Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on February 13, 2009 with permission of the Des Moines Art Center. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Des Moines Art Center directly through either this phone number or web address:
After Many Springs: Regionalism, Modernism, and the Midwest
by Debra Bricker Balken
The center for the pullulation of advanced ideas
In the years immediately following the stock market crash of 1929, the American art scene became particularly embattled, with little critical consensus as to whether one unifying narrative, movement, direction, or trend prevailed. The crash had been calamitous, destabilizing large sectors of the workforce as well as inducing widespread economic fallout. And while these circumstances obviously had a negative impact on the nation's relatively small community of artists as well, in terms of the modest gains and sales of American art before the crisis, it was the resurgence of a conservative tradition in art that many advocates of modernism perceived to be the most damaging cultural setback. This resurgence offset the lively aesthetic debates that had surfaced in New York starting around 1915, debates that had centered on the nature of modernism itself, on its manifold subjects and forms.
Unlike that of the overlapping circles of artists and writers who had gravitated around Alfred Stieglitz [illus.] and Marcel Duchamp [illus.] (who arrived in Manhattan in 1915), and who had engaged in contentious yet formative exchanges relating to the authenticity of an American avant-garde, a new critical discourse distinguished the decade of the 1930s, one that was alternatively defensive and retrogressive, that aimed either to preserve or to unseat whatever remained of a progressive modernist core. While the relaxation of sexual mores, increased gender equality, and the rapid expansion of advertising and new technologies had enabled a vital, elastic definition of modernism in New York after 1915, the era that became known as the Great Depression had little empathy for such seeming self-indulgence and emphasis on the artist's subjectivity. In fact, it would capitulate to known values in art, such as the perfection of the landscape and the figure, tested genres that had been conventionalized since the Renaissance. Stieglitz in particular, with ongoing provocation from Duchamp, had worked hard to establish the voice and authority of such figures as Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Georgia O'Keeffe at his "291" Gallery in New York, never doubting their claims that American art had its own singularity, that its abstract, transformative compositional traits were the equal of painting in Paris, the city still touted as modernism's epicenter in the late 1920s. Whatever its limited understanding of American modernist developments, Paris would always condescend to any offshore iteration of Cubism -- one of its primary early-twentieth-century achievements -- with Duchamp bemoaning a certain dependence upon French prototypes in New York, finding its built environment and towering skyline "more a complete work of art" than any picture he encountered in its salons and exhibition spaces. But then Stieglitz's detractors had always been figures who operated within the same small modernist orbit, many of whom would quibble with his choice of artists and who were skeptical of his gradual weaning of European figures such as Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque from his stable, all of whom he deemed no longer necessary to explain the origins and histories of American ingenuity in art. (Duchamp would never engage in the latter charge; instead he would simply denounce the work of his confreres, stating that "the art of Europe is finished -- dead.")
Marius de Zayas, for example, a Mexican caricaturist and writer who had served as an advisor to Stieglitz's "291" Gallery [illus.], would subsequently rant against Stieglitz's increased privileging of a handful of American artists, claiming that a certain rarity, if not loss of a competitive edge, had threatened to undermine his position as the nation's foremost spokesman for the avant-garde. However, de Zayas miscalculated by thinking that he could usurp that position and redirect Stieglitz's initiative. He sought to enlarge the discursive frame for modernist painting by opening his own gallery in 1915. Although he showcased the work of both European and American artists, such as André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Marie Laurencin, Charles Sheeler, and Morton Schamberg, his program of exhibitions was largely a rerun or duplicate of Stieglitz's roster, with such notable exceptions as Sheeler, Schamberg, and Diego Rivera. De Zayas's construction of modern art was not nearly as radical as that of his erstwhile mentor. He never dared, like Stieglitz, to maintain that the Americans had departed from Parisian models. In short, he fell back on a vague trajectory predicated on a loose-knit assumption of stylistic continuity -- the makings of a nascent formalist theory that would not be fully systematized in the United States until the late 1930s, largely in response to the political events and revival of retrograde artistic modes that grew out of the Great Depression.
Whatever the contested descriptions that related to the individuality of American art, and the bold declarations that hinged its prowess and failings, once the stock market crashed in 1929, the nuances and intricacies of these critical wranglings would be rendered meaningless by many artists and critics who would contend that modernism had lost its grip, that it had become too elusive and self-referential, that it was no longer emblematic of a culture now facing unprecedented economic setbacks and vast unemployment. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, the flip side of modernism -- that is, the repressed voices and exponents of tradition, or the artists and interpreters who had never given up on the possibilities of the figure -- resurfaced, with the upshot that the avant-garde became deeply challenged and suffered its own reversals, its emphases on innovation and the elaboration of the artist's inner life no longer capable of remaining a dominant model. In fact, as soon would become clear, there had always been a number of malcontents, such as Thomas Craven [illus.], a critic and old friend of Thomas Hart Benton, who had gained a certain visibility during the 1920s. In publications such as Harpers, American Mercury, The Nation, The Dial, and Scribner's, he would express his doubts as to the efficacy of the modernist movement in the United States; he was never sold on its claims to an indigenous expression.
