Art & Antiques: Back to the Land

by Elizabeth Pandolfi

There are specific moments in art history at which new ideas seem to spring into life, creativity blossoms, and traditional ideas about representation recede into the background.

“LandEscape: New Visions of the American Landscape,” which opens at the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, N.Y., on March 17, examines the work of two of those moments: the Fauvist- and Expressionist-inspired landscape paintings of early 20th-century American modernists and paintings by contemporary artists who are reinventing the genre. By juxtaposing works from these two time periods, the exhibition spotlights the unique treatment that these very different artists have given what was, according to the Academies of Fine Art, one of the lower-ranked and more unexceptional genres of painting.


Associate Curator Michele Wijegoonaratna, who assumed curation of the show after the original curator, Olga Dekalo, left the Katonah Museum, says that “LandEscape” highlights these two moments in time when artists “returned to the landscape.” And while the reasons behind that return may differ from artist to artist and time period to time period, they resulted in similarly creative—in some cases, revolutionary—approaches to a time-honored genre.


“LandEscape” includes works by some of the most influential American modernists: Marsden Hartley, Alfred Maurer, Helen Torr, and John Marin, among others. These artists were all heavily influenced by the revolutionary works that toured the U.S. as the International Exhibition of Modern Art of 1913, which became commonly known as the Armory Show. Featuring pieces by some of Europe’s most avant-garde artists, like Marcel Duchamp, Wassily Kandinsky, and Henri Matisse, the Armory Show gave Americans an entirely new view of what was possible. “These American artists saw how European modernists had treated the landscape, in terms of use of color, of expressive, emotional content, and they were very much influenced by that,” Wijegoonaratna says.


While Hartley, Maurer, and their contemporaries took much from the Europeans’ approach to form, attitude toward light and color, and intensity of expression, they were hardly copyists. As Wijegoonaratna writes in her exhibition essay, “They also internalized their experience of European art, finding inspiration in the distinctive vernacular of the American geography and topography.” Hence pieces like Marguerite Thompson Zorach’s Man Among the Redwoods (1912). In this influential painting, Zorach uses the bold visual language of expressive line and heightened color, which she absorbed in her travels through France, to depict one of the most iconic American landscapes—the redwood forest.


Similarly, Hartley’s Dogtown (1934) and Give Us This Day (1938) mingle a deep rootedness in a real American landscape with an expressive and—in the case of the latter painting—religious significance. Dogtown depicts the barren, inhospitable landscape of the abandoned colonial settlement of the same name, near Gloucester, Mass. The use of intense color and line plainly show the influence of Fauvism. Give Us This Day, which shows seagulls gathered together over three fish, uses a much more subdued color palette; however, the intensity of expression and significance is conveyed through the bold lines and arresting position of the center seagull, which is spreading its wings in an almost angelic manner. This was one of a series of paintings by Hartley that depicted elements of the ocean as religious symbols.

Hartley’s and Maurer’s paintings might, at first glance, seem to have little to do with contemporary pieces like Vera Iliatova’s Land of Plenty (2018). Iliatova’s style, for example, appears more realist and classical—and yet her approach to landscape painting is no less unusual than that of the modernists. “Iliatova creates these fictional landscapes,” Wijegoonaratna says. “She goes out and gets flowers, then brings them back to her studio and lets them decay over time. She’ll create these landscapes with flowers that couldn’t exist together in nature, creating this kind of surreal world.”



Read the full article here.

April 10, 2019