When Andy Verzosa operated a gallery in Portland, among his favorite artists to show was the late Bernard Langlais. The artist was known for his large, playful sculptures of animals, which he made with wood and an oversized imagination. Verzosa’s Exchange Street gallery was too small for the big pieces, but he exhibited — and sold — many smaller wall-hanging wooden pieces, as well as oil and watercolor paintings that Langlais completed before his interest turned to sculpture.
Verzosa has closed the gallery and now is interim director of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. The museum board appointed him last month, following the departure of Ron Crusan, who took a job as personal curator for Maine entrepreneur Linda Bean.
The first show of the season at Ogunquit? Bernard Langlais, of course.
Crusan had most of “Bernard Langlais: Wood, Paper, Canvas,” on view through June 26, in place before he left. But Verzosa tweaked it. He telephoned collectors who purchased pieces from him when he ran Aucocisco Galleries, borrowing work for the exhibition. “It’s like calling everyone home for a reunion,” he said. “Nothing like sliding in with an old friend.”
The exhibition provides a small overview of Langlais’ career and includes a few of the big animal sculptures that are part of the museum’s outdoor sculpture garden. At the title implies, “Wood, Paper, Canvas” shows a range of work, starting with early watercolors and oils from the 1950s and wood-reliefs, some carved, some assembled, that Langlais made in the 1960s and ’70s. There’s also a sculpture of a baying dog from the museum’s collection.
The Langlais show is one of five exhibitions that open the season at the seaside museum. Langlais is one of the most widely exhibited artists in Maine. After his widow, Helen, died in 2010, Langlais’ estate went mostly to Colby College, which received hundreds of works on paper and showed many of them in 2014. Colby worked with the Kohler Foundation of Wisconsin to distribute other Langlais art around the state. Dozens of pieces ended up in public institutions across Maine, including many in Portland. Last week, the Portland Public Art Committee installed a wooden “Puffin” inside the Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal.
Langlais was born in Old Town, studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and made his name in New York as part of an avant-garde movement in American art in the 1950s. He came back to Maine in the 1960s, living in Cushing in a sprawling estate that became home to his large animal sculptures.
His return to Maine coincided with an influx of New York artists, who came north in search of open space and inspiration. Among them was painter Alex Katz, who was friendly with Langlais in New York. They lived in the same building.
Evidence of their friendship is obvious in some of the early works on paper on view at Ogunquit. Langlais was clearly enamored of Katz — or perhaps it was the other way around. Langlais’ early paintings look a lot like Alex Katz paintings: Flat figurative work in dramatic color.
The other exhibitions that will start the season create context for Ogunquit’s role as artist colony. The museum is featuring paintings by Bernard Karfiol, who was part of the Armory Show in New York in 1913, a first exhibition of Modern art in America, and a member of the Ogunquit arts community. Last year, the artist’s descendants donated many paintings and items from the family collection to the Ogunquit museum in recognition of the community’s role in Karfiol’s painting career, Verzosa said. In addition to dozens of paintings, the exhibition, titled “Ogunquit Master,” includes sketchbooks, brochures promoting Ogunquit as an art destination, magazine articles and the painter’s brushes and oil palettes.
The museum also is showing watercolor florals by Patience E. Haley, a longtime member of the Ogunquit art scene, beginning in the 1950s. She is 89 now and lives in town. “It’s wonderful to be able to look back at an artist who helped make Ogunquit what it is and who happens to be here today,” Verzosa said.
Haley taught art at Harvard, Bowdoin and Middlebury colleges, and she is collected regionally with paintings at Smith College, the DeCordova Museum and the Addison Gallery of American Art, among others.
Other season-opening exhibitions include a collection of paintings by museum founder Henry Strader and works from its permanent collection, with early-20th century paintings by John Marin, Charles Woodbury, Peggy Bacon and others. The manicured grounds include a cast bronze dolphin by Robert Laurent, a whale and otters in Maine granite by Cabot Lyford and “Victory,” a cast bronze torso by William Zorach — and spectacular views of the sea.
WHERE: 543 Shore Road, Ogunquit
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
HOW MUCH: $10; $9 seniors and students; free 11 and younger
MORE INFO: 646-4909 or ogunquitmuseum.org