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Confessions of a modernist mind: the letters of artist Marsden Hartley reveal how sexual liberty and creative freedom go hand in hand.

My Dear Stieglitz: Letters of Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz, 1912-1915 * Edited by James Timothy Voorhies * University of South Carolina Press * $39.95

"It seems like a great lie I am always telling when I write or say what I have to accept as truth." So wrote painter Marsden Hartley to photographer Alfred Stieglitz in 1915 in preparation for informing him that the love of Hartley's life, Karl von Freyburg, had been killed in World War I. Reading this letter 88 years after it was written, as preserved in My Dear Stieglitz: Letters of Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz, 1912-1915, is to discover something more than the usual coming-out story: It's to put oneself in contact with a place and time in gay history that has much to tell us all today.

A key member of the group that revolved around Stieglitz in New York City in the early part of the last century, Marsden Hartley was at the center of what is known today as early American modernism. But Hartley's canvases seem as fresh as this afternoon. A new exhibit of Hartley's work--running through April 20 at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., then traveling to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (June 7 through September 7), and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. (October 11 through January 4)--will doubtless spark a revival of interest in the man and his work as the new century reconsiders both artistic expression and gay identity.

Hartley was an enthusiast of the transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and, particularly, Walt Whitman. His studies brought him first to New York City, where he met Stieglitz, and eventually to Paris in 1912 (and later to Berlin) to study art. In Europe his work evolved from Cezannesque still lifes and landscapes to strikingly abstract shape and form studies--the most notable of which, Portrait of a German Officer, evoked the uniforms of the men to whom he had become most attracted entirely through emblematic design. In this he was a forerunner of Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Robert Rauschenberg.

Hartley wrote to Stieglitz that his European experiences, while exciting, taught him that "each man must go alone in the wilderness of himself to find his own depth and height." But what he also came to know was his sexual self, in the context of a free and easy Berlin whose full flowering Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden came to enjoy not that long after Hartley had left And his leaving had largely to do with the fact that with Freyburg's passing, life in Europe held little interest for him.

Being a middle-class American, Hartley led a much quieter life after returning to the United States and settling in New England, where he continued to paint for the rest of his days. However, the "war motif" series, painted in 1914 and 1915, while he was in Berlin, stands as Hartley's signal achievement. Had he stayed on, he would surely have profited from exposure to the gay rights movement that was starting to take shape in Berlin at that time.

In fact, it might have resolved what some art critics felt was the tension in Hartley's work between the abstract demands of modernism and the homoerotic feelings he felt comfortable conveying only symbolically. No such tensions, however, prevent his thoughts from being as vital now as they were at the start of the last century.

Ehrenstein is the author of Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000.
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Title Annotation:My Dear Stieglitz: Letters of Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz, 1912-1915
Author:Ehrenstein, David
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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