Craven had always suspected that the work of the Stieglitz circle -- with the salient exceptions of Marin and O'Keeffe -- was largely derivative, that its formal languages were a reworked version of foreign models. While he would concede in the early 1930s that the "291" Gallery had once been "the center for the pullulation of advanced ideas," the acknowledgment was thrown out primarily as a dig at the limitations of a once liberal, forward-thinking culture situated largely in Manhattan, New York being a city that he would depict as being thoroughly depraved and effete, a place where he worried that the "artist had lost his masculinity" through a devotion to stretching the known imagery and inventive parameters of art. (Ironically, de Zayas had arrived at a similar description in 1915, when he asserted that artists in New York had "the mentality of homosexuals. They are flowers of artificial breeding.")
Craven's jabs at New York's small community of modernist artists, and his linking of their originality to a debased state of sexuality, secured widespread attention once the limited patronage for American modernism began to evaporate in the early 1930s. The marketplace for progressive art had never ever been expansive in New York, with few collectors and museums willing to make a commitment to their homegrown radicals until the late 1950s. Whatever strides Stieglitz had made for his artists, the commercial results were minimal (O'Keeffe being a notable exception). Press coverage and critical enthusiasm for his artists always outweighed sales. In the midst of a colossal economic downturn, then, Craven found a niche for his writing that capitalized on the disdain he had earlier expressed for advanced French painting. In short, he would become one of the most fervently ideological and conservative critics to emerge during the 1930s, as well as the architect of a new movement known as Regionalism that sought to advance the work of its primary practitioners, figures such as Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry. As Craven's stature grew, he became particularly emboldened in his derision of American modernism. He abandoned all restraint and reason: his interpretations frequently bordered on screed, while his diction approximated religious oratory.
The critics like the rest of the world are bankrupt
Stieglitz initially had no suspicions about Craven's mounting animosity toward his modernist cause. Indeed, he was grateful for a review that Craven had written of Marin's work in 1921 for the short-lived journal Shadowland that not only credited the artist with a modicum of talent but acknowledged Stieglitz's efforts at securing Marin's position within a growing discussion on American art. In the summer of 1922, Stieglitz would contact Craven to solicit a contribution to his own equally short-lived publication, MSS, for a special issue devoted to photography, one that patently addressed the status of the medium, including whether it merited being designated "art." The overture would ignite a critical backlash and feud that would last for almost two decades, eventually implicating artists such as Benton and Wood, who would be pitted against modernists such Dove, Hartley, and others. The issue of MSS was actually intended as a backhanded accolade, meant to establish Stieglitz as one of the country's foremost photographers [illus.], as well as to promote his cause: to elevate the standing of a still spurned medium, to place photography on par with painting and sculpture. However, as the publication got under way, Stieglitz wrote to Dove that he thought "it's going to be a real amusing affair," a hint that some discord or lack of consensus would prevail. Clearly, Stieglitz had wanted to integrate Craven into his circle, hoping that he would become like Sherwood Anderson, Paul Rosenfeld, Frank Waldo, and Edmund Wilson, writers whose advocacy of his artists and his own work frequently amounted to rhapsodic veneration. Rosenfeld, in particular, had already declared Stiegltiz to be "the only great artist the United States of America has produced since Walt Whitman, Henry Adams not withstanding," initiating a string of tributes that would actually rankle Craven, fueling the soon-to-be-warring factions of modernism and Regionalism.
Craven's submission to MSS centered on the uses or what he called the "province of photography," in which he asserted that the medium was best deployed by the newspaper and advertising industries, that its deadening "uniformity" stifled any expression of the artist's individuality. While Stieglitz was not mentioned by name in Craven's short explanation of photography's limitations, two years later he became the focus of a more sustained piece that Craven wrote for The Nation. There Craven would concede that Stieglitz was one of the "most accomplished photographers in the world." But the recognition, as Stieglitz had earlier sensed in his letter to Dove, came with a long-winded barb, with Craven brazenly proclaiming that Stieglitz "asks us to believe that the repudiation of natural phenomena carries an emotional freightage identical with that of the creative act; that the transfers of his camera are as intense and exciting as the canvases of imaginative painters whose terms are not the result of simple impressions but the product of knowledge, reflection, and a genius for construction." Craven's ruminations on photography had not only gestated since Stieglitz approached him to write for MSS; they had become more pointed and cutting. Craven was now convinced that Stieglitz's work could never approximate the standing of painting, that his craft was engaged in trickery, not deeply pondered or the result of felt experience. Although Stieglitz was offended, his animus would never become public. His behavioral pattern was to leave that kind of defense to his prominently placed friends, such as Rosenfeld, who also wrote for The Nation, and who would later take on Craven's failure to grasp the new media that comprised contemporary art, chastising him at the same time for his conservatism. Moreover, by the early 1930s, just as Craven's writing had begun to garner widespread recognition and authority as he threw his full weight behind artists such as Benton, Rosenfeld would pin Craven as a "populist," a figure who possessed no originality or depth, who had capitulated to the safeguard of tradition, to the known meanings and conventions of art, whose sole critical distinction rested on "touching the field of politics." He reckoned that Craven's more contextual analysis of a work of art, his descriptions of the ways in which painting fit into a specific cultural and social history, could never fully account for aesthetic risk and shortchanged any real consideration of the new visual languages of modernism.
