Painting occupied Bernard Langlais (1921-1977) throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and he moved from naturalism toward abstraction, from traditional landscapes and still lifes to experiments inspired by the European avant-garde. Increasingly, he became drawn back to the climate, terrain, and ethos of Maine. During his first summer there in 1956, he began experimenting with wood, constructing a mosaic-like wall from a pile of scraps. He called these assemblages “wood paintings” and described them as “the fulfillment I had been searching for.”
Back in New York, Langlais’s wood paintings aligned him with a group of artists who were finding expressive validity in materials not then considered appropriate to fine art. He was included in two genre-defining exhibitions—New Forms—New Media at the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1960 and The Art of Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961—and was the subject of a one-man show at the Leo Castelli Gallery.
Langlais was swept into an avant-garde movement (termed by some as assemblage or “constructivism”), although his approach to found materials was personal and high-spirited rather than based on a conscious critique of art or society. But when Langlais began to explore figurative subjects in wood—in particular, the animal life of coastal Maine—many from the audience that revered his first wood paintings balked at the shift. They called the work “craftsman-like” and “too primitive.” The stress of being in the limelight, and of having his work publicly scrutinized, took its toll. Langlais became increasingly embittered by the New York art scene and the arbitrariness of artistic success and returned to Maine permanently.
Bernard Langlais (pronounced “Lang-lee”) is best known today for his giant wooden sculptures of animals. In the last decade of his life, he treated his land as his canvas. Recycling and maximizing materials, he constructed larger-than-life works in wood, and placed them in whimsical arrangements amid trees, in ponds, on barn walls, and in the company of his small menagerie of farm pets.
Defying the static and sterile “white cube” gallery with a dynamic outdoor exhibition, he welcomed nature as an equal contributor to his creative process. Farm chores, muddy ponds, and changeable weather became as integral to Langlais’s art as they were realities of his environment. At the time of his death in 1977, Langlais’s outdoor art environment comprised well over 100 wood reliefs and three-dimensional pieces, including more than 65 monumental sculptures.
Bernard Langlais: Live and Let Live
The first major survey of the artist’s work outside of Maine, Bernard Langlais: Live and Let Live, will be on view at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center through October 3, 2021. Spanning his 30-year career, the exhibition explores the intertwined nature of Langlais’s art and his living and working environments in Maine.
Presenting monumental wooden animal sculptures from the 1970s, as well as his early, expressionistic landscape paintings, and the wood reliefs that started his career at the Leo Castelli Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art in the New York in the 1960s, Bernard Langlais: Live and Let Live considers the artist’s deepening sense of place as key to his evolution. The exhibition will be available online on April 19.
Live and Let Live traces the trajectory of Bernard Langlais’s life and work from Old Town, Maine, where he was born, to his canvases as a Fulbright scholar in Norway, to his exhibitions in New York City and his return to Maine in 1966, where his house, workshop, and outdoor sculptures have been preserved at the Langlais Sculpture Preserve in Cushing, Maine. Using original and re-created architectural elements from Langlais’s Maine houses and studios, the exhibition evokes the textures and forms that both inspired—and eventually merged with—his art.
“Bernard Langlais had a colossal artistic career, despite his life being cut short at the age of 56,” said exhibition curator Hannah W. Blunt, former Langlais Curator of Special Projects at the Colby College Museum of Art. “Live and Let Live takes the theme of place—and specifically, Langlais’s increasing association with his rural Maine roots—as the thread that runs through his restless artistry. His pursuit of a fulfilling, uninhibited physical connection to his art led him to create a lively art environment on the land he called home.”
The centerpiece of Bernard Langlais: Live and Let Live is an expansive barnyard scene representing the ambitious scale and themes of Langlais’s later works, as well as a trio of larger-than-life wooden lions from his outdoor environment. These works, and more than a dozen others by Langlais, were gifted to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in 2013 by Colby College and Kohler Foundation, Inc., two of the entities involved in preserving the artist’s 90-acre estate in Maine. A third organization, the Georges River Land Trust, now operates the site as the Langlais Sculpture Preserve.
“Langlais’s work tells such an interesting story in our collection of artist-built environments,” said Laura Bickford, associate curator, John Michael Kohler Arts Center. “After his fruitful career in the mainstream and commercial art world, he self-consciously chose to work on a site, directly eschewing all that had brought him his past success. His work attests to the indomitable spirit and pervasive sense of originality that characterizes so many of the artists in our collection.”
