Robert Spencer's Art: A Balance of Spirit and Matter
Remember the first time you drew a house? I mean the primal moment when your pencil or crayon made the primal shape, the squares for windows on either side of the door, the flat roof (or, if you were inspired, the slanted roof), and the chimney. You had to have a chimney, for Christmas Eve.
The houses in Robert Spencer's paintings made me feel something like that special moment all over again. I don't know why his houses had this effect on me. Dwellings like the one in "Summertime," the painting featured on the Michener Museum's publicity material, can still be seen in New Hope and Lambertville and along the Delaware and its adjacent canal.
When I first heard about this exhibit I passed it off with a shrug. I was not tempted to make a special effort to see the work of a local artist billed as part of "The Summer of Pennsylvania Impressionism." I thought it might offer nothing more than a series of conventional Bucks County landscapes, river or canal scenes. If I hadn't had other reasons for driving to Doylestown that day, I might never have discovered the stirring, spirited work of Robert Spencer.
The exhibit's title is "The Cities, The Towns, The Crowds," which promises something more challenging than work that can be patronized as that of a local artist. In fact, the painter never names the cities and the towns. He expressly avoids being pinned down to Bucks County or Pennsylvania. His mind runs on universals. You can assume the urban scenes come out of Philadelphia and New York since as a Bucks County resident, Spencer lived within easy reach of those two cities. But his cities and towns are creations, not representations.
Robert Spencer suffered bouts of depression throughout his life and endured a turbulent marriage. In July 1931, after a particularly ferocious clash with his wife, he shot himself. He was only 52. If you know this at the outset, you may be tempted to read the exhibit with the painter's fate in mind, looking for telltale clues or intimations.
The exhibition commentary by senior curator Brian H. Peterson includes this quote from a letter the artist wrote a few months before his death: "The art of today is as chaotic as is society. It does not seem to be going anywhere, just traveling in aimless circles at full speed." Spencer loves the "wine, food and flesh" of Renoir. He finds Matisse and Picasso empty, inhuman, mere "brushstroke and intellect: If that is how wine and food and life should taste, the world for me is dead." He mentions his own quest for the "balance of spirit and matter."
I don't believe in reading a painter's work in the light of his life. But I believe a truly effective display of his paintings, like this one, will suggest the life of his art in a way that illuminates, or, in the best work, transcends biography. Spencer's art achieves that balance of spirit and matter.
As the curator points out, Spencer liked buildings that were "old, beat-up, abandoned. He often painted the back of a building instead of the front." The canalside houses in "Summertime" are viewed from the back. An interest in seeing the hidden side of things seems to fit with the artist's reluctance to specify the locales he's painting. If you imagine the front of a house as a face, choosing to paint the back suggests looking beyond the facade. The notion of the face of a house also brought me back to that first moment of moving a crayon toward the primal image that sometimes developed human features as the windows on either side of the doorway became eyes.
Another work that flashed me back to childhood was the Cezannesque "The Two Shores" (1915), where the toylike buildings resemble miniature wooden houses on the floor of a child's room. The influence of Cezanne was no longer in evidence a decade later when no less a painter than Pierre Bonnard remarked that Spencer was "in the full vigor of his talent, which is great. His art does not resemble European art, a rare fact in America."
A year later F. Newlin Price, a friend and art critic, observed that Spencer idealized canal barges and converted "dark silk factories into dream castles." Based on the paintings at the Michener, the mills and factories Spencer painted are dream castles only if you think of dark fairy tales or the battlements of Mordor. These looming masses are rich with atmosphere but can hardly be called romantic or idealized when they have been shaped by an artist with an eye for the back of things, the nondescript, the anonymous. When asked what people made in his mills, Spencer said "Damned if I know."
Look at his skies. The sky in "Closing Hour at the Mill" seems downright cheerful compared to the gloomy workaday human scene: it's a patchy blue, stippled with clouds. But look at the sky in one of the darker later works, "The Exodus," in which a modern-day Moses, as a Hasidic Jew, is leading his people anywhere but to the promised land (this, some five years before Hitler came into power); the city looms behind him, massively grim and the sky above it patchy and yellow with a deathly pallor, the miasma of the modern world the painter saw whirling into chaos.
The four paintings that conclude the exhibit surpass the others in sheer intensity and scope. They are larger and more explicit. Suddenly, you realize, this "Bucks County artist" has become a contemporary of Reginald Marsh's. He also has learned a thing or two from Goya and Daumier with the close-to-caricature human figures and from Delacroix with the crowded range of the action. The titles tell the story. Along with "The Exodus," you have "Mob Vengeance" (1930) where a woman, her gown torn, one breast bared, is preparing to hang the victim from a lamp post; "The Seed of Revolution" (1928) where the mob is heading toward us, a powerful woman once again the focal figure carried aloft by the crowd, a citadel-like building in the background; and, finally, "Crucifixion" (1931) which is more openly contemporary than the others; the workman hammering "INRI" on top of the cross might be some ordinary workman going about his business.
Robert Spencer's masterful "The Exodus" was produced at a time when he was excitedly informing his friend Duncan Phillips (eventual founder of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.) that he was "cutting deeper and with a freedom from painting conventions that I never had before.... I dare to say what is in my mind with conviction and a free brush and palette." The works done from that point in 1928 until his death justify these words, words that suggest that, however he ended his life, this amazing artist did not "go gently" into Dylan Thomas's "good night."
The Towns, The Crowds" will be on view in the Wachovia Gallery at
the James A. Michener Art Museum through September 19. There is
a charge of $4 in addition to regular admission.