Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer and erstwhile art critic for the Portland Independent and Maine Times. His blog Just Looking: A Critic’s Eye on New England Art is hosted by Yankee magazine. In keeping with our unofficial New England theme this week, we invited Mr. Beem to answer a few questions about the perennially beautiful art of that region, as well as his own life and writing.
AMoS: Are you an artist yourself? If so, in what medium or media do you work?
EAB: No, I am not an artist, though I do have a modest talent for caricature. Other than Fairfield Porter, I can’t think of an artist offhand who wrote significantly about art. Many artists have a hard time seeing the value and beauty of art that is not at all like their own. Porter was one of the representional painters who kept realism alive during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, but he was not blind to the genius of Willem De Kooning.
AMoS: How did you get started as an arts writer?
EAB: I began writing art reviews in 1978 for The Portland Independent, a short-lived alternative weekly. Peter Cox, the editor-publisher of Maine Times, saw my writings and offered me a job as the culutural reporter and art critic for Maine Times. Alas, neither Peter nor Maine Times is with us any longer.
AMoS: You’re the author of two books called Maine Art Now (1990) and Maine: The Spirit of America (2000). What qualities distinguish the art of Maine from other New England art, and what qualities distinguish New England art from other regional art?
EAB: For the most part, the most significant art in the world does not have regional identities. Art is a transcendent, international enterprise, a search for meaning through visual means. That said, Maine has attracted artists since the mid-19th century because of its natural beauty. There is still a strong, traditional painterly landscape tradition along the coast and up into the mountains. Of course, there have been and are fine artists working in all of the New England states, with significant art scenes on Cape Cod and Cape Ann, the White Mountains, Old Lyme, the Berkshires, etc, but the strongest contemporary landscape painting still comes out of Maine.
AMoS: Do you have a favorite artist or favorite work of art? Favorite New England artist in particular?
EAB: As a Maine native and chauvinist, I am most drawn to native Maine artists because, rather than imitate or describe the natural beauty of the state, they tend to internalize the realities of life in Maine and express them in abstract and conceptual ways. Among my favorite artists are Charlie Hewitt (a native of Lewiston-Auburn), Celeste Roberge (a native of Biddeford whose sculpture is on the cover of Maine Art Now), Alan Bray (a native of Dover-Foxcroft), Eric Hopkins (a native of North Haven), Dozier Bell (Lewiston), William Manning (Lewiston), and Michael Waterman (Portland). That said, I think sculptor John Bisbee, who grew up outside Boston and now teaches at Bowdoin, has created some of the most exciting and important sculpture in Maine since Louise Nevelson left Rockland for New York.
My single favorite Maine painting is Parson Jonathan Fisher’s 1824 “A Morning View of Blue Hill Village.” If it ever disappears from the Farnsworth Art Museum, you’ll know where to start looking for it.
AMoS: How has the art world (and the art market) changed since your career began? What trends do you foresee shaping it in the future?
EAB: Over the 30 years I have been writing about art in Maine and New England I have observed how the art scene and art markets seem to rise and fall with the economy. Maine Art Now probably should be re-titled Maine Art Then, as it chronicles the flourishing of the art scene during the go-go years of the 1980s. That scene died way back after 1988 and had begun to re-gain momentum with a lot of new players when war, energy prices, and the collapse of the credit market started to slow things down again in recent years.
AMoS: You recently called photography the “hottest art medium today.” Do you find that the comparative ease and availability of digital photography are “pushing aside” other, more traditional media, such as painting? That is, are young artists focusing on one at the expense of the other?
EAB: No, I don’t think photography is pushing aside painting or other media. I just think the question, “Is photography art?” was definitively answered in the affirmative in the 1980s. The art market is always looking for the new and the next and what it found was a lot of very talented visual artists working in photography—both film and digital. The question being asked now, as the traditional print markets for photojournalism dry up, is: “Is photojournalism art?” More and more photojournalists are looking to exhibit and sell their prints as newspaper and magazine art budgets decline.
AMoS: Your column in Yankee is focused on regional art, but which contemporary international artists excite you most?
EAB: I’m generally most excited by artists whose work is holistic, meaning not just about the object but taking the entire experience of perception into account. So I’m a big fan of artists such as Christo, Olafur Eliasson, and Robert Irwin who create or alter whole environments.
AMoS: Finally: when you hear the word “stylish,” whom or what do you think of?
EAB: Alex Katz. Style is his subject.
As it is ours, Mr. Beem. Thank you again for graciously lending your time, and we encourage all Abbeville readers (Yankee or otherwise) to make Just Looking one of their go-to weekly reads.