A Reclusive Kansas Painter Mounts a Three-Show Summer Blitz
All I’ve ever wanted to do is paint,” Mike Hartung said in a recent interview, “but I’ve never had any desire for self-glorification.” Which explains why, at age 72, the artist from Lindsborg, Kansas, is only now exhibiting his artworks for the first time to the public.
In August the Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery, the Salina Art Center and the Moss-Thorns Gallery at Fort Hays State University will simultaneously exhibit over 60 of Hartung’s works spanning more than four decades. The few who have seen Hartung’s art in his studio are justifiably thrilled for him; the many more who will view it for the first time can expect revelations. Hartung’s paintings are unique, heartfelt and worthy of even more gallery and museum venues.
Hartung’s oeuvre is representational, and generally revolves around actual people, sites or events that took place in Lindsborg or Salina. His subjects range from gas stations to fast food restaurants, moonlit evenings to an elderly woman stealing eggs in a grocery store. David Lynch would love his art; Hartung is fearless about depicting the underside of small-town life, as well as its casual pleasures.
“Part of the joy of never having to show anyone my work is that I go to a lot of strange places in my paintings. If I’m anonymous I can float with my eyes open and my ears open,” Hartung says.
His paintings of gas stations and laundromats possess the existential angst of Edward Hopper’s iconic works from the 1930s and ’40s, while works that deal with the seasons and nature are delicate, romantic, even surreal.
On the darker side, besides some pointed political paintings, Hartung depicts a man and a woman sharing an adulterous, post-coital cigarette near a propane tank, after which, according to local lore, they were promptly blown up. In the astonishing “Thank You, Terry Evans,” a man is shown acting as a pimp for a woman lying in a bed. The painting is based on a story recounted to Hartung by his friend, well-known photographer Terry Evans, about a local man selling his mentally handicapped sister’s favors.
What keeps him honest, Hartung says, is that he’s never sold any of his artworks and never intends to. For the sake of posterity, he has recently started writing about each of his paintings. “I love to read and I love to write letters, and I had a good time remembering why I painted a lot of these works.”
Hartung, who grew up in Fredonia, got a B.A. in art education from Emporia State University, and then was drafted into the Vietnam War. When he returned, he said, “I was just so happy to be alive. But I realized I didn’t want to teach school, and I didn’t have any direction. So in 1969 I went back to Emporia State and took two semesters of painting classes.”
He was also married, and needed a job. He moved back to Fredonia and worked in a print shop. In 1975 he relocated to Lindsborg with his wife, and became the production manager of a print shop in Salina, where he worked until his recent retirement.
“I rented a studio the first day I got to town, before I found a house and a job,” he said.
He and his wife had a son (whom he named Willem, after the painter Willem deKooning), but they eventually divorced. Hartung became a single father, and his mother moved in with them.
The upcoming retrospectives of Hartung’s work would not be happening without serious help from the artist’s friends, as he is the first to admit. In 2013 Laura Klocke, whom he met in the ’70s, showed up in Lindsborg for a funeral and contacted Hartung, whom she had not seen or spoken to in 10 years.
Laura first met Hartung with her husband, Richard Klocke, while they were both working on their BFA degrees at Bethany College in Lindsborg. Both eventually moved to Chicago where they received their MFAs from the Art Institute of Chicago, and then moved to Lawrence. (Richard is currently exhibitions manager at the Spencer Museum; Laura just retired from Allen Press in Lawrence.)
Laura Klocke visited Hartung in his loft, saw that he was living in straitened circumstances and had stopped painting. Although still working in the print studio, Hartung had been felled by heart disease and a series of operations, including by-pass surgery. He had a single canvas tacked up in his studio, the only painting he had worked on in a decade, and there was only one working light bulb.
Soon after, Laura returned to Lindsborg with Richard and another friend, Randy Just, and the group instigated an intervention with Hartung and his loft. An electrician was brought in, and the studio and living spaces were cleaned up. In the middle of an arctic blast, the crew took 365 of Hartung’s paintings outside and photographed them. The next step was arranging for various curators to come see the work.
“I can’t believe it,” Hartung says. “They took a week of their vacation time to come help me get me on my feet again. They just whipped me into shape.” Hartung’s studio was only one block from the Sandzen Memorial Gallery, but the curators there had never met him. Studio visits were arranged, and various curators were invited to view the paintings. Word spread among art professionals, which resulted in the three upcoming exhibits of Hartung’s work.
“I had a 10-year block,” Hartung says, “but now it’s Katy-bar-the-door. . . I may not be in the mainstream art world, but I have a rapport with where I live, and I’m going to semi-document it here. I’m dancing here.”
“Paintings by Mike Hartung of Lindsborg, Kansas” opens with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Aug. 5 with an artist talk at 5:30 at the Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery in Lindsborg, where it continues through Oct. 22. For more information, 785.227.2220 or sandzen.org.
“Gas Stations, Laundromats, and the Spaces in Between: Paintings by Mike Hartung” opens with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 4 at the Salina Art Center, where it continues through Oct. 29. For more information, 785.827.1431 salinaartcenter.org.
“Works of Mike Hartung” opens with a reception from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Aug. 25 at the Moss-Thorns Gallery at Fort Hays State University, where it continues through Sept. 15. For more information, 785-628-4247 or fhsu.edu.
In conjunction with the exhibitions, the Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery is publishing a book on Hartung’s work with an introductory essay by Bill North, executive director of the Salina Art Center.
Photos by Jonathan Blumb