Acadian Light-Heavy is the very picture of erotic longing. The image has lived in my mind since I first saw it in reproduction in 1975. It was years later that I saw the original at the Chicago Art Institute. Today, version III is featured in the inaugural exhibition at the new Whitney Museum. What I first noticed about this painting is that the figure appears to be looking at me from his chest. My attention is drawn away from his face and towards his body by the bull’s eyes of his upper torso. A light coming from the lower left side and slightly behind him illuminates the space he is standing in with sloping red and orange paint. He is forward in the space of the painting and backlit. The short brushy strokes that represent body hair are both comic and descriptive of the figure’s manliness. This painting is not a simple portrait, like much of his work, Hartley creates an image that transcends portraiture and reveals a type. I see an archetype of the virile man.
The almond shaped eyes are outlined with light. This is a handsome face but the body is what Hartley wants me to focus on. His body in relationship to the frame of the painting leaves spaces that are small in relation to the mass of the figure. The fighter has no hands; his genitals are sheathed in a dark cloth leaving just a suggestive shape. At first, we are struck by the overall shape of the body. The painting is modest in size, 40 x 30 inches, the simplification of the form and its placement in the frame of the canvas make the figure feel totemic and monumental. The play of light and dark is dramatic; the figure is modeled with dark reds and yellow ocher mixed with patches of orange. The highlighted areas of the neck and torso are clear strokes of yellow ocher and white. The paint is applied with directness and follows the contours of the form, adding to the man’s dramatic presence. Seeing version III of Acadian Light-Heavy at the new Whitney reminded me how you can know a great painting, but its presence will still surprise you.
In 1975, when I first encountered this painting, I was reading Linda Nochlins’ feminist texts contrasting traditional representations of women and men in western art. My take away was an irritation with how often women were represented as passive, depicted naked or nude, and how they seemed always to be agents of nature. By contrast, men were often represented by their vocations – be it knight, fisherman, carpenter, or King. For the most part, men were not represented as vulnerable with the exceptions of Christ and St. Sebastian who were often shown half-naked, dead, or pierced with arrows. The painting Man of Sorrows by Marten Van Heemskerck, created in 1532, shows a well–developed Christ with a light cloth fairly dancing around his groin. Identified by Leo Steinberg in the essay “The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Painting” this is a fine example of an exposed man, powerful in his vulnerability. Representations of half clothed men interest me, as they might reveal the hidden side of sexual dynamics and gender politics. The man in Acadian Light–Heavy is mostly naked but takes an aggressive, totemic stance. This great Marsden Hartley painting is not only a work of personal desire, it challenges social norms and contains mystery in the simplicity of its form. What is the place of the body in the imagination and what is its part in being human?