Live and Let Live is the first of two exhibitions at the Arts Center exploring Bernard Langlais’s life, art, and legacy. The second part, focusing on the evolution and stewardship of his built environment in Cushing, Maine, after this death, opens on October 24, 2021. Curated by Hannah W. Blunt, former Langlais Curator of Special Projects at the Colby College Museum of Art, the exhibitions are drawn from the Arts Center’s collection and loans from the Colby Museum, the Langlais Sculpture Preserve, and the Bernard Langlais papers at the Archives of American Art.
ABOUT BERNARD LANGLAIS
Bernard Langlais (1921-1977) was born in Old Town, Maine. He showed an early proclivity for drawing and left Maine after high school to study commercial art at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. He earned scholarships to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and the Brooklyn Museum Art School, as well as a Fulbright Scholarship to study the paintings of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch in Oslo.
Working in New York in the 1950s, Langlais developed a modernist painting style characterized by landscapes and still lifes with bold colors and flattened perspectives, while also experimenting with hard-edge abstraction and painterly expressionism.
Despite his commercial success, by the mid-1960s Langlais became disenchanted by the pressures of New York gallery culture. Interested in working on a larger scale, he purchased a farmhouse in Cushing and moved permanently to his native state. In the last 11 years of his life, he constructed more than 65 monumental wood sculptures on the land around his home, including his best-known commission, the over 70-foot-tall Indian for the town of Skowhegan, Maine.
During this period he also produced a massive oeuvre of two- and three-dimensional works exploring the patterns, textures, and expressive powers of the animal kingdom.
Late in his career, Langlais was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an honorary degree from the University of Maine, and a Ford Foundation Purchase Award, among other accolades. Following his death in 1977 at the age of 56, memorial exhibitions of his work were shown at Maine Coast Artists in Rockport, Maine (now the Center for Maine Contemporary Art), and at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. In 2002, the Portland Museum of Art mounted Bernard Langlais: Independent Spirit, a survey of the artist’s work in wood. In 2014, the Colby College Museum of Art presented the exhibition Bernard Langlais, the first scholarly retrospective on the artist, accompanied by a 256-page, hardcover catalogue.
LANGLAIS SCULPTURE PRESERVE
The Langlais Sculpture Preserve is a nature and sculpture park celebrating Bernard Langlais’s legacy and the natural resources of the Cushing peninsula in Maine. Established on a portion of Langlais’s Cushing homestead, the Preserve retains several of Langlais’s outdoor sculptures in situ, including the 13-foot Horse, Langlais’s first monumental outdoor work and a landmark of Cushing’s River Road; his satirical depiction of Richard Nixon in a marshy pond; and his sculptural homage to Christina Olson, the local woman featured in Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 masterpiece, Christina’s World, among other works.
The most significant of Kohler Foundation’s conservation and gifting initiatives in Maine, the Langlais Preserve is owned and operated by the Georges River Land Trust of Rockland.
ABOUT THE JOHN MICHAEL KOHLER ARTS CENTER
The John Michael Kohler Arts Center located north of Milwaukee in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, was founded in 1967. It is dedicated to making innovative exhibitions and arts programming accessible to a broad audience. Central to its mission is promoting understanding and appreciation of the work of self-taught and contemporary artists through original exhibitions, commissioned works of art, performing arts programs, and community arts initiatives. Since the 1970s, JMKAC has preserved, studied, and exhibited works by art-environment builders and has earned a worldwide reputation for its work in this area. Art environments involve an individual significantly transforming their surroundings—for example, their home or yard—into an exceptional, multifaceted work of art.
The Arts Center’s downtown Sheboygan facility includes eight galleries, two performance spaces, a café, a retail shop, and a drop-in art-making studio. Among its program offerings are community arts projects; artist residencies; presentations of dance, film, and music; a free weekly summer concert series; classes and workshops; an onsite arts-based preschool program; and approximately twelve originally curated exhibitions of the work of self-taught and contemporary artists annually. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center also administers the renowned Arts/Industry residency program, which is hosted by Kohler Co.
The John Michael Kohler Arts Center is located at 608 New York Avenue, Sheboygan, WI. Admission is always free. For information, call 920-458-6144, or visit jmkac.org, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.