In 1936 Henry Luce kick-started the field of photojournalism with the launch of Life Magazine, which by 1940 became the leading magazine in the nation. Those same few years saw another visual revolution that rankled Luce. With the leading lights of European art arriving in the US to escape the growing influence of fascism in their native countries the course of Modernist art streamed across the Atlantic into New York City. Luce countered what he perceived as the Europeanizing of American culture by using Life Magazine to propagate the works of the American Scene painters – Rockwell, Wood, Benton, Curry, Burchfield and others. Luce’s attempt failed.
The intensity of flow of history through New York left these records of America to wallow in the backwash of that flow: American Scene art downgraded to regionalist art. The aesthetics of the American Scene was not confined to the hinterlands – it had an urban component as well. Urban scene painters such as Robert Henri, George Bellows and John Sloane saw themselves to be in accord with their rural compatriots, although they remained at the geographic, if not the aesthetic, center of art history. These artists painted the city as if it were a landscape of canyons and wasted fields.
The iconic moment of change came in 1949 when Luce relented and published an article on Jackson Pollock headlined: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” Just 15 years earlier it was Thomas Hart Benton, Pollock’s mentor in the early 1930s, who became the first artist to grace the cover of Time. At the time Luce, who also published Time, considered Benton to be “the greatest living painter in the United States”.
Pollack had put his brand on Modernism, corralling it as American art. Benton, who was privately a friend, but publicly a critic of Pollock (Benton once stated at a private gathering that: “Jack can’t make a bad painting.”), had been shunted to the regions and the sidelines of history, usurped by a younger generation’s embrace of the cutting edges of Modernism.
This is understandable. New York was the center where art history was being made. Everywhere else was – well—everywhere else. However should the mainstream of art history peter out and slow to a trickle, or should art criticism grow fallow with barren ideology, then that center no longer holds. This seems to have become the case in the 21st century. A dose of regional values, properly applied, might be what the doctor ordered.
The urge for America to attain cultural parity with Europe stretches back to just before the Civil War when American industrialists began exhibiting their wares at international expositions. Americans proved less than competitive, as Europeans respected their innovative methods but not their output. As part of rebuilding the nation after the war, Congress set a goal of equaling and even surpassing the industrial status of Europe. To do this they turned to education, concentrated in what today would be termed STEAM: science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.
Prompted by Massachusetts’s successful innovations in technological education during the 1870s and Europe’s impressive showing at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the US Senate asked the Department of Interior’s Education Office to conduct a nationwide study to develop educational strategies for matching Europe’s industrial lead. In 1885, after 5 years of study, the Office released an 1100 page report advocating that all high school students learn descriptive geometry, figure drawing and art history. (The purpose of art history was to heighten the public’s appreciation of quality and thus to exert pressure on industry to heighten standards.)
This period of the early 1880s also saw the founding of art museums and art institutes in all the major industrial centers of the Midwest. By the turn of the century American industrial innovation outpaced that of Europe with the philanthropic largesse of the barons of that industry building new “palaces” to house the museums. Part of that largesse went to stocking these palaces with important European art, especially French landscapes. Students who visited and studied at these institutions – most especially the Art Institute of Chicago and the Kansas City Art Institute — became the rural painters of the American Scene.
Midwest artists such as Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Marvin Cone and Francis Chapin studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Further east Charles Burchfield attended the Cleveland Institute of Art, as had Marsden Hartley. Further west John Steuart Curry attended the Kansas City Art Institute. At such institutions the primary visual models were paintings by the French realists.
One contemporary museum that has over the years offered insight into the flourishing of regionalism, most notably in the fields of Iowa, is Davenport’s Figge Museum. Two recent exhibits there threw considerable light on the nature of the Regionalist legacy. The major exhibit of the two had travelled from the Brooklyn Museum and had been assembled from that museum’s collection of French art, acquired at the turn of the century, as had the collections of the Midwest museums. The second exhibit was a retrospective of John Bloom, a protégé of Grant Wood. These exhibits together demonstrated the sources and breadth of Midwest regionalist art.
