If you were hanging around Montville in July or August of 1968, you might have seen a hand-drawn poster inviting you to the local grange hall for a free screening of the newest film by Rudy Burckhardt. Watching his films, you wouldn’t feel like you were seeing something out of Hollywood. You might even feel like you were being spoofed by a summer person, some pretentious hipster from away putting on artsy silent pictures like it was 1929. You may have been aware that many of the actors in the film weren’t professional actors at all, but that they were among the leading American artists of their time.

I first learned of the Slab City group on a chance visit to the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland. I had family in town and the Farnsworth was on their agenda. I had been to the museum several times before and had always loved it, but I wasn’t expecting to see anything new that day. I ended up being floored by both the art and the local history.

The Farnsworth was running a temporary exhibition, entitled “Slab City Rendezvous,” highlighting the work of several postwar artists that had gathered in the Midcoast to create some of the most significant American art from that period. It was a time in the painting world when the center of gravity had shifted from Paris to New York. Paris was devastated by World War II and artists were fleeing from it rather than flocking to it. New York was now the world capital of painting, but it was dominated by a philosophy of abstract expressionism. It wasn’t cool anymore to paint landscapes or portraits; everyone was painting their feelings without reference to the visible world. But a group of young artists was beginning to get bored with that consensus and they were looking for new modes to work in. They included Lois Dodd, Alex Katz, Red Grooms, Mimi Gross, Yvonne Jacquette, and Blacky Langlais. Rudy Burckhardt was an unsung hero of this postmodern renaissance in Maine. The British painter Rackstraw Downes dropped in and out but always had productive visits. The poet Edwin Denby hung around and was muse to them all.

Slab City Road in Lincolnville got its name from the large slabs of lumber and granite that were staged there before being brought by rail down to Ducktrap Harbor. All of that industry was long gone by the time these artists arrived there, though. They were struggling New York City painters, poor bohemians, and the land was cheap but inspirational. Katz had been a student at Cooper Union and received a scholarship to spend a summer at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Design, an elite academy that was at the forefront of that period’s avant-garde. Katz and his friends began to explore the surrounding landscape as material for their work. Eventually, they made their way down to the coast, where they would create their permanent summer studios. Katz and his first wife bought a yellow house on Slab City Road as a joint venture with Lois Dodd. Grooms and Gross rented a nearby house with Burckhardt and Jacquette. Between the two houses they forged a creative ecosystem that allowed them to exchange technical ideas while helping each other out with the chores.

The title of the exhibition was borrowed from the name of a painting by Red Grooms that could be said to sum up the whole spirit of their movement. Grooms painted his friends and colleagues as they gathered at their rental cottage. Rudy Burckhardt can be seen on top of the house with his easel. His figure is a wood cutout that juts above the frame, as if Rudy didn’t quite fit inside it, but was still a part of it.

The theme of solitude runs through many of these paintings of grouped people. The scenes depict community but also individualism, everyone together but working on their own things. Katz’s “Ives Field” pieces show various members of the group gathered outside in a picturesque landscape. They seem happy and comfortable together but each of them is looking in a different direction. Even in Red Grooms’ “Maine Room,” which depicts the housemates relaxing together in a heavily decorated room, all but the two card players appear to be immersed in their own pastime. In the photobook, “At First Light,” Dodd explains: “You have to have something that you don’t ask anyone about. I’ve always been aware of that with painting. No one can really help you or say whether it’s good or bad. It’s just you and it, and that’s great. You can handle everything else in your life much more easily because you have that place where you are on your own.” When Dodd wasn’t working on her painting, she and her son would visit with their neighbors, sitting as models or sometimes acting as extras in one of Burckhardt’s films.

Their paintings speak for themselves. They are abstractions of the landscape and landscapes of abstraction. They made portraits of their friends and their friends’ children. Downes began painting Maine’s industrial landscape rather than an imagined bucolic paradise. Yvonne Jacquette took to the sky, painting the landscape from the passenger seat of a Cessna. They introduced the Maine folk tradition of painting on hard wood mushrooms, called “Artist’s Conk,” to the academy in New York.

I am tempted to think of them as a deliberate movement, but I wonder if they even thought of themselves as a group. Or were they just neighbors who got along and did the same kind of work? The answer isn’t as important as their legacy, but I still wonder.

You can find out more about these great painters in the books “At First Light,” “Five American Painters,” and the catalogue for the Farnsworth Exhibition, all of which are available at the Farnsworth gift shop in Rockland.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Thomaston, where he weaves tales about Maine’s coast and mountains.