Walt Kuhn, John Laurent, and Tom Glover, Three generations of American painting in Ogunquit
"Place is not a static mental or perceptual construct converted to paint and canvas. Place is the vehicle by which the artist moves out from his own creative center to discern the universal truths of man and his environment."
- Marsden Hartley scholar Gail R. Scott
What if painting’s function isn’t to depict the world but to make visible the actual weave of it, the interlace of reality and experience? What if mark, color, and rhythm aren’t “formal elements” but expressions of the life force of their maker?
The vital mark distinguishes 20th century painter John Laurent’s work. It is also a hallmark of his mentor, Walt Kuhn, as well as Laurent’s own pupil, contemporary painter Tom Glover. All three are associated with southern Maine and currently have paintings in the gallery.
John Laurent’s Three Rocks conveys a visceral relationship to the elemental character of the Maine coast. The painting communicates in terms akin to paleolithic sculpture and cave paintings the raw, hand-hewn sense of reality encountered on a very basic level.
Everything is stripped to essentials. Laurent centers his three isolated natural objects in a foamy tempest of thick white paint applied with the palette knife. Stark contrasts and colors (ostensibly black and white, but not) belie intriguing nuances in the lights and darks, especially in the deep green-black field subtly modulated to suggest fluid depths of ocean. The flattened picture plane and gestural facture indicate the formal structures of Abstract Expressionism, but Laurent employs the avant-garde language of the New York School to give his Maine rocks the rude, elemental character of something far older, rough-hewn, hand-colored, outlined as if with a charred natural tool.
The artist’s father, Normandy-born sculptor Robert Laurent, first arrived in Ogunquit in 1902, the adopted son of New York art connoisseur Hamilton Easter Field. Field established a school of modern art in Perkins Cove, the heart of a thriving art scene initiated a few years earlier by respectable Boston painter Charles Woodbury. The school would pass into Robert’s care upon Field’s death 20 years later, but not before John met, through his father, American Modernist painters Marsden Hartley and Walt Kuhn, the latter of whom became his mentor. Kuhn, a primary organizer of the seminal 1913 Armory Show, established a studio in Ogunquit in 1920. From him John would sop up firsthand the work and avant-garde theories of Modernist giants like Picasso, Braque, and Matisse.
The school passed to John when his father died, then closed in 1954 when Laurent joined the painting faculty of the University of New Hampshire, where he taught for the next 30 years. Tom Glover, whose work carries on the lineage, was a standout pupil whom Laurent took under his wing.
Laurent’s Three Rocks bears more than a passing family resemblance to the work of Maine-born Modernist Marsden Hartley, whom Laurent adored, and who also painted simplified, primitivistic visions of the coastal landscape. These include an important series of paintings with heavily outlined boulders executed during the 1930s in Dogtown, near Gloucester, Mass. Hartley’s work explicitly blends abstraction and mysticism, applying the lessons of Cezanne, Matisse, Kandinsky, the Cubists and the German Expressionists to express his own deeply felt truths in the stark, simplified lines and rough-hewn surfaces of the weather-beaten northern Atlantic coast.
From this perspective, Laurent’s painting carries forward Hartley’s project and even surpasses it in the degree of abstraction, expressive paint handling, and sheer grit that it brings to the transmission of a personal mysticism. Like Hartley, Laurent paints not the landscape but his primal relationship to it, using the material of paint to explore intuitive ideas about human existence and the world.
Laurent was digging deep. For his part, Hartley used poetry to defend his choice to paint the primal stones of Dogtown over the picturesque Gloucester waterfront:
“Persistently mid nuances of lapis grey
So much more wonderful this way
than summer in a trance
of chlorophyll or other circumstances.
- from Marsden Hartley, Beethoven in Dogtown
Hartley early in his development regularly visited visionary painter Albert Pinkham Ryder in his New York studio, as John Laurent would visit Walt Kuhn in his (Tom Glover was lucky in that his mentor, John Laurent, lived not in New York but year round in Maine). Kuhn is remembered best today as one of the principle organizers of the Armory Show and an important promoter of Modernism in America. Recent shows of his figurative paintings have begun a reassessment of his work, emphasizing its quiet assimilation of the work of Modern artists such as Matisse, Picasso, and Cezanne, placing his late paintings, as Wikipedia has it, “among the most memorable, confidently painted works of twentieth-century American art.”
Kuhn’s portrait of Ogunquit captures the serenity of the seaside town on a quiet summer day. The painting’s surface is choreographed with thick, directional brushstrokes that flow together and apart in harmonious, lively animation. In many ways, Kuhn blends the traditional realism he learned in Munich as a student with the interests and techniques of Modernism. This characteristically Kuhnian approach is visible for example in the way he seamlessly marries traditional aerial perspective, Cezanne-like manipulations of the picture plane, and post-Impressionistic color, brush and knife work, with the flattened compositional strategy of American folk art, which the avant-garde art world was avidly discovering and appreciating for the first time.
In “Four Boats,” Kuhn renders the familiar dories of Perkins Cove even more audaciously, in yet more brilliant, Post-Impressionistic color. Here he further dismantles and simplifies the use of broken color and extrapolates the visible brushstroke into vigorous, multi-colored mark-making. Nowhere is the painting static; every inch contributes to the sparkling, constantly moving whole. “Four Boats” is remarkable for its unity, given the range and vigor of its hues and surface handling. Laurent was known to urge his students to use “juicy paint,” something Kuhn certainly did here.
Even in the absence of his louder and trendier peers, Kuhn, it seems, has yet to come fully into his own. As a reviewer for the New York times recently remarked, “maybe, viewers schooled in 20th-century polemics of avant-garde versus kitsch were a step behind him.” The longer you look at his work, the more you wonder, as that critic did, “whether Kuhn’s also-ran reputation stems from his limitations or ours.”
Tom Glover is taking the Hartley-Kuhn-Laurent project into the 21st century. In paintings such as “Blue Harbor” (20” x 16”) he re-envisions coastal Maine through the lens of abstraction, in particular the second and third-generation Abstract Expressionists, especially Richard Deibenkorn. Glover’s “putting together,” as one of Kuhn’s supporter’s wrote in 1931, “shows years of composing … I see years of clarity, years of intuitive meditation, years of metaphysical study and feeling.” (Genevieve Taggard, Landscape Drawings by Walt Kuhn, Marie Harriman Gallery, New York, February 1931).
Artistic vision is one way to know the inner life of stones: Earth’s densest, inanimate matter, literal bedrock, emblems of the impenetrable fact of mortality, the antithesis of the air. It is our good fortune that sometimes paint can scratch the stony surface of the elemental and communicate something profound about the union of spirit and physical being.
-Christopher Volpe, for the Banks Gallery