John Hultberg and Monhegan Island: The Man, The Place, and His Dreams

By: Carl Little

Pace Galleries, Fryeburg Academy • Fryeburg, ME • • November 19, 2011–January 21, 2012

John Hultberg, Backyard, 1966, oil on canvas, 22 x 28"At the time John Hultberg (1922–2005) made his first trip to Monhegan Island in 1961, he was a well-known painter with abstract-visionary inclinations. Following World War II, Hultberg had studied with Richard Diebenkorn and attended lectures by Mark Rothko at the California School of Fine Arts. He moved east in 1949, became friends with art dealer Martha Jackson, won first prize at the 1955 Corcoran Biennial, and had a number of successful shows in the US and Europe.

Monhegan was Hultberg’s seasonal muse for more than twenty years (his last stay was in 1984). During his first visit, he produced several canvases that are as representational as anything he had ever painted. While employing some of his signature abstract marks, including bright, mosaic-like pieces of color, Monhegan #1 (Lobster Point) and Monhegan #2 (Lobster Cove from Afar) are recognizable views.

Like fellow abstract painters Michael Loew, Lawrence Goldsmith, William Manning, and Reuben Tam, who worked on Monhegan in the same period, Hultberg transformed island motifs into new dynamic compositions. Deck of Wreck (1961) was probably inspired by the D.T. Sheridan, a well-known island shipwreck, but the painter re-imagined it as a glowing platform in a dark landscape.

Edward Deci, director of the Monhegan Art Museum, added autobiographical work as well as a group of canvases that relate to Hultberg’s dreams. The result is a full-bodied reconfirmation of the artist’s stature as a twentieth-century master. Such pieces as Borealis Arch (1966), Backyard (1966), Extreme Compression (1974), and Storm (1983), exemplify his charged vision.

In his catalog essay, Deci draws on his work as professor of psychology and social sciences at the University of Rochester to offer layered readings of the work, much of which is on loan from the Elaine R. Wechsler Living Trust. His analysis reveals an artist who used paint to reckon with a complex world, both personal and universal.

[John Hultberg and Monhegan Island originated at the Monhegan Museum of Art and travels to the Lore Degenstein Gallery at Susquehanna University, April 14–May 11, 2012.]

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