Marsden Hartley

American, 1877–1943

Berlin Series, No. 1, 1913

Oil on canvasboard 

18 x 15 inches

Having been invited to visit Berlin by sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck in 1913, Hartley fell in love with Germany and decided to relocate there. (He was forced to return to the United States in 1915 following the outbreak of World War I.) Hartley experienced critical growth in Berlin. It was there that he met Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, who led Hartley to understand the importance of embracing spiritual values in painting.

Berlin Series, No. 1 is one of the earliest works in the group of paintings that Hartley called hisAmerikaseries. Though he used the German spelling of America, he took inspiration from Native American art. Hartley had developed interest in this art through his affiliation with Alfred Stieglitz and his circle, and he encountered a similar appreciation of primitive art among the European avant-garde. Of the approximately 14 Amerika paintings, Berlin Series, No. 1 is among four smaller paintings that are probably Hartley’s earliest Berlin paintings and convey his most abstract interpretations of Native American themes. The Amerika series represented a milestone in Hartley’s career and placed him at the forefront of the international art scene.

Biederman spent two intense years in New York City from September 1934 to September 1936, during which time the present work was completed. Working out of a studio in Washington Square, Biederman was inspired by the city and the art scene around him.  Biederman made use of the most notable artistic resource of the neighborhood, Albert E. Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art.  Installed in the reading room of the New York University’s downtown campus, this groundbreaking collection of the latest in modern art featured important works by Léger, Miró, and Mondrian. Biederman also met the “Park Avenue Cubists” George L.K. Morris, Suzy Frelinghuysen, and Charles Green Shaw, a group whose works reflected the tenets of Abstraction and Cubism. 

The present work perfectly illustrates Biederman’s artistic philosophy that he developed in New York during the 1930s, showing direct influence to European models while also demonstrating a unique style. The large composition lacks narrative or recognizable imagery, and instead explores abstract form, color, and space. Biomorphic shapes and flat, ribbon-like lines are painted to emphasize the vertical format of the canvas. The sinuous linear objects are rendered with depth and volume, in a style that evokes early Surrealist paintings of Picasso and the high-polish finish of Léger. The influence of Miró is also evident in the floating organic objects set against the radiant and saturated background of blue and black paint. Biederman also found inspiration in his American contemporaries; the relationship between the forms on the canvas mirrors the balancing and floating effects of Alexander Calder’s three-dimensional standing mobiles from the early 1930s.