August 18, 2011
Fittingly, The Tides of Provincetown: Pivotal Years in America's Oldest Continuous Art Colony, 1899-2011 — a sparkling exhibition at the New Britain Museum of American Art up through Oct. 16, 2011 — opens with a map. Not just any map but a giant panoramic bird's-eye view of Provincetown and upper Cape Cod. This visual aid perfectly encapsulates the insular feel of Provincetown, which sits on a crooked finger of land at the Cape's very tip, 70 miles from "mainland" Massachusetts. This finger of land spirals inward, so that Provincetown essentially surrounds itself. Thus protected from outside scrutiny and judgment, town residents have been free to be and do things that might have been forbidden or suppressed elsewhere.
No wonder, then, that the arts flourished here, rather than organized religion. (The Pilgrims originally landed at Provincetown in 1620 but, perhaps sensing the curious vibe, relocated to Plymouth.) Painting, in particular, thrived here, as this exhibit brilliantly reveals, but then so did poetry, prose, song, dance and theater (lest we forget Eugene O'Neil and the Provincetown Players).
But The Tides of Provincetown focuses mainly on the visual — prints, oil and watercolor paintings, collages and photography. It is the largest survey of Provincetown art ever assembled under one museum roof. Here is just an abbreviated list of artists affiliated with Provincetown (some quite tenuously) whose work is on view here: Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn, Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, Mark Rothko, Stuart Davis, Helen Frankenthaler, Milton Avery, Marsden Hartley, Childe Hassam andRed Grooms.
Though these great artists are all unique and idiosyncratic — their art would stand out in any exhibition — the one thing that unites the work on view here is a potent and positive life force. This extends from dock and harbor scenes of the working fishing village that co-existed with the art colony to the energetic experiments with abstraction and pure color of painters like Rothko and Hofmann. Even earlier work like Hopper's "Blackhead, Monhegan" (1918) or Demuth's "Landscape # 4" (1914) had this quality. The former a seascape study and the latter a frenetic riff on the mountainous terrain of sand dunes along the Cape Cod National Seashore, both lack the ominous portents of some of these artists' other work. This sunnier vision was, no doubt, nurtured among the sun, sand, surf and skies at land's end.
The initial influx of artists to Provincetown was led by Charles Webster Hawthorne, a gifted, energetic and gregarious painter who set up the Cape Cod School of Art in 1899 and regularly led squadrons of Victorian-era ladies and bohemian men onto the wharves and into the dunes with easels, brushes and sun bonnets. Hawthorne was also part of the group that founded the Provincetown Art Association in 1914, which still exists.
Though far removed from such centers of commerce, Provincetown was not immune to artistic trends, especially after the 1913 Armory Show brought modernism to these shores. By 1927, the traditional landscape painters and realists were beginning to feel the shock of the new. The seminal figure in the colony's history may have been Hans Hofmann, who set up a school in 1935 and ushered in the wave of modernism that brought de Kooning, Krasner, Rothko, Kline and Motherwell in with the tides. It also brought Robert De Niro Sr. (yes, the father of the actor), whose "male cubist figure" is on view here.
In addition to marquee artists like the above, some excellent, lesser-known artists are included in The Tides, including the husband-wife team of Oliver and Ada Chaffee, the father-son team of Salvatore and Romolo Del Deo and B.J.O. Nordfeldt. Curator Alexander Noelle deserves an "A" for "effort" in trying to bring the theme up to date by including some contemporary artists associated with Provincetown, including painter John Dowd, who appears to be the reincarnation of Hopper; photographer Joel Meyerowitz, whose "Roseville Cottages, Truro" (1976) could very well be a painting by Hopper; and Danielle Mailer, who's familiar to Connecticut gallery goers and whose father summered in Provincetown and in whose name a writers colony was established here in 2007.
Arguably, the most intriguing painting here may be the smallest, "T.P.'s Boat in Menemsha Pond," a tiny "oil on tin" that Pollock painted in 1934 while on an extended stay with his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton, on Martha's Vineyard. You can see the figurative element already fraying for Pollock in 1934 and the gathering darkness on his horizon.
The Tides of Provincetown: Pivotal Years in America's Oldest Continuous Art Colony, 1899-2011
through Oct. 16, New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., New Britain, (860) 229-0257, nbmaa.org
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