to Maine, rather than his work as an artist. To me, this seemed like an idle step in curating the show—even with the active and ever moving imagery of the waves.
Lygia Pape (1927-2004) whose work inhabits the 4th oor in the Met Breuer was born in Nova Friburgo, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Pape worked in a variety of mediums including works on paper, wooden structures, sculptural works, engraving, and filmmaking. Pape was an active part in both the concrete and neo-concrete movements of the 50s and 60s in Brazil. Concrete art is an art movement coined by Theo van Doesburg in Paris in the 30s, to represent a movement with a strong emphasis on the abstract, it is free of anything that is based in reality and does not necessarily have a symbolic meaning. Her show Lygia Pape: A Multitude of Forms begins with work that is heavily geometric, featuring bold and definite colors, lines and blank space. The first room features some of her work comprised of wood with smaller wooden squares on top of it. This creates shadow forms on the already establish form, thus when it is mounted on the wall it once again creates yet another shadow form. This is one feature that distinguishes her earlier works. Glass cases in numerous galleries towards the beginning of her exhibit showcase her studies in creating other final works. This shows her process from preliminary sketches to her final construction of the work we are seeing today. This exhibition is the first retrospective devoted to Pape in the United States. Since her body of work is so vast, it can be hard to officially classify her as an artist doing solely one thing. She explores optical effects and the general use of the line in some of her prints. While doing so, she also experiments with form and medium in her larger sculptural works towards the end of the exhibition and her career. One of the rooms in the exhibition featured an entire wall of countless smaller square wooden pieces with bold primary colors along with a table of works that could be lifted, held, and toyed with. In the same room was her Roda dos Prazeres (Wheel of Pleasures) which is a circle of porcelain bowls with colored distilled water, each can be tested with small droppers. Each is a different distinct flavor — one of the blue ones tasted like bubblegum and I heard others mumble tastes of coffee, chocolate, and strawberry while the workers at the museum claimed that some also did not taste that good. This piece causes an interaction, as people gather around the wheel to taste the water they are confronted with color, form, and taste. Some of Pape’s work is also responding to the political climate in Brazil during the 60s when a dictatorship was established. Many artists, including Pape, reacted against such with video or photography.
Much of Papes photography and film featured people as subjects and encapsulated the climate of Brazil during the 60s. At the end of your time with Pape’s work, you end up in Pape’s Ttéia. This consists of ropes of golden thread that look like beams of sunlight in a dimly lit room—a perfect way to end on such an ethereal piece of work before your eyes adjust and you leave the exhibition. In contrast to Hartley’s Maine, Pape’s exit leaves you with a feeling of never ending multitude of expansion.