Rosenfeld feared that Craven had violated the purity of modernism, that he had rendered its "art for art's sake" premise as too rarified and insular, now out of step with the economic realities and hardships of the Great Depression -- in other words, that he had passed it off as a form of self-indulgence that had become insensitive. There was something innately threatening in Craven's reactionary stance, especially once his writing achieved a widespread following; Rosenfeld knew it had to be contained if modernism was to maintain its direction and course. Herbert J. Seligmann, a prominent New York journalist who was also predisposed toward Stieglitz and his circle, had argued as early as the mid-1920s that Craven now had a sidekick in Benton, that Benton, too, had become a mouthpiece for the revival of tradition. Benton was publishing his views wherever possible, giving further voice to Craven's animosity toward the radical underpinnings of progressive cultures. Their combined diatribe, in Seligmann's view, amounted to a type of "conspiracy." (Benton's activity as a writer would not pick up until the early 1930s, when he was awarded a series of mural commissions, commencing with The Arts of Life in America [illus.] for the Whitney Museum of American Art.)
Many editors, especially those at Scribner's and Harpers, increasingly interpreted Craven's standpoint as highly topical, since it touched on issues that pertained directly to a changed set of economic circumstances, unlike the more exalted, lofty meditations of Rosenfeld and others. And while a balance of opinion would prevail on the state of art in most mainstream literary journals (the "little magazines," of course, were always more partisan, with modernism being their primary devotion or territory), Craven's strident rhetoric always made for good copy. Not only was his revivalist position obviously polemical, but it prompted modernist adherents to become less lazy, to look for new tactics that would revitalize and defend their positions. Yet for all of Craven's promotion of figurative art and his at times screeching prose, there were, ironically, connections in his thought with that of Stieglitz, Rosenfeld, and the artists that he seemingly opposed. Stieglitz might initially have mistaken Craven's interest in Marin, and later in O'Keeffe, as evidence of a like-minded sensibility, even a kindred spirit. Despite their vast differences, they were solidly unified in their aim to forge a national aesthetic for American art: to mold an image that could counter the charges of foreign derivation that would continue to dog its interpretation well into the early 1940s.
Each man located the origins of this American identity in differing sources. Craven was drawn to "a social point of view," as he described his particular bent, and Stieglitz to the artist's subjectivity. Craven would have "the Great American Thing" as a depiction of "American life"-its natural splendor, industries, rituals, and pastimes; Stieglitz would center this wellspring in the self, the most direct correspondence of which could be found in the landscape, an entity that easily lent itself to abstraction. Yet, despite their conflicting conceptions of uniqueness, both figures shared a common goal: to define the distinguishing features of American painting. Rosenfeld, for example, had written to Stiegltiz in 1923, saying, "I am sick of foreign reputations and French-worship." This stance would redound in Stieglitz's own disclaimer that he wanted to uphold an "America without that damned French flavor!," as well as in his comeback as a dealer. His opening of the Intimate Gallery in 1925 -- a project that would be rechristened An American Place in 1929, just as the stock market plummeted-enabled a more focused take on the work of Dove, O'Keeffe, and Marin, who were now his mainstays as paragons of a native sensibility.
Similarly, Craven would pronounce shortly after the economy had begun to wither that "the critics, like the rest of the world, are bankrupt. Wearily they repeat their unprofitable gibberish about International Art. They fume and scold, but their catchpenny aesthetics have no meaning and no audience." (The word "audience" was a repeated catchphrase for Craven, evidence of his desire for a huge readership.) However, the program to establish the originality of American art would hardly result in a unified effort; it would become a highly fractured and partisan affair, especially as the 1930s wore on. Both Craven and Stiegltiz failed to concede that there was any point of aesthetic overlap between the work of their now distanced (and vexed) circles of artists, who were increasingly drawn into their wrangling, making for one of the most contentious and charged critical debates in the twentieth century. Their acrimony frequently outweighed and overshadowed more reasoned and moderate positions, such as that of Lewis Mumford, a literary critic (and later a foremost architectural and urban critic) who had become an earnest spokesman for the singularity and indigenous features of American culture, and who was capable of bringing manifold artists into his purview. Mumford even expounded on Benton's work in the late 1920s, just as it began to achieve some degree of prominence, writing that it "holds a nice balance between abstract design and those juicy gobbets of observation that reveal, a little acridly, our American scene."
