It’s convenient that three of the most influential artists in Provincetown history share the same initial. It makes for a catchy exhibition name. It’s also convenient that the Provincetown Art Association and Museum owns extraordinary works by all three.
“Hawthorne, Hofmann, and Hopper: Preserving a Legacy” is on view through August 29. Works by Charles Hawthorne, Hans Hofmann, and Edward Hopper are interspersed with others by their students (though Hopper is described as “more of an influence” than a teacher).
In the exhibit notes, curator Christine McCarthy writes, “If we were to imagine the trajectory of art movements in Provincetown as a tree, there will be at least three distinct branches on view.” First, she writes, is Hawthorne’s plein-air painting; second is Hofmann’s abstract expressionism; and third is Hopper’s realism.
Though this is not untrue, if anything, the exhibit shows how these branches are intertwined, like vines crawling up an old building. The barn on Miller Hill Road in which Hawthorne established his Cape Cod School of Art was later used by Hofmann. Hawthorne and Hopper both studied with William Merritt Chase. All three focused on light and color.
Having works by Hawthorne, Hofmann, and Hopper all together reveals their synergies. On the first wall is Hawthorne’s Girl Sewing No. 1. The blue of the girl’s ankle and the red of the book on the table charge forward. In the pattern of the rug, Hawthorne has hidden his signature. Compare to Hofmann’s Color Poem No. 2 on the facing wall.
Another highlight of this wall is Hawthorne’s unfinished Portrait of Houghton Cranford Smith. (It is paired with a very ordinary street scene by Smith, who was Hawthorne’s student.) This painting gives an unusual, almost intimate, look at Hawthorne. The dry and loose brushstrokes veer towards abstraction. Squint at Hawthorne’s colorful Figures on a Pier and it could almost be Hofmann.
There is also a lovely untitled still life by Henry Hensche on this wall. Hensche carried on the legacy of Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School of Art. There are also works by Hawthorne’s students Max Bohm, Richard E. Miller, William H. Johnson, and John Noble.
On the far wall is Hawthorne’s His First Voyage, which the Independent analyzed in detail last year. It is placed in conversation with Edwin Dickinson’s Beatrice Zucker (Dickinson was Hawthorne’s student). Comparing the faces — specifically the eyes — is haunting. Also on this wall are Hawthorne’s monumental Still Life with Fish and Dickinson’s understated Grey Jug and Half Lemon, which provide a counterpoint.
The Hans Hofmann wall is a little disappointing, as PAAM owns only a few of his small paintings. But there are some beauties: Color Poem No. 2, Landscape, and Spring. There are also two excellent abstract ink drawings on paper. The works by Hofmann’s students — Selina Trieff, Robert Henry, Nieves Billmyer, and Lee Krasner — are superb, but feel a bit arbitrarily chosen. Hofmann had so many students.
The Hopper wall consists of studies for paintings such as Cape Cod Morning, Sea Watchers, and A Woman in the Sun. One of the drawings for the latter is especially beautiful. A statuesque nude is carefully shaded in graphite. The muscular curvature of the knee and buttocks is accomplished in a minimum of strokes. The studies for Meal Time and The Sacrament of Sex are also haunting. A glass case contains letters to Edward and Josephine Hopper pertaining to the establishment of the National Seashore, though these would benefit from some explanatory exhibit notes.
The strength of “Hawthorne, Hofmann, and Hopper” is that it is made up entirely of works in PAAM’s permanent collection — an amazing feat. But that is also a limitation. It would be spectacular to pair one of Hopper’s drawings with a painting. Or to include a monumental Hofmann painting to rival Hawthorne’s His First Voyage.
Instead, the exhibit feels a bit like an assortment of appetizers — tasty, well-crafted — but missing a main course. Then again, especially if you feel like grazing, “Hawthorne, Hofmann, and Hopper” is certainly worth seeing.
The event: “Hawthorne, Hofmann, and Hopper: Preserving a Legacy”
The time: Thursday through Sunday, hour-long slots between noon and 5 p.m.
The place: Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 460 Commercial St.
The cost: $12.50 at paam.org