The Figge is a great white cube overlooking the Mississippi River and sighting on the far horizon of the Illinois prairie. Just an hour’s drive northwest and tucked into a bend of the Wapsipinicon River rests the hamlet of Stone City, Iowa which in 1932 and 1933 hosted the Stone City Art Colony. There artists could reside for the summer under the tutelage of Grant Wood and a team of noted Midwest painters, Marvin Cone and Francis Chapin among them.
One exceptional “student” was Bloom, who was already an accomplished artist. He had won first prize for his painting at the Iowa State Fair, garnering him an invitation from Grant Wood to join the colony. From there Bloom went on to collaborate with Wood on mural projects at the University of Iowa. In addition to his collaborations with Wood, the Figge exhibit mounted works spanning Bloom’s career from his study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to his career in industrial design for firms in Davenport, and to his long retirement dedicated to painting. In a thoughtful nod to the French exhibit, Bloom’s student art included two works mimicking Derain and Cezanne.
Previewing Bloom’s work online yields a poor presentation of his abilities. A disproportionate number of reproductions depict paintings such as of community groups milling outside of church or celebrating in a town park. In these, the faces in the crowd are mostly blank. The point was to paint the community as a unit rather than to identify individuals in the crowd. A noble motive with cartoonish results. Bloom was nevertheless a superb portraitist as proved by exquisite drawings of himself and of his mother.
Other online images leave the impression of bleached colors, which in reality is a consequence of subtleties not retained under .jpeg compression. Bloom had adopted the palette of Swedish painter Anders Zorn: vermilion, yellow ochre, white and black. Landscapes required the inclusion of blue to portray the green vegetation, the endless prairie sky and the ubiquitous bib overalls worn by his characters. This palette was especially suited for harvest scenes situated in the warm cast of autumn.
Of these was a late masterpiece entitled “Shocking Oats”. Bloom left a vast background by pushing the space to the foreground. There a group of workers cut swatches from a field and clustered these into shocks. Stooped in labor and wearing broad-brimmed hats to counter an intense sun, the worker’s faces remain hidden, making the harvest crew and not its separate members into Bloom’s subject. Immediately behind the crew the farmhouse holds the middle-ground. This scenario of crew and farm home plays against a vast background of farmed prairie. There golden pastels of ripened crops spread to a distant horizon obscured by airborne dust.
Bloom’s anonymous group seems tasked to harvest a near infinity of fields. Space then becomes a paean to the everyday heroics of laborers. A singular virtue of American scene painting was developing spaces iconic of the humans inhabiting them. For Bloom it was the endless dead flat prairie surrounding his hometown of Dewitt, IA. While for Wood it was also the landscape of his upbringing: open hilltops punctuated by hidden dells. Similarly Benton painted sequestered valleys deep in the Ozarks.
These pictures use the land to reflect deeply human values, uniquely portrayed. Such values and the means of portraying them are worthy of a more widespread critical attention that is lacking from national art writing.* To achieve this would require less emphasis on games of style in art and on presumptions about the rules of these games, and more emphasis into the legacies of the regionalists and into cataloguing those values still emanating from people’s interaction with the land.
This would mean adopting an attitude and a language that meets the need to express the qualities of regional work. In his column Inland Art published in Peoria’s Community Word, the painter and writer Paul Krainak, a transplant from Chicago to Peoria, has for some time now given thought and penned ideas about criticism applied to the Midwest:
“….critics have to figure in all of the conventions of inland culture, just as one is required to be fluent in all of the conventions of urban and coastal culture, to do it justice…”
Krainak adopts this stance in contextualizing artist Michael Paxton’s 2019 exhibit, “Pillars of Dust”, at Bradley University:
“Painted forms pool like sludge in a dry creek bed or drift like dust across deer-paths…. Other pieces are scaled up to reveal cavernous interiors that appear to expose generations of land degradation. This is Paxton’s homage to one of the most beautiful, mineral rich places on the planet.”
The language is instated, the attitude applies respect and the parity is served. Regionalism rises to the same level of scrutiny that is non-judgmentally applied to New York art. This is attention, properly paid.
*Darren Jones, Art in America: The Critical Dustbowl, New Art Examiner, Volume 33 no 5 May / June 2019
Volume 34 no.2 November/December 2019 pp 21-23