There was certainly no "balance" in Craven's impassioned outbursts, which consciously skirted any analysis of Benton's "abstract design," as such a discussion would impinge on and detract from the novelty of his subject matter. And, although there was little evidence of jingoism in the writing of Stieglitz (or in that of Rosenfeld, Frank, and his acolytes), they would feel entitled to acclaim the American content of the painting of Dove, Marin, O'Keeffe, and others, arguing for its ingenuity a number of years before Craven fully emerged as a writer. Of course, by 1929, a decisive turning point in American culture, Stieglitz had long since established his role as New York's foremost dealer. As such, his stake in perpetuating his role in the development of a national identity for American art became particularly urgent; he felt a renewed vulnerability once Craven had made him his target. Younger proponents of modernism would surface during the 1930s, yet their voices would initially be drowned out, caught in the crossfire of the dueling Stieglitz and Craven circles.
Samuel Kootz, for instance, a writer who became active around 1930 and who would open a gallery after World War II representing the painting and sculpture of emergent New York School artists such as William Baziotes, David Hare, Hans Hofmann, and Robert Motherwell, remained disaffected with the ethnocentrism that had hitherto bolstered the positioning of American art. Kootz would weave figures such as Dove, Hartley, Marin, and O'Keeffe into his first book, Modern American Painters, along with Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Walt Kuhn, Charles Sheeler, and Niles Spencer, a mix that would enlarge the framework for contemporary painting and account for a broader range of modernist expression, while nevertheless positing that a radical reworking of form need not always abjure the figure. Notwithstanding the nationalism implicit in his title, Kootz would steer clear of the flag-waving to which Stieglitz and Craven had capitulated. "The word American has nothing to do with painting," he would aver, stressing that art was part of a universal project, untainted by politics and cultural agendas. His theoretical preferences were for the formalist schemes that had been fashioned by British writers such as Roger Fry and Clive Bell in the early years of the twentieth century; these presupposed that art was possessed of its own internal history, knit together through various self-perpetuating stylistic chapters.
At the outset of the 1930s, Kootz wanted it known and put on the record that "our most zealous chauvinists are demanding a national art. The newly awakened art public has begun to speculate upon the best painter in America, and, particularly, upon the best American painters. 100% Americanism is being brought to art as its reason for being; the patrioteers are in full scent for some one to tag with the title 'the Great American Painter.'" However, for all of Kootz's dismay over the new nationalism that pervaded the explanations of American art, the standpoint would become entrenched during the Depression, polarizing and alienating communities of artists who would be variously labeled either modernists or Regionalists, without a full assessment of the interconnections that at times unified their work.
Secret interest in objects and especially figures
Stieglitz might have been recognized as a force in New York, synonymous with the promotion and survival of modernism, but there was a considerable contingent of defectors who were at odds with his innate idealism, not able to fully subscribe to the anti-materialism that informed his position and its romantic links to a bohemian culture that had prospered in Greenwich Village since the mid-1910s. Charles Sheeler, for example, would part company with Stieglitz a few years after their initial meeting in 1917. Although Stieglitz had responded with alacrity to Sheeler's series of photographs shot in Doylestown, Pennsylvania [illus.], and had praised the emergence of a "straight" or new objective photography that diverged from his own more hazy abstractions of the city and the landscape, it was the commercial applications of Sheeler's work that became an anathema to him, a violation of the moral, virtuous aspirations that he believed drove all art. He might have abided by Sheeler's pronouncement that "photography is nature seen from the eyes outward, painting from the eyes inward," even though this trajectory was the reverse of what he had set for his own work, where his individuality was always the primary intermediary. But the fact that Sheeler had ventured into the world of advertising, accepting handsome commissions from Kodak, Firestone, Champion, and the L. C. Smith Company in the early to mid-1920s to shoot such commodities as cameras, tires, spark plugs, and typewriters [illus.], constituted for Stieglitz not only a grave misuse of the medium but a setback for the status of photography, whose standing was still questioned, recognized by few cultural arbiters as having achieved the same rank as painting.
It did not matter to Steiglitz that Sheeler's project for the Ford Motor Company to document its River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1927 was much heralded, resulting in a series of terse, dispassionate compositions that focused on the inherent modernism of the plant's architecture, its towering smokestacks and interweaving conveyor belts [pl] aggrandized not only as the bold icons of industry but as the twentieth-century equivalent of a classical monument, the new Parthenon. Stieglitz would have wanted Sheeler to imbue these forms with some critique of his patron's corporate prowess, making them serve as tropes for the corruption of capitalism and its disregard for nature and a once-agrarian site. Yet in these neutral depictions of one of America's foremost factories existed a certain formal grandeur that Sheeler would draw from for his painting, establishing a symbiotic relationship with his photography that few artists (with the marginal exception of Man Ray) had previously dared to invoke.
