PORTLAND, Maine — Is Utopia always doomed to fail? It seems like it, if history’s any guide. Massachusetts alone is littered with ill-fated experiments: Fruitlands, a short-lived agricultural commune founded near the town of Harvard in 1843, didn’t last a year (Louisa May Alcott, whose father, Bronson, was among its founders, chronicled its folly in her book “Transcendental Wild Oats”). Brook Farm, in West Roxbury, envisioned as an agrarian-intellectual paradise, was born in 1841 and dwindled into disbandment by 1847. There are dozens. We could go on.
That’s the paradox of idealism: Utopias almost always look better on paper than they do in practice, their grand visions of a new world pulped into nothingness by the reality of the old one. The Portland Art Museum provides an exception to prove the rule: “In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-69,” which tracks the formative years of an art-college utopia in Northern Maine.
The title’s dates might mislead: There’s no endpoint for Haystack, a rare survivor among its peers of back-to-nature art schools of the mid-20th century. It continues to thrive on Deer Isle, an isolated pocket of self-directed idealism amid the northern forests and shores. Its closest corollary, Black Mountain College in North Carolina, ran from 1933 to 1957, leaving a beautiful corpse; its close association with elemental figures of the American avant garde — Merce Cunningham and John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, William de Kooning, Josef and Anni Albers — make it maybe the most eulogized hotbed of cross-disciplinary cultural experimentation in the world.
The ICA delivered us the completist’s version in 2016, with “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957.” Perfection’s easier to achieve in hindsight, particularly when embalmed. Black Mountain remains the perfect martyr for art-world idealism, not quite achieved. Paul Sacaridiz, Haystack’s current director, had it right when he said in conversation with the show’s curators Diana Greenwold and Rachael Arauz that utopian visions resonate most “because they failed. They make really good stories.” Haystack — never deeply studied, never the subject of academic research, never before now acknowledged by a museum — seems to have sentenced itself to relative obscurity simply by persisting.
To be fair, Haystack never particularly wore its avant garde-ism on its sleeve. While Rauschenberg’s work at Black Mountain helped inspire Cage’s “4’33”,” four-plus minutes of utter silence, which became an icon of conceptual performance, Haystack students were engaged in more homsepun and hands-on craft. In 1949, when its founders came together with Haystack’s patron, Mary Beasom Bishop, it wasn’t with an eye to revolution so much as back-to-the-land idealism and a yearning for communal experience.
Haystack first set up in tiny Liberty, Maine, in the shadow of Haystack Mountain, before relocating a little more than a decade later to its permanent home on Deer Isle. Buoyed by the optimism of the postwar years, the school imagined a loose, collaborative approach to learning in the embrace of natural wonder. Its crafty seminars cross-pollinated with poetry readings, music, and philosophy lectures. It surely sounds like paradise, and the floor-to-ceiling photographs here back it up: An instructor lecturing to a group of students lolling on a wooden deck overlooking the ocean, an array of tapestries pinned to a canvas amid a grove of mature spruce, a lively conversation taking place in a woodsy studio, underneath a pergola with sunlight streaming through.
It all made me think that Haystack’s relative obscurity might be due less to its survival than to the fact that its story lives more in scenes and moments like these than the work it yielded. The show is a wildly mixed bag of media and technique, though there are some undeniably beautiful things here: a 1956 woodcut print by Antonio Frasconi, in black ink, of himself from behind, windblown and clutching binoculars; the elegant, soft organic abstraction of Carol Summers’s “Aetna Waking” from 1960.
While the show situates Haystack in the growing radical craft movement of the 1960s — non-functional ceramics that looked to subvert the medium’s homespun reputation, for one, like Robert Arneson’s playfully creepy “Finger Bowl,” from 1967, a bowl with red nail-polish clad fingernails — there are an awful lot of plain old functional ceramics here: coffee cups and teapots, casseroles and vases. They feel less like utopian vision than they do a high-end summertime tourist trap.
Maybe Haystack’s strength — a non-prescriptive openness, a do-what-moves-you inclusive ethos — was also its weakness? It surely makes it impossible to describe as a movement. In one space, Olga de Amaral’s “Wall Hanging 1,” a spectacular abstract tapestry of individual strips and bolts interwoven as one, hangs across from a cringeworthy, folksy quilted wall hanging by Dorian Zachai, “Allegory of Three Men.”
Alongside its natural pedagogical peers, these look like muddy waters. Before Black Mountain, we had the Bauhaus, chased from Germany by the Nazi threat and reestablished in bits and pieces throughout the United States. The astringency of the Bauhaus yielded a bonafide aesthetic; Black Mountain offered a radical rethink of what art was, and could be. Haystack’s idealism is less aesthetic than it is experiential — a remarkable, communalist liberty without dictate. As an exhibition, that presents a challenge. How do you tell a story through objects when the story is far more compelling than the objects it produced?
Black Mountain had jet-fueled associates transforming the New York art world — Willem de Kooning, who taught there in 1948; Rauschenburg and Cy Twombly, who studied there together in 1951 — whose legacy would cement the school’s mythological status. While Haystack attracted notables — Anni Albers, who taught at Black Mountain with husband Josef, both of them key members of the Bauhaus School, taught a three-week class at Haystack in 1955 — none of its core figures went on to careers of comparable stature.
One exception stands out: When the school expanded its craft curriculum into blown glass in the early ’60s, it helped a young glass artist named Dale Chihuly establish his experimental techniques. Chihuly, now best known for insufferably gaudy glass conflagrations most at home in the abominable mega-resorts of Las Vegas, is no alumnus for a utopian art college to claim too strenuously, himself the living embodiment of the fine line between art, craft, and kitsch.
Chihuly is represented here with “Wine Bottle,” a small, playful clear glass vessel with a snaking tendril for a neck. Albers is, too, in the form of a small, simple tapestry with a pale checkerboard grid. But “In the Vanguard” is hardly an exhibition of superstar name-checks, or even an argument for greatness. It’s an exercise in celebrating creative liberty and collaboration for its own sake, with little regard for fame or market renown.
Maybe, it made me think, Haystack’s contribution to art pedagogy isn’t a signature aesthetic or philosophy, but an openness to accommodate and include, change and grow. That’s not a legacy given to revolutionary rhetoric or fiery eulogy, true. For a fully-functioning school with no plans for its eulogy to be written and a legacy very much still evolving, I doubt that matters one bit.
IN THE VANGUARD: HAYSTACK MOUNTAIN SCHOOL OF CRAFTS, 1950-1969
At the Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine, through Sept. 8. 207-775-6148, portlandmuseum.orgMurray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte