I have always thought of Herman Maril as an abstract artist -- not in the usual sense of non-representational, but in the dictionary sense of making an abstract, epitomizing or summarizing. The fine exhibit of Maril's work currently at St. John's College in Annapolis only confirms that opinion.
Maril (1908-1986) was a Baltimorean whose career spanned six decades, from the late 1920s to his death. The show's 49 paintings and drawings give us as true a picture of Maril's art as we're likely to get, thanks to curator David Scott, an art historian and former director of the National Museum of American Art. He concentrates on a group of major paintings from Maril's later years, when his style was fully developed, but also includes early works and drawings.
Paintings from the 1920s through the 1950s show him working under such influences as cubism and American regionalism, but also developing qualities of composition and color that are among the hallmarks of his best period.
The core of the show, however, is contained in a group of 16 paintings from the artist's last quarter-century that reveal the essential Maril.
These late works are bigger, brighter and lighter in feeling than Maril's early works. And more to the point, they possess the quality of epitomizing rather than depicting that Scott aptly terms (in the show's title) Maril's "Search for the Essence."
Maril always presented recognizable subject matter, primarily seascapes and studio and house interiors. But his paintings are not about reproducing their subject matter. On one level they are about the formal aspects of picture-making, such as color, space and composition, and the interaction between the abstract and the representational aspects of an image. Thus a painting such as "Ebb Tide" (1967) is really an arrangement of geometric areas of color as much as it is a picture of sky, sea and sand.
On another level, these works are about the emotional content of the visual world -- the joy or serenity or excitement that can be produced by our experience of sea or sky or even something as simple as a color.
"The Morning Paper" (about 1980) presents a counterpoint between the bright red-orange of the table and yellow of the flowers in the foreground and the soft blues, grays and browns of the room's walls and floor behind. But it's also a summation of what the figure positioned between the foreground and background -- Maril reading in a rocking chair -- must be feeling at such a time: quiet pleasure in this relaxed activity mixed with delight in the luxury of being able to spend this time, right here, doing this.
"Kitchen" (about 1970) is almost self-conscious in its geometric and spatial arrangements. But it's also about greeting the day -- about the pleasure of re-experiencing familiar objects and textures and the way the light falls across a room.
Scott has also included a selection of Maril's ink drawings. They are rewarding in their own right, and ones related to paintings throw light on the processes of Maril's creativity. The drawing of "Dialogue at Five" (1960s) quite obviously predates the painting (1970), since the latter has been pared down (six figures instead of 12, for instance) into a much more elegant image.
This show, thanks in no small part to Scott, is an opportunity to get to know Maril's work really well.
What: "Herman Maril: Search for the Essence"
Where: Mitchell Gallery of St. John's College, Annapolis
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday evenings, through Dec. 14
Call: (410) 626-2556