The links between media were ones that Sheeler had mined from the outset of his career, even building film into his aesthetic range through his early collaboration with Paul Strand on Manhatta (1920) [illus.], another reverential portrait of industry and of the vast transformation of New York's skyline into a modernist image, focusing on its movement and rapid progress. In the interstices of photography, painting, and film, Sheeler found much to mine; he would not be stymied by the prevailing biases concerning aesthetic hierarchy. In fact, unlike Stieglitz, who took his cues from painting (his grainy, slightly out-of-focus scenes emulated the brushwork of many early-twentieth-century canvases), Sheeler dissolved these allusions by unifying all of his work through the repetition of shared imagery, a strategy that was reinforced by his reserved, crystalline stylistic approach. While his paintings had always been depopulated, purged of any reference to the body or human figure, his River Rouge photographs [pl.] and spin-off canvases, such as American Landscape (1930) [pl.] and Classic Landscape (1931) [pl.], effect an unsettling stillness with their absence of feeling or any indication of the working conditions that lie behind these exteriors.
Sheeler was not permitted by his patrons at the Ford Motor Company to penetrate the assembly lines in these buildings, where he would have encountered teams of employees; he was required instead to focus on the company's technological prowess and efficiency. However, the stricture was hardly confining, as it allowed him to build on the serial format that he had already adopted for earlier projects, such as his shots of the Doylestown farmhouse interior. The same sense of quiet pervades each body of work, the salient difference being that the River Rouge images are meant to establish Detroit as one of the foremost industrial sites in the world, countering the nostalgia and emphasis on bygone craft traditions that imbue his reveries of indigenous Pennsylvania architecture. Stieglitz may have wanted a dose of morality in both cases, but Sheeler maintained, with complete equanimity, that he was documenting the grandeur of American building, not only accentuating its level of invention but its democracy, articulated not only in the grain elevator and elongated factory smoke stacks but in the simple turn and elegant construction of a staircase in a modest domestic space. Sheeler had photographed monuments in Europe at the outset of his career and was drawn especially to Chartres Cathedral, with its pure Gothic symmetries and orderly network of flying buttresses. He must have considered these structures as kin to the interlacing compositions of walkways, shafts, railroad tracks, and conveyor belts at the River Rouge plant. However, much later he stated, "Even though I have so profound an admiration for the beauty of Chartres, I realize strongly that it belongs to a culture, a tradition, and a people of which I am not a part."
Like many artists of his generation, Sheeler was overcome by a sense of separateness as he absorbed Europe's vast culture in his youth. Whatever his aspirations to become part of a vanguard movement, he knew that Paris would never provide him with the right visual language to redirect the meanings and potential of American art, that there was something inherently different about his own native experience. He knew, for example, that Europe could never consider a silo or grain elevator as a modernist subject, that these images were too foreign, either utterly unknown and simply not grand or pastoral enough, as its own prescribed themes were more indigenous and local. The radical revision of traditional narratives conceived by European modernist artists such as Cézanne, Picasso, and Braque was situated more specifically within the arena of formal experimentation -- for instance, fracturing the blocklike construction of rural buildings (such as the farmhouse) into multiple, off-kilter cubes -- whereas Sheeler would make the preservation of vernacular structures his pictorial goal, rendering each architectural unit in Classical Landscape recognizable, never violating or dissolving the integrity of each unit as a monument.
Moreover, Sheeler's diverse approach to media was something that few artists in Europe had attempted before the mid-1920s, Marcel Duchamp being a salient exception. But then Duchamp had always had a conflicted relationship to painting, which he would almost abandon once he arrived in New York, when the ready-made object and photography became for him a potentially more blasphemous medium, capable of undermining conventional approaches to art and disturbing prevailing canons. Sheeler was a forerunner when it came the integration of the arts. His collaboration with Strand on Manhatta took place five years before Ballet Mécanique (1924), the film produced jointly by Fernand Léger and Dudley Moore, with cinematography by Man Ray (and a score by Georges Antheil), which also utilized the component of time, but in this case to take an oblique stab at the prim and routinized aspects of bourgeois rituals and customs.
Sheeler's goal, however, was never to destabilize middle-class culture. He poked fun neither at its staid traditions nor at its inability to ease up on an entrenched belief system that involved confidence in the capitalist system that it fostered as well as in religion, these two devotions frequently entwined, with prosperity explained as being the outcome of both hard work and a deep investment in faith. Additionally, there was nothing buried in his imagery that could be extricated as an emblem alluding to a stance contrary to that of his patrons. Unlike Duchamp and Man Ray, he would never be caught up in the playful antics of Dada, or in the disdain both artists exhibited toward an advertising industry that could elicit euphoria for the new products beginning to flood the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century. Sheeler's primary stake in the modernist project was in adding to the formal parameters of art rather than questioning their efficacy. This he accomplished by freezing an architectural image and excavating its abstract properties. All of the structures in American Landscape and Classic Landscape are rendered as flat, planar, quasi-geometric shapes set in a receding space demarcated by the sight lines of a canal or railroad tracks. The combination of features not only revised orthodox conceptions of the landscape but tested the nature of abstraction. Could representational imagery still function with the context of modernism?
