The Farnsworth Museum celebrates a group of postwar New York artists who came to Maine for work and pleasure.
Maine’s reputation as a bastion of independence, ruggedness, and natural beauty has drawn thinkers and artists since the 1800s. E.B. White, prominent New York intellectual and author of Charlotte’s Web, among other masterpieces, spent many years living on a saltwater farm there. Elizabeth Hardwick, founder of the New York Review of Books, had a summer home in the state. And painters Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley, and John Singer Sargent—as well as many prominent American landscape artists—spent time living and working in Maine.
Now, the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Me., is celebrating the works of another group of artists for whom this state had an irresistible attraction: the collection of New York-based avant-garde artists including Red Grooms, Lois Dodd, Mimi Gross, and Rackstraw Downes who flocked to Maine during the summers in the years following World War II. The exhibition “Slab City Rendezvous” (April 13–February 9, 2020), which takes its name from a 1964 painting by Grooms, aims to spotlight these artists and the work they produced—whether created while they were living in Maine or influenced by their time there—between 1950 and the late ’70s.
“The artists are well known, and to a degree, the fact that they’d been in Maine is also known,” says Michael Komanecky, the Farnsworth’s Chief Curator. “But it was the confluence of events that’s notable. For some, it was coming to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture that first introduced them to Maine. And this was a place where they could enjoy living pretty inexpensively. To enjoy Maine in the summer and have this break from their busy and demanding artistic lives in New York—all of these things came together to result in what is a really important body of work created over a couple of decades.”
What is perhaps most notable about the collection of paintings and drawings in “Slab City Rendezvous” is that they represent a strikingly different style—more realist, more figurative—from the Abstract Expressionism that was taking over the New York art scene at the beginning of the period covered. The larger-than-life influence of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, and Clyfford Still wasn’t always easy to overcome in the city. The artists who escaped to Maine, whether for a single summer or many, Komanecky says, were trying to make their own way, outside of the larger art world trends. “They weren’t driven by an adherence to a way of making art, or under the influence or inspiration of a given artist or teacher.” The result was a sense of freedom and liberation, an opportunity to paint or make art in whichever way felt right to them. At a remove from New York’s highly developed, highly structured artistic circles, Dodd, Gross, Grooms, and the other artists included in the exhibition were able to explore their art in a much more free-form manner.
What is also interesting is that, unlike many artists who spent time in Maine, they were not part of any formal creative community. “They did all hang out together, but this was not an artist colony by any means,” Komanecky says. “Those had existed in Maine since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but this was much more a case of the artists just finding something they enjoyed here, and they either developed new friendships with each other, or furthered existing ones from their New York days.”
Grooms’ painting Slab City Rendezvous really embodies the atmosphere of this particular time. In it, we see the white and red farmhouse that Grooms rented in Lincolnville, Me.—on the mid-coast just north of Camden—with Gross and other artists. In front of the house is a whole group of artists with their spouses and children cavorting in the yard. There’s photographer and painter Rudy Burckhardt (painting at an easel on the roof); Grooms and Gross; and painters Alex and Ada Katz. “This is one of the emblematic works in the show,” says Komanecky. “The whole cast of characters is there. It really captures the kind of life they were able to enjoy there.”
Another highly notable work is Lois Dodd’s Six Cows at Lincolnville. Dodd, who still has a home and studio in Maine, painted a series of cow paintings during her early summers in Lincolnville, creating unique images that were figurative and yet still incorporated a sense of abstraction. As Dodd said in a 2015 interview with the internet publication Hyperallergic, “I had studied textile design at Cooper Union, so I was thinking about pattern….The subject of the cows answered to that—they seemed to be in a place between pattern and representation.”
Another example of this interesting combination of figuration and abstraction can be found in Mimi Gross’ Night paintings. There are hints of Abstract Expressionism, particularly in the dynamism of the brushstrokes, but “much less than the type of work that was really dominating the critical art scene during the period,” says Komanecky. The exhibition also features aerial drawings by Yvonne Jacquette, several paintings by Alex Katz, and paintings—including a still life—by Bernard Langlais.
In addition to showing how this particular time and place affected these artists and the way they made their art, “Slab City Rendezvous” can also be understood as an exploration of Maine’s role in the development of 20th century American art as a whole. In fact, that’s the Farnsworth’s explicit mission: to celebrate Maine’s role in American art. “Artists began coming here in the 1820s and 1830s, but from about the 1850s onward, there have been occasions when artists of national significance have come here—both in search of a way of life and subject matter that was important to them,” Komanecky says. “It’s Maine’s coasts and rivers and forests, but our people, as well.”
By Elizabeth Pandolfi