I’m in a little “Art Club”, and I found this interesting.
By Lance Esplund May 25, 2015 2:28 p.m. ET
It is nearly impossible to convey the original impact an artist from the past had on his contemporaries. What matters is his artworks’ impression in the here-and-now. But art and artists don’t exist in a vacuum. A painter’s worth can be entangled, complicated, multifarious. Through hindsight, he can become more—or less—estimable; and the value of his initial reception may outweigh that of his oeuvre.
These issues struck me while viewing “ Alfred Maurer: At the Vanguard of Modernism,” a survey of more than 70 paintings at the Addison Gallery of American Art, on the campus of Andover’s Phillips Academy. Like Maurer’s artwork, the Addison mixes Modernist and Neoclassical sensibilities, and the show looks perfectly at home in this compact, noble museum. Co-curated by Maurer scholar Stacey B. Epstein and Susan Faxon, the Addison’s associate director, the retrospective is supplemented by numerous loans from major public and private collections. And it raises as many questions as it answers about Alfred Henry Maurer (1868-1932), a storied and tragic figure who garnered early international success as a Realist; pursued Fauvism, Expressionism and Cubism with a vengeance; and, his reputation languishing, hanged himself in his childhood home.
The unsettling questions: We know that Maurer was among the first Americans to experience the art of Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso. But did he advance the revolution? Was he a comrade-in-arms or merely a tourist—passing through?
Eternally restless, Maurer was a gifted, omnivorous and fickle painter. He was also an emissary, in America, for European Modernism. Maurer was born in New York. His father, the German-born artist-lithographer Louis Maurer (1832-1932), worked for Currier and Ives, idealizing America’s booming industry and its waning frontier. Maurer followed suit, studying with Louis’s teacher William Merritt Chase. In 1897, however, he moved to Paris, enrolling temporarily at the Académie Julian; but he soon sought training alongside other expats in the American Art Association—schooling himself in cafes, salons, galleries and the Louvre.
In Paris, where he lived more or less permanently for 17 years, Maurer fell under the exotic spell of Edouard Manet and James McNeill Whistler. And he befriended Leo and Gertrude Stein, whose superb collection of the Parisian avant-garde consumed Maurer like a fever. Soon, he abandoned his tonal palette for wild, fragmented Fauvist color. He also acted as an agent for Albert C. Barnes, choosing and purchasing Modernist artworks for his pioneering collection; and he was instrumental in organizing the 1913 Armory Show.
The Addison’s chronological retrospective, divided into five galleries, represents distinctive periods and styles—suggesting not a survey but a group show. The first and largest room establishes Maurer as an accomplished Realist, incorporating elements of Manet, Whistler, Chase and John Singer Sargent.
Paintings here include the award-winning “An Arrangement” (1901)—a dark, moody portrait of a woman seated on a tilted floor—exciting for two Chinese vases, which feel whiplashed into being. Typically, Maurer’s figures seem locked into place, as if he were nailing down all the details. In “At the Shore” (1901), calligraphically rendered children—secondary characters—are the most believable and satisfying. Unusual here is Maurer’s assured, luminous gem “Rockaway Beach with Pier” (c. 1901). Its cursory forms—fluid surf, sand, boats, bathers and sky—suffused in blue light, magically coalesce.
Anxiety energizes these early academic works, as if Maurer’s painting style were an ill-fitting suit. In “Young Woman in Kimono” (c. 1901), in which a brilliant blood-red overpowers a sea of earth tones, Maurer’s color seems to be attempting to break free, to take flight. And in the loosely handled, standing life-size portrait “Jeanne” (c. 1904), the woman, cigarette in hand, snidely glares at the viewer. Her tilted hat swoops like a bird.
The next two galleries bustle with Fauvist landscapes, portraits and still lifes from 1907-14. Ecstatic, reborn, Maurer emulates Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain. Entering these galleries is like walking into a hothouse. In the best works here—including “Fauve Landscape with Train” (c. 1907), “Landscape with Trees” (1909), “Autumn” (c. 1912) and a series of “Fauve Landscapes” (c. 1908-12)—Maurer thinks, and breathes, in color. He expresses himself emotionally, interpreting the world with genuinely fresh eyes.
But too often Maurer’s work devolves into pastiche. His Fauvism feels applied, secondhand—not lived, not essential. The critic Henry McBride referred to Maurer’s styles as coming “wholesale . . . not so much a growth as a mere change of garments . . . [American paintings in which] there always remained . . . the tingle of a foreign accent.”
Maurer was neither a great draftsman nor a great colorist. In his tonal paintings these defects are less evident; but when he pares down to spare bold lines and broad planes of Fauvist color, his compositions fall short. Still, Maurer’s Fauvist period—especially his pictures in the Barnes Collection—is his strongest.
The final two galleries include paintings mostly from the 1920s on, when Maurer engaged with Cubism, Expressionism and abstraction. Here, he incorporated the Metaphysical Surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico and the elongations of Amedeo Modigliani, and he unsuccessfully wedded Fauvist color to Cubist structures.
This show demonstrates that Maurer’s work cannot match that of the Europeans he so admired. Yet there are a few lovely, authentic and heartfelt pictures.
“Abstract Still Life, No. 2” (1928-30)—plaintive creams and grays ruptured by turquoise—is a masterpiece. And in a beautiful 1924 broadside illustrated by Maurer, Sherwood Anderson writes about his collection of Maurers: “These paintings are such living things, plucked out of the life of modern cities. The young girls are like desert flowers, flashing into quick beauty just caught . . .” Reading this, it struck me that Maurer’s gift may have been time-sensitive. His greatest contribution may have been that of acting as an intermediary—a bridge. Maurer’s multifarious paintings, fresh from Paris, provided Americans with the perfect introductory mixed bouquet—representative of the various species of the European avant-garde.
Mr. Esplund writes about art for the Journal.