Europe would not have been able to accommodate Sheeler's pictorial answer-or, that is, perhaps not until the advent of Surrealism in the late 1920s, when realistic imagery was readmitted into art's purview. However, Surrealism thrived upon on the imaginary and dreamlike spaces of the unconscious, the recesses of which Sheeler expressed no interest in penetrating. Freud and psychology would have no place in his painting; nor would the revelation of buried emotions such as desire and fear. As he stated toward the end of his career, long after he had time to assess the conceptual thrust of his work, "[I]t's a purely visual thing, and what you see is what you intend to see and no overtones of symbolism." Samuel Kootz would similarly focus on Sheeler's "composition and design" in Modern American Painters, discounting that there was any other inroad or means to interpret his painting. Yet for all of the connections that Sheeler forged between his photography and his painting, and the subversive implications of this union, soon after the River Rouge commission was completed he would publicly deprecate the role of photography in his work. Indeed, his new dealer, Edith Halpert, insisted upon the repression of his commercial work. She mandated that it not be exhibited in her galleries in Manhattan, unable to countenance the belief that photography no longer took a back seat to painting.
Sheeler would maintain, "I've never worked on location," a tacit acknowledgment that his paintings were dependent upon a preexisting source, that photography did have a role in their formation despite Halpert's censure. In fact, the body of work that he produced for the Ford Motor Company, and subsequent paintings such as Classic Landscape, would build on more than a decade of cross-references between his various media, seamlessly weaving together a unified series that took no notice of the limits that most critics -- such as Thomas Craven -- had set for art. While Sheeler would continue to link photography and painting in subsequent projects, despite the new one-sided emphasis Halpert imposed on his work, the River Rouge plant yielded one of his most remarkable, if not his consummate, series, as this body of work established the Midwest and its industrial architecture as modernist icons. In short, Sheeler had projected an avant-garde sensibility on a place that had been previously thought of as a hinterland, as possessing little or no interest to an artist who was engaged in expanding a visual lexicon.
The irascible dynamism of our epoch . . . the all-inclusive renascence
Sheeler, of course, was an artist from the East Coast who worked primarily in New York and in Pennsylvania. Despite his strained relationship with Stieglitz, he was also part of a relatively small, tight-knit community of vanguard artists who had been responsible for establishing Manhattan as an artistic mecca in the 1920s, whatever the initial limitations of its marketplace. There were other artists, such as Thomas Hart Benton, who had worked on the periphery of this heady circle (almost wholly comprised of figures who were tied to either Stieglitz or Duchamp). Benton's work had been included in the Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters at the Anderson Galleries in 1916, a landmark exhibition that drew upon the canvases of seventeen artists, among them Dove, Hartley, and Marin. The show also included the work of Benton's good friend Stanton Macdonald-Wright, whom he had met on a prolonged trip to Paris in 1909 and who would subsequently become a roommate in New York. Macdonald-Wright had urged Benton to take up the cause of modernism, more specifically, to produce synchromist (literally meaning "with color") paintings much like his own [illus.] that could appease the interests of the exhibition's committee, especially those of his stepbrother, Willard Huntington Wright, who was one of the jurors. Wright, a critic and writer who briefly edited the journal The Smart Set before it was taken over by H. L. Mencken and Jean Nathan in 1914, became a key spokesman for the Synchromist movement. (Synchromism, the brainchild of Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, had been hatched in Paris in 1912-13.)
While Benton's synchromist entries were deemed hackneyed by Alfred Stiegltiz and John Weichsel, who also served on the jury, he did ironically succeed in gaining entry with two figurative paintings and an abstraction in an exhibition otherwise devoted to modernist developments. (Weischel, like Stieglitz, was an anarchist; he ran the People's Art Guild in New York from 1915 to 1918 and wrote extensively about contemporary art for various publications, including Camera Work. The Guild was a noncommercial, artist-run organization that both offered art classes and orchestrated exhibitions in various community centers and public spaces, among them the Henry Street Settlement. Benton knew Weischel and through him not only attained valuable teaching positions in New York but helped to stage many of the Guild's exhibitions. Weischel's reformist, equalitarian ideals and, in particular, his belief that art had a pivotal role to play in the ongoing cultural reconstruction of democracy had a deep impact on Benton's thinking. Weischel's aversion to any form of nationalism and his primary commitment to modernism as a radical agency, however, would eventually alienate Benton.)
Benton managed to withstand any charge of derivativeness in the critical reviews that grew out of the Forum Exhibition. Weischel, for example, would consider his capitulation to tradition and his muscular treatment of the male nude (in works now lost and known only through reproduction) as part of an elastic, revisionist stance on the past, an extension of Michelangelo's painting and sculpture that embodied "the irascible dynamism of our epoch . . . an all-inclusive renascence." However, Weischel's incorporation of Benton into his notion of modernism was something of a stretch, perhaps better read as a collegial gesture, issuing from an anticipation that Benton's work would advance toward a more resolved state of abstraction. Weischel's views, although rooted in a deep sense of social justice in which the revolutionary path of the worker was linked with the same aims of the artist, had little truck with mimetic art, as he knew that the resuscitation of a bygone historic moment was, in fact, retrograde, a throwback hardly representative of the "dynamism" of New York in mid-1910s.
