“The Undefeated,” 1948, oil on canvas by Fletcher Martin
“The Undefeated,” 1948, oil on canvas by Fletcher Martin
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HiLo Art braved the viral airports and went to St. Petersburg, Florida, for a week. The calm small waves at the wide Gulf’s edge, the nightly crowd drawn to the setting sun, the broad-leafed greenery, the heron at the door, a cool steady breeze north-south through the house, bare feet — these simple pleasures are revelations to a Mainer suddenly way south. One wonders, “Is this infinity?”

Of course, there was art. The St. Pete Museum of Fine Arts stood out, a small but wonderful set of galleries perfect for a pleasant afternoon visit. A big city museum might have an overwhelming number of works by first-tier masters encountered in the art history books — the imperative stuff. But those of us who are obsessed makers are not all Monets and Rembrandts. If we comprise the vast lower tiers, we are perhaps the grandest group of all. Each possessed of skill, vision, quality, we pursue the sweet fruits of imagination and discovery. Our art is no less passionate than our heroes’, and our results may be a bit more approachable because the glitter of fame does not obscure the artist’s pleasure in making, or the viewer’s in looking.

I loved this museum for all of that and much more, and I found myself focusing on works I might not have observed as closely in a larger venue.

“The Musician,” by painter George Luks of New York’s “Ashcan School” in the early 1900s, depicts a young man deeply weaving melodies on a bass clarinet. Eyes closed, face slightly folded in on itself, cheeks slightly puffed with his breath across the reed, nose a little red from exertion, shoulders hunched intensely, his somber brown suit against the plain, blue-grey ground, musician and tune have been suspended in time for over a century. Yet one can still nearly hear the instrument’s low, woody tones, and the player’s tart green necktie against his bright white collar is the twist in the bent notes of his bottomless blues. A brilliantly observed and rendered painting, it is understated, but quietly radiant.

Largely self-taught painter Fletcher Martin was an assistant to Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros in the early 1930s. The New Deal’s WPA later commissioned many of his own murals around the U.S., and he was an artist-correspondent for Life Magazine during World War II. In his compelling painting, “The Undefeated (1948),” dynamically criss-crossed ring ropes frame the last moments of loser Jersey Joe Wolcott’s bout with mighty Joe Louis late in both their careers. In their first fight a year before, underdog Walcott dominated for 15 rounds, yet Louis won by decision while the crowd booed. In their second fight, hearts were with Walcott, but Louis managed to knock him out in the 11th round. The artist focuses on Jersey Joe at that moment, beaten, nearly unconscious, and held upright by the referee, whose raised hand signals, “It’s over!” Wolcott heroically struggles to regain his footing and rejoin the fight he should have won. His refusal to surrender makes him the true “undefeated” one, while Louis, in his last fight, has already disappeared from view.

Joseph Stella’s modest “Waterlily (1940)” erupts, glowing white, from a pond’s still, black waters, while a bud nearby waits its turn above its reflection. Unmistakably observed with such sure admiration, the painting strikes a deep harmony between eye and hand, neither more nor less than needed.

Finally, I loved Syd Solomon, an abstract expressionist from Sarasota and East Hampton whose huge 1968 “Westcoastalscape” dominates a whole wall of the museum and spins full-circle to Florida itself, the vast sweep of skies and waters, bay and gulf, their constantly changing energies and wild shifts of color. This giant painting revels in the unexpected flow of water and light, like an awestruck visitor seeing them for the first time.

The St. Pete Museum of Fine Arts has many more than these four fine paintings and is a real treat. Keep this in mind, and next winter, after this virus stuff has finally run its course, get hip to this timely tip and book that St. Pete trip.