on April 10, 2011
Hartley's life seems well-suited to biography. He led a colorful existence that was out of step with many of his supporters (he was a difficult houseguest who was never really employed but was financed throughout his life by various benefactors). He was imperious and often disdainful toward people who shared his traits (dandies, flamboyant men, painters, flaneurs, dreamers, etc). He was gay, partook of Weimar-era shenanigans, and fell hardest for laborer types least conversant in his work. He was a vagabond who always departed his chosen homeland (Paris, Berlin, Maine, Manhattan, Vera Cruz, Bermuda, etc) before he could fully settle into intimacy with any type of family. He was a painter and poet whose half-baked mysticism had him alternately heading for the hills of seclusion and hightailing it back to urban pleasures. He was a devoted artist who shied from realizing his talent.
Plenty of hue and conflict here for an interesting bio. Hartley spoke like a sailor but wrote reams of correspondence that was genteel and filled with vague pantheistic ramblings and self-delusion that obscured most of the color in his existence. Though quoted extensively in this life story, the letters add little and actually drain away the anecdotes that would make his tale interesting. Ludington didn't have access to the material in related books such as the Edith Halpert and Glenway Wescott bios and he glosses over the vibrant life experiences in order to hone in on Hartley's reclusive attempts to commune with nature and resonate with cosmic vibrations. This renders the narrative nearly bloodless.
The book has a neither-fish-nor-fowl quality-- it is not an academic treatise such as Carpenter's AUDEN or Page's DAWN POWELL (Ludington does not engage in much art criticism, rather borrowing most interpretations from Barbara Haskell); neither is the volume a speculative, psychographic bio like Steven and Swan's DEKOONING or Naifeh and Smith's POLLOCK. Ludington is careful not to give the life a theme or trajectory, which makes the next-this, then-that tone read more arduously than it needed to. It is likely best for academic excursions into Hartley's chronology and fact-checking.
on January 28, 2012
One has to admire a biographer who can both appreciate greatness of a figure and also assess him honestly. I give this volume high marks for doing just that, for surely Hartley requires it. I have frankly put off reading a biography of Hartley for years, because I enjoy his pictures so much, and the glosses in exhibition catologues quickly convinced me there would be a lot I wouldn't like. Well, Ludington does not skimp on sharp adjectives. In dealing with Hartley's stupid enthusiasms for fascist Germany, he nails Hartley's opinions as "monstrous" and "lethal", while showing huge contradictions as the friend of many persecuted by the same. This is a brilliant biography, precisely because it is quite dispiriting to read it. Here was a great artist, who as a gay man, like other contradicted human beings, was quite the moral idiot in many ways. That is all; great art and all.
on December 6, 2010
I knew very little about Marsden Hartley before I moved from Houston to New Hampshire. Since then, I've found his work in every museum I've visited. Museum-wise, he's obviously a "must have." But what about him? I didn't have to read too much to discover that he was gay, that he was in the same generation as Hopper and Kent. Hell, he was in the same class with them in Robert Henri's studio. This book certainly pulls all of it together. He was a protege of Steiglitz (obviously, not Steglitz's No. 1 protege), friend to Franz Marc, to Whitman's last lover, to Picasso, to Gertrude Stein (who thought he would be the voice of modernism in America), to Hart Crane. He escaped his home in Lewiston ME and traveled to France, Germany, Mexico, always bouncing back to New England and New York, but never settled, not achieving a sense of "home" until the very end of his life. Always examining and re-examining his style and committing himself to keep it new. Fiercely opinionated. Apparently as randy as the next guy but very proper. (The author mentions him getting shots for syphilis at one point and I immediately thought--"What? How'd he get syphilis? There's no mention of him having a physical relationship with anyone.") But there you go; this is not a "tell all" biography. In fact, reading through the footnotes, with pages and pages of citations from his letters to various people, I definitely get the impression that the author has achieve a sort of hybrid autobiography by Hartley. He's not a nice guy; but he's a sympathetic guy. He's bitchy and self-centered; but he's also wholly committed to art, art in the forge of late-19th early 20th century revolution. All that and he was a friend of Harriet Munrow, editor of Poetry magazine, in which his strong poetry was published during his lifetime. This book has broadened and deepened my appreciation of Hartley and the history of American art in the first half of the 20th century. For that I am deeply grateful.