At this early juncture, Benton's recasting of Renaissance subjects took the form of near wholesale appropriations of known monuments and masterworks, particularly those of Michelangelo, a figure he would consistently admire and whose influence would continue to be visible in his work well into the late 1930s. He intended these reiterations of or musings on history to be devotional acknowledgments of a watershed period, one whose patrimony might still be fused with contemporary American culture. That realization, however, awaited later definition. It would take his 1919 conscription into the U.S. Navy, where he was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, and worked as a draftsman, and then his eventual leave from that institution, for Benton to gain a deepened sense of the promise the United States and its considerable geography and ethnic diversity could have as fodder for art. The awakening was not entirely serendipitous.
As his lost paintings for the Forum Exhibition reveal, Benton had a clear predisposition toward narrative content, one that he intuited could be updated and merged with the syntax of modernism by investing his writhing figures with a pulsating, black outline, a feature that assumed its own degree of abstraction. This was the design element that most captivated jurors such as Weischel, and even Stieglitz. In Norfolk, he came upon J. A. Spencer's illustrated three-volume History of the United States from the Earliest Period to the Administration of James Buchanan, written in the mid-nineteenth century and accompanied by steel etchings based on paintings by Emanuel Leutze, J. Alden Weir, and other notable artists. The books were critical to his aesthetic education -- he read and reread them -- as well as to lifting his thematic interests beyond what he knew to be a limitation: the Renaissance might have been fertile design territory, but the United States possessed its own vibrant lore, peoples, and traditions. In other words, American artists no longer needed Europe to direct its subjects.
In his entry for the catalogue that accompanied the Forum Exhibition, Benton had explicitly stated, "I believe the representation of objective forms and the representation of abstract ideas of form to be of equal artistic value." He averred that there had to be some equilibrium within painting, that a desire for verisimilitude need not become an alienated feature, cast off as outmoded. Benton construed modernism's range, in short, as too narrowly prescribed by a mandate for invention; he believed that it ought to be able to encompass the figure. While Weischel was able to overlook Benton's focus on the body and was not stymied by his delving into art history, Willard Hunting Wright was not as sanguine, even though he clearly voted for Benton's inclusion in the show. In Wright's review of the exhibition (these jurors felt no impropriety in covering their own projects in the art press; the stakes and audiences for modern art in the 1910s were so low that any form of advocacy was seen as advancing the cause of an underrated, if not spurned, movement), Benton did not fare quite as well. Wright hedged his bets on Benton's work, not yet ready to concede that he understood modernism while still holding out hope that he might be exhilarated by it, and particularly by Synchromism's investment in color and the way that color could function as an independent entity, no longer reliant upon an object or nature as its source. As Wright wrote,
Wright had a specific agenda to bring to Benton's work. He wanted more palpable evidence of the Synchromist prototypes that Stanton and the American expatriate painter Morgan Russell had earlier developed. (Russell lived the bulk of his career in Paris; he returned to the United States in 1946, once World War II had ended and long after the short-lived Synchromist style had fallen out of favor.) That Benton's painting fell short of the criteria set by their work-it never rose to their standard of purity and still held on to a recognizable cluster of bodies -- was problematic for Wright; he found it debased by what he referred to as the "obvious." Benton's paintings for the Forum Exhibition remained too conventional for Wright, too lumbering and literal. He clearly sensed that Benton might not get with the Synchromist credo, that he might never truly be able to comprehend its pictorial complexity and would always be yearning for some reminder of the past in art, a reassuring and stabilizing feature that could both withstand and offset the radical dimensions of contemporary painting. Wright was right. Synchromism never did become Benton's métier, let alone a major part of his artistic legacy, the latter of which would soon be enmeshed in an abhorrence to all modern art -- or so he would be quick to publicly pronounce once the avant-garde lost its footing in the 1930s. Revealingly, however, Benton's relationship with Stanton Macdonald-Wright would remain a lasting staple in his life. It was one of the few friendships that he was able to sustain: his contentious, scrappy manner would thwart most of his professional associations, making him feel like an outcast from the beginning of his career, someone who felt misunderstood by the presiding arbiters of art. At least that's how he and Craven would always construe it. Significantly, though, this representation would change with the onset of the Depression, when Benton enjoyed a phenomenal national ascendancy. He would become one of the first artists in the twentieth century before Jackson Pollock to attract the attention of the mass media, particularly that of Henry Luce's new publications, Time and Life, which targeted a middle-class, decidedly less highbrow, audience. The coverage Benton received would lead many of his peers to view him as a sellout, dubious at best, consigning his work to what the formalist critic Clement Greenberg, in the late 1930s, would dub a dangerous "kitsch" culture, which not only maligned modernism but the life of the intellectual, threatening the authenticity of any vanguard form of art and writing.
