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Paint Elsewhere

Baltimore artist Herman Maril best known for works not about Baltimore

Private Collection
Herman Maril's 1970 "Blue Fish."

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 7/22/2009

Herman Maril: An American Modernist

Through Aug. 30 at the Walters Art Museum

The most successful Baltimore artists tend to follow a script. Make the city the subject of your work, but fictionalize it so that it becomes your own. When you are not in the city, speak only of its charms and demur from criticizing it too harshly. Don't leave it behind for more glamorous places.

While this general rule holds true for the city's filmmakers (John Waters and Barry Levinson), television producers (David Simon), and writers (Anne Tyler and H.L. Mencken), it has not quite been so for its painters.

Herman Maril: An American Modernist, currently on view at the Walters Art Museum, is part of a year-long tour of Maril's paintings in honor of the 100-year anniversary of his birth. The press release that accompanies the show describes Maril as the "quintessential Maryland painter of the mid-20th century," quite a feat considering the importance of painting in the United States in the 1950s and '60s.

The only problem is that Maril, as beloved as he might be by Marylanders, doesn't return the favor in his paintings. Aside from his early paintings, a few of which are featured in this show, much of his work depicts the seashore scenes of his adopted summer home of Provincetown, Mass. While Maril returned each fall to teach at the University of Maryland, which in 2007 named its student gallery after him, in interviews he spoke mostly about the art scene on Cape Cod.

That aside, Maril, who died in 1986, was a competent yet bold painter who lived through, and often embodied, a series of art movements before settling on a Cape Cod style that blended an abstract use of color with the residue of the realist style he started with. In his finest work--like "Near Chama No. 2, New Mexico" (1970) and "Dialogue at Five" (1970)--Maril takes the briefest of observations, a dinner scene, and pulls as much light and color out of it as possible, like a summer day that never ends.

What is most instructive about the show's collection of 26 paintings is its inclusion of work from the entire span of Maril's career, starting with "Self-Portrait" (1929), painted when Maril was just 21, and ending with "Languid Cat" (1976), which features a black cat lying on top of a radiator, with one of Maril's own paintings hanging on a wall in the background. In the earliest works, you see Maril experimenting with realism and cubism, showing mastery of each form without evincing a commitment to either. One of these early works, a sketch of the Baltimore harbor that was commissioned in 1934 by the federal government as part of the Public Works of Art Project, was chosen to hang in the White House by Eleanor Roosevelt. Although the piece, titled "Sketch of Old Baltimore Waterfront" (1934) is not included in the show (it is currently on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's show 1934: A New Deal For Artists), another Maril work from the same period, "Sunday at the Docks" (1938), stands in nicely for the brief period when Maril painted Baltimore.

Maril first came to Provincetown in 1934, and--like his Baltimore contemporary, Grace Hartigan--owed a significant debt to the New York scene (for Maril, mostly in its decamped Cape Cod version). It's not hard to see traces of Mark Rothko, who summered with Maril, in his later work, particularly in pieces like "Red Boat" (1959), which is a representational drawing of a red boat in a harbor that's been smashed with shades of blue and pink. While there's a bit of Henri Matisse, whose paintings Maril saw when they were still in Etta Cone's apartments, in Maril's figurative drawings, his mixing of modernist styles separates him from mere imitative artists.

Despite the show's appearance in the special exhibit space at the Walters, it feels small, with enough works to get a sense for how and why Maril worked, but not so many that you can thoroughly understand his career. While some of the exhibit's paintings can be seen around Baltimore--many, in fact, are owned by a law office in the city--others are from private collections, suggesting that Maril's work, like the artist himself, is only partly local.

The commitment many Baltimore artists have to the city is often returned by their fans, which has the unfortunate result of turning their art into solipsistic love songs. The fact that Maril lived in Baltimore for almost his entire life, but did not feel the need to make it the subject of the bulk of the art he produced, is almost refreshing. It means that you can live in Baltimore, a city so easily caricatured as this or that, and follow your own muse, even if it's a beach town not named Ocean City.

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