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Roger Medearis: His Regionalism
June 16 - Sept. 17, 2012
The career of American painter Roger Medearis (19202001) will be explored in a special exhibition, "Roger Medearis: His Regionalism," on view at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens from June 16 through Sept. 17, 2012. With a title inspired by the artist's unpublished book My Regionalism, the exhibition of more than 30 works brings together those given to The Huntington by his widow, Elizabeth (Betty) Medearis, as well as those on loan from private collections and a painting borrowed from the Smithsonian's American Art Museum. Examples of Medearis' accomplishments in various media, including paintings, prints, drawings, and sculpture, along with letters and photographs, will trace the artist's career, from his beginnings as a student of Thomas Hart Benton at the Kansas City Art Institute through the development of his own distinctive style in California later in life.
"The Huntington is uniquely positioned to present an exhibition focused on Roger Medearis, who is, I think, a relatively underexposed and yet highly accomplished artist," said Jessica Todd Smith, Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art at The Huntington. "While he had mastered his craft under the celebrated Thomas Hart Benton, tastes changed before Medearis received his due. When Betty gave The Huntington a group of outstanding pieces, we knew we could be the ones to shine a new light on his work."
The making of a Regionalist
The son of a Baptist minister, Roger Norman Medearis was born in Fayette, Mo., and moved with his family to Oklahoma in 1928. He was interested in drawings as a child and, inspired by the work of Norman Rockwell, decided to become an illustrator while still in his early teens.
Medearis arrived at Kansas City's Art Institute at the age of 18, when Benton was already a national celebrity, having been on the cover of Time magazine in 1934. Along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, Benton was a partisan of Regionalism, an American artistic moment in the 1930s and '40s that rejected European abstraction, took subjects from everyday rural life, and aspired to bring art to a wide audience through public art commissions and low-cost reproductions. For Medearis, this translated to painting what he knew -- the farms and people of rural Missouri.
It was around this time that Medearis made the lithograph Benton at Work. He wrote his parents that he had been invited to a surprise birthday party for Thomas Hart Benton, his teacher. "It was, to me, an overwhelming honor [to be invited], and I went, and wasn't too much of a sore thumb, I hope, among a group which was not on the sober side. But the real fun began, for me, when they gathered around my litho of Benton at Work, which he had in his dining room among his own works, and I became the topic of conversation." Before the party, Benton had purchased the lithograph, and a half-century later Medearis would re-create it. Both versions (along with snap shots of Medearis and Benton) are on view in "Roger Medearis: His Regionalism." (right: Roger Medearis (left) and Thomas Hart Benton, Martha's Vineyard, 1948. Photographer unknown. Collection of Elizabeth Medearis)
The Consummate Craftsman
Medearis once remarked, "I am a slow painter and devote to each painting all the time it seems to require. The whole purpose of art is excellence, and one good painting is better than 10,000 bad ones."
He became a master of the labor-intensive medium of egg tempera, concocted by mixing dry pigment with egg yolk thinned with water on a glass palette. He described his technique as "by nature much slower, more cautious," than that of Benton, from whom he had first learned it. In Still Life with Green Chair (egg tempera on board, 1950), Medearis builds up a paint surface through innumerable small marks so carefully done that from a distance they meld together perfectly. It is only in the details of plant thorns or the loose yarns of a frayed rug that the tiny painstaking lashes of paint are apparent.
Another highlight of the exhibition made using egg tempera is Godly Susan (1941), on loan from the Smithsonian. The vivid and detailed portrait depicts Medearis' grandmother on the sun porch of his father's church. Medearis described this painting as his "last painting as a student." (right: Roger Medearis, Godly Susan, 1941. Egg tempera on board, 27 5/8 x 23 5/8 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Roger and Elizabeth Medearis):
World War II and a Revolution in the Art World
Within months, however, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought his pursuit of local subjects to a sudden halt. Medearis produced a series of paintings about the atrocity of war; then, in 1942, he went to Washington, D.C., where he spent several years drawing battle ships for the Navy. After that, in the Army, he spent more than a year making training charts for the field artillery at Fort Bragg, N.C.
After the war, Medearis moved with his first wife, Marjorie Schwarz, to Chester, Conn., where they had a son, Thomas. Medearis then returned to painting and held an exhibition at Kende Galleries in New York in April 1949, but tastes were changing. The heyday of Regionalism had passed as Abstract Expressionism overtook the art scene in America. Medearis quit painting in 1950 and joined the corporate world. He married Judith Dettling in 1958. After Judith's death in 1975, Roger met Betty Burrall Sterling and they were married in 1976.
A "Furtive Return to Art"
Having accepted a position with the Container Corporation of America, Medearis moved to California in 1960. For years he had shunned art museums and galleries and didn't pick up a brush, until 1962, when he began what he described as an "almost furtive return to art." He converted his garage into a workshop and began to experiment with acrylic paint; by the end of 1968 he had resigned from a job in sales and resumed what he long had felt was his true identity as an artist.
In The Beach (1970), which depicts surfers and families picnicking, and Home in the San Gabriels (1996), in which a small house is dwarfed by a wall of mountains not far from his home in San Marino, Calif., he turned to subjects in his immediate orbit-things he knew well from repeated contact with them.
(above: Roger Medearis, Self Portrait, 1938. Gouache and graphite on paper, 6 1/2 x 9 inches. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Elizabeth Medearis)
American Regionalism at The Huntington
The Huntington's collection of American Regionalist art began with the acquisition of John Steuart Curry's State Fair (1929) and Grant Wood's Study for Spring Turning (1936) in 1984. It has since grown to include such works as "Yankee Driver" (1923) by Thomas Hart Benton, and 11 works by Roger Medearis himself.
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