Before I'd seen his work, two things intrigued me about Hartley: his nomadic tendencies and his interest in the transcendentalists. A bit of a wanderer myself who once harbored a borderline unhealthy fascination with Thoreau and Emerson, I made a mental note to add Hartley to the list of dead people with whom I'd like to have dinner if ever given the opportunity. I figure I we could start by comparing travel notes over cocktails, I'd tell him my story about meeting Sufi muslims and he'd telling about living in France with Gertrude Stein. Then as dessert arrived, I'd beg him to give me a good reason to enjoy the work of his contemporary, Georgia O'Keefe.
I just recently heard a writer say that great writers aren't those who are the best educated in writing. Rather, those who excel in their craft are too busy living life and being moved by it to be strapped to a stack of university texts. Artists, too, I think fall generally under this rule of thumb. Only so much can be intellectually absorbed before the soul has to offer up something of artistic value--a necessary contribution that is not learned.
Hartley's work embodies that of a "living" artist.
He wandered the globe dutifully, associated with some of the art world's most infamous characters and produced work that seems to be representative of whichever wind he happened to be blowing in at the time. Walking from end to end in BAM's Hartley show is almost like taking a cross-country trek. The two coasts are vastly different. Stretching between them stand clusters of similar work, each pocket different from the next. From the mountains of his early, wispy landscapes to his late, watery work on Eight Bells Folly and Adelard the Drowned, Hartley embraced changed again and again. In fact, throughout his career, Hartley's style covered so many "-isms" that if the museum staff said each piece was a different artist, you'd almost believe it.
He called his work "little visions of the great intangible." They each strive for that thing beyond--whatever that thing may be. After taking it all in, it seems to me that, ironically, the great intangible is the only binding thread.