‘At First Light” at Bowdoin College Museum of Art was originally conceived as an exhibition to celebrate Maine’s bicentennial in 2020, but the Covid pandemic placed the show on hold.
That delay partly explains why it took me a while to figure it out.
My confusion was largely a function of “At First Light” essentially being a collection of three, perhaps four exhibitions in one.
First, there is the main exhibition, “At First Light: Two Centuries of Artists in Maine,” featuring some 100 works by artists who constitute the Maine canon, among them Winslow Homer, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, N.C. and Andrew Wyeth, Marguerite and William Zorach, Alex Katz and Neil Welliver.
Then there is the companion exhibition “At First Light: Photographs of Artist Studios and Homes by Walter Smalling,” a Washington, D.C., architectural photographer who summers in Maine.
In the exhibition’s heavy, handsome book, Smalling’s photographs are integrated with works of art by the 26 artists whose spaces he documents. In the exhibition, the photographs are displayed in a separate gallery. If you just saw the book, you might think there were only 26 artists in the show, but that’s because the book isn’t the exhibition catalog.
“The exhibition features the work of over 70 artists, whereas the publication features profiles of 26 artists whose homes and studios still stand today,” explained Frank Goodyear, the Bowdoin museum co-director. “The two projects are related and were developed simultaneously. That said, with the publication we decided to include Walter Smalling’s photography of these homes and studios alongside examples of the artists’ work. The publication was released in March 2020 on the occasion of the bicentennial of Maine statehood.”
Goodyear curated the exhibition with his wife, and museum co-director, Anne Collins Goodyear. Former Farnsworth Art Museum curator Michael Komanecky contributed to the Smalling book.
Finally, there is an exhibition of work by Maine tribal basket artists. Barry Dana, Molly Neptune Parker, and Ambroise St. Aubin are included in the “At First Light” show. Parker, Geo Neptune, Clara Neptune Keezer, Fred Tomah, and several anonymous basket makers are showcased in “Innovation and Resilience Across Three Generations of Wabanaki Basket-Making.” Like like most museums these days, Bowdoin makes a commendable effort to be inclusive, so Native American basketry is often exhibited along with contemporary fine art.
“At First Light” is a historical survey of 200 years of Maine-related art that makes the point that art has been central to the Maine experience and identity, while also seeking to correct past inequities by placing not only Native American artisans but also women artists and African-American artists in the context of an art history once biased towards white male artists.
The African-American artists in “At First Light” include Ashley Bryan, David Driskell, and Daniel Minter. Minter’s “A Distant Holla from the Mouth of the New Meadows River,” a reverential piece inspired by the Malaga Island mixed-race community extirpated by Maine officials, is one of the stars of the show.
When I wrote “three, perhaps four exhibitions in one,” I had in mind the Bowdoin faculty show that occupies an adjacent gallery. James Mullen’s “First Light, Acadia,” a mountaintop diptych panorama, definitely aspires to be part of the “At First Light” exhibit.
“At First Light” is a conceptually complex project curatorially complicated by COVID-19. I’m sorry to dwell on my confusion, but it’s well worth figuring out the multiple layers of art, exhibition, and publication.
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978. He also writes The Universal Notebook opinion column.