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August 29, 2007

TT: Way up north (II)

AUGUST 6 To Stonington, Maine, memorably portrayed by John Marin in two gorgeous watercolors hanging in Colby College's Marin Collection. (Go here and click on the seventh image to get an impression of what this delightful coastal fishing town looks like.) Then via mail boat to Isle au Haut, seven miles off the Maine coast, which I last visited in 2003 in order to write the following Wall Street Journal column:

Six months ago, I bought a Fairfield Porter lithograph. Two weeks ago, I stood at the edge of a rocky cove near the southern tip of a remote island off the coast of Maine, looking at the same scene Porter viewed when he sketched "Isle au Haut." To get there, I hiked for two sweaty hours along a narrow woodland trail, stepping over snakes and trying not to turn an ankle. What possessed a flabby, chair-bound critic like me to make such a journey? It seemed like a good idea as I sat in the air-conditioned comfort of my home office, but I started having second, third and fourth thoughts as I trudged up the Goat Trail of Isle au Haut.

Porter isn't exactly a household name, but many connoisseurs consider him one of the greatest American artists (and art critics) of the 20th century, an astonishingly original representational painter whose style fuses two seemingly disparate idioms: the intimate domestic realism of Bonnard and Vuillard and the excitingly free brushwork of Willem de Kooning and other Abstract Expressionists. I knew I wanted to own something by Porter when I first started buying art, and I was lucky to find a good impression of this, the last lithograph he made before his death in 1975 at the age of 68. In it, a cove rimmed by pine-topped cliffs is loosely rendered in flat, irregularly shaped blotches of green, grey, tan and dusty pink. It is at once abstract and representational, a heightened vision of the craggy Maine landscapes Porter loved. When I heard that the Portland Museum of Art was showing a retrospective exhibition of his paintings, I got the idea of visiting the show, then looking for the actual cove portrayed in "Isle au Haut."

This turned out to be rather more complicated than trying to find the well-known spots where Monet or Cézanne stood when painting their celebrated plein air landscapes. The isolated Isle au Haut is no resort. It consists mainly of rugged wilderness, though it is also home to 47 year-round residents who pronounce its name "eye-la-HOE." The only place for visitors to stay is the tiny Keeper's House Inn. Unfazed by the lack of electricity or telephones, I booked a room, and a few weeks later clambered aboard the mail boat from Stonington to Isle au Haut. Just two days before, I'd been walking through the Portland Museum, where I found a 1974 painting by Porter called "Cliffs of Isle au Haut," the original version of my lithograph. The painting is three times larger and more brightly colored, but the composition is identical, and I felt sure it was a good omen.

Once I got to Isle au Haut, though, I realized I was in over my head. The 4,700-acre island was bigger than I'd thought (New York's Central Park covers just 843 acres), and the shoreline contained a wealth of coves accessible only on foot. How to find the right one in the four days I'd allotted--if at all? I showed my kindly hosts a photo of "Isle au Haut" included in a book of Porter's prints. They told me where it might be and swore I could find the spot without unreasonable difficulty. The next morning, I climbed into a battered SUV and rattled down a dirt road to the long hikers' path known as the Goat Trail that was supposed to lead me there.

About the next two hours I will say nothing other than that I spent much of it cursing for having embarked so casually on so self-evidently impossible a task. Then I stumbled over a ridge, stepped between two trees and onto a huge flat rock, and knew at once that I was standing more or less where Porter had stood. The pines were taller, making the cliffs somewhat less imposing, and three decades' worth of waves had gnawed at the shoreline. But the cool white light was the same, and so were the rocks, tan and green and--yes--pink, just as Porter had painted them. I pulled a disposable camera out of my backpack, composed a scene in the viewfinder that resembled "Isle au Haut" and took a snapshot.

As I staggered back down the Goat Trail, the baritone rumble of the offshore lobster boats ringing faintly in my ears, I remembered the remark by Porter that Justin Spring chose as the epigraph of "Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art." "When I paint," he wrote, "I think that what would satisfy me is to express what Bonnard said Renoir told him: make everything more beautiful." Once I returned to New York and looked at "Isle au Haut" with new eyes, I understood at last the profound truth behind those deceptively simple words. Yes, Porter's lithograph was realistic in the sense that it portrayed a real place recognizably--but the amazing freedom with which he transformed its contours into fields of color summed up the difference between life and art.

In the pocket of my jeans was a stone I'd found in the cove, its richly mottled surface reproducing with near-perfect fidelity the colors of "Cliffs of Isle au Haut." Now it rests on my desk, a souvenir of the August morning when I beheld the beautiful reality embodied in that even more beautiful work of art.

The Keeper's House Inn hasn't changed a bit since 2003. It's still far beyond the reach of cellphones and e-mail. The proprietors, Jeff and Judi Burke, still serve the tastiest meals imaginable. The lighthouse still beams its gentle reddish-orange glow through the windows of the candlelit third-floor garret bedroom. You can read all about it in the pages of Island Lighthouse Inn: A Chronicle, Jeff's engagingly written story of life on Isle au Haut. Alas, you can't stay there anymore, for Jeff and Judi are putting the Keeper's House Inn up for sale, and they will no longer be taking guests after the end of this season. I'm glad I got to see them one more time.

AUGUST 9 Back to Stonington via mail boat, and from there down the coast to Ogunquit, Maine, to see The King and I at Ogunquit Playhouse (about which more here) and eat as many of Flo's Steamed Hot Dogs as I could stuff down my gullet. Order a jar of Flo's relish by mail--you won't be sorry.

Would that I could recommend the Ogunquit Museum of American Art with like fervor, but it was a disappointment, a small museum that prefers hosting second- and third-rate traveling exhibitions to hanging the treasures of its permanent collection. The view is fabulous, but otherwise my visit was a waste of time.

AUGUST 10 To East Haddam, Connecticut, home of Goodspeed Musicals, which is currently performing High Button Shoes (about which more in Friday's Wall Street Journal drama column). Housed in an 1876 opera house that overlooks the Connecticut River, Goodspeed Musicals is one of the most picturesque theaters in America, and it also has the near-overwhelming advantage of being just fifteen minutes away from the River Tavern, my favorite of all the restaurants at which I've dined in the course of my theater-related travels.

Instructions for maximum pleasure: (1) Don't eat lunch. (2) Make a 5:30 reservation in order to dine at leisure and get to Goodspeed in plenty of time for an eight o'clock curtain. (3) Order the chocolate soufflé. (4) Spend the night at the Bishopsgate Inn, conveniently located a block from the theater. (5) Drive home the next day, secure in the knowledge that you've had a fabulous time.

(Second of two parts)

Posted August 29, 2007 12:00 AM

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