The Universal Notebook: Langlais in limbo

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As the Portland Public Art Committee ponders whether to dismantle and store “Tracing the Fore,” the stillborn sculptural installation in Boothby Square, its members might do well to consider the fate of another dismantled work of art that has been languishing in limbo for the past 30 years.

In 1979, less than two years after sculptor Bernard “Blackie” Langlais died, the new owners of the Samoset Resort in Rockland removed the whimsical wooden fountain he had created for the resort, a 24-foot composition of pier pilings and carpentered sea birds and mammals. The original owners had gone bankrupt, Langlais had never been paid, and his widow disowned the desecrated fountain.

The Portland Museum of Art came to the rescue, taking possession of the Langlais fountain. For the past 30 years, the museum has been paying to store the pieces of the fountain – a pile of pilings and 18 sea creatures – in a Portland warehouse at a mounting cost now in the tens of thousands of dollars.

“My sense,” says Thomas Denenberg,Portland Museum of Art deputy director and chief curator, “is that the museum never should have been involved from the get-go. It’s a work that the estate has said is no longer the work of the artist because it has been removed from its context and mistreated.”

Earlier this year, Denenberg took Jack Soley, chairman of the Portland Public Art Committee, to the Earle W. Noyes warehouse to view the remains of the Langlais fountain. Soley thought the wooden birds might be used to mark Portland’s new Bayside Trail, but the legal and artistic limbo the fountain is in, not to mention the fragile physical condition, convinced Soley that wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Soley has had his eye on another outdoor Langlais sculpture, the great Trojan Horse that stands in front of the late artist’s farmhouse in Cushing, but it seems unlikely that Langlais’s landmark wooden horse will end up in Portland.

When Helen Langlais, Blackie’s widow, died earlier this year, the Langlais estate was left to the Colby College Museum of Art, which will select the pieces it wants to keep, disperse the rest, and sell the farm. The great horse would look wonderful standing beside the Colby museum, overlooking the athletic fields where the White Mules play.

As for the dismembered and disowned Samoset fountain, there is now talk of trying to place it, or pieces of it, not with Colby, but perhaps with another Maine museum.

“If there were an entity that could take care of it,” Denenberg says, “I’d be happy to enter into a conversation.”

He suggests, however, that the only future he can imagine for the rotting remains of the Langlais fountain is as a case study for a graduate thesis is art history. If Portland does decide to de-accession “Tracing the Fore,” it might be better off scrapping it altogether, rather than consigning it to limbo in hopes of someday resurrecting it.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.