Benton and Pollock would begin their own complicated relationship in the late 1920s, played out not only in their roles as teacher and student -- with all of the charged associations of patriarchy, of mentor and leader -- but subsequently through their representations as adversaries in the press. They would be seen as polarized in an aesthetic battle involving rigid demarcations between representational art (soon to be broken down into such monikers such as "social scene" or "regionalist" painting) and the endeavors of modernism. These enforced dichotomies would fail to recognize the overlap that frequently obtained between their work, and the subtle connections of the one with the other, too rigidly focused were they on outward appearance rather than entwined histories. There would, of course, be "obvious" (to use Willard Huntington Wright's word) differences between the two figures: they would diverge on the priorities of painting, with Pollock pinpointing one area of incongruity as that of "technique," stating, "[I]t seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or any other past culture." But their mutual emphasis in foregrounding an American subject matter, one that was alternatively expressed either through formal invention [illus.] or the revival of narrative, revealed a like-minded sensibility, however diverse each response. Moreover, Benton, for all of his revisionism, would never discount that some ingenuity was required to redirect contemporary art, that attention to "technique," as Pollock would have it, had to be brought into the equation. In the mid-1920s he would write about form in a most studious, pseudo-scientific manner, replete with accompanying charts and diagrams, in a series of lengthy articles for The Arts, still affirming that parity with American themes could be achieved in painting, not wanting, like his peers, to ditch the "obvious." Sheeler, of course, had invested his representations of the River Rouge plant with an exacting dose of contemporaneity, establishing a salient prototype. However, his stake in the machine and in industry would eventually elude Benton's more agrarian sensibility, grounded in his latter-day reminiscences of growing up in Neosho, Missouri, before his father moved the family to Washington, D.C., where he served as a congressman (his great-uncle before him was a U.S. Senator). This would soon amount to a renewed, intensified interest in the Midwest, especially after his father's death in 1925.
The obscurantist routines of modernist art
Benton's essays in The Arts revealed a certain debt to both Stanton and Willard Huntington Wright. Nearly a decade later, he was still drawing from their conversations in Manhattan, evidence that he remained engaged in "the fundamental mechanical factors which underlie what we generally respond to as aesthetic values." However, the pursuit of pure abstract painting was not what he in mind when he sat down to write these tracts; quite the contrary. He now viewed the mastery of "mechanical factors" as a means to a larger end. Yet when it came to Macdonald-Wright, Benton declared long after his brief flirtation with Synchromism was over that he "had a sincere regret when he departed for the nut state [California]" in 1919 after a four-year stint in New York, where he not only participated in the Forum Exhibition but in a group show at Stieglitz's "291" Gallery. Even late in life, Benton would depict Macdonald-Wright as "the most intelligent fellow in the whole outfit. With the exception of Tom Craven, Wright was the closet friend I ever had."
The pairing of Macdonald-Wright and Craven in Benton's recollection is a telling yet unconscious metaphor, emblematic of the twin aesthetic tendencies that ran through his work not only in the mid- to late 1910s but in ensuing decades. While Benton would give up on Synchromism, but the implications of the movement would hardly elude him. For instance, in The American Historical Epic (191927) [illus.], an uncommissioned sequence of eighteen murals that he produced after he left the Navy, the delineation of form remains highly unconventional and singular. Although still taken with the muscular figures that populated Michelangelo's work, these images are avowedly modern, with their anonymous, blank faces set in a nondescript, generic landscape, in sync with a machine-age aesthetic, however contradictory in terms of the historic narrative. But what Benton really craved as he worked through Synchromism and its pure focus on color -- the refinements of which would escape him-was Stieglitz's attention.
Benton knew Stieglitz not only through his role as a juror of the Forum Exhibition, but through the roster of exhibitions at "291," which he followed with a certain assiduity, recognizing that the gallery was the premiere showcase for avant-garde art in Manhattan before it closed in 1917. However, he was never able to convince Stieglitz to peddle his work. Stieglitz remained put off by what he perceived to be Benton's failed dalliance with Synchromism. Ironically, he was less alienated by Benton's retreaded Renaissance painting, sensing that these efforts were sincere. (At least these works got him into the Forum Exhibition!) Stieglitz's tepid response to his modernist overtures engendered not only Benton's feelings of disconnection from the more radical enunciations of form that he encountered at "291," but a festering animosity that would become unleashed just as the Depression overwhelmed the United States and his investigation of national themes secured a widespread, sympathetic audience. Benton was let down not only by Stieglitz's rejection of his work, but by his overall feelings of estrangement from the revolutionary zeal that defined much cultural expression in the early twentieth century. As he wrote toward the end of the 1920s, shortly after he had completed the last installment of The American Historical Epic, "[T]he idea, the further you abstracted, the purer and more functionally adaptable became your forms, while logically demonstrable, would not go down and stay with me. My stubbornness on this subject kept me out of the real current of the movement and I remember on my return from France, how lonely I used to feel in Stieglitz's '291' where others were practicing that to which I could only give an argumentative lip service."
Benton realized that he was constitutionally incapable of enacting the aesthetic strictures that Stieglitz required of his artists, that he would never be able to fully comprehend a devotion to abstract painting, finding its mission both too utopian and too speculative for him, as it lacked the foundation of tried traditions that figures such as Michelangelo had long since established. As he approached the completion of The American Historical Epic, he wrote to Stieglitz, "After looking over the Picasso things I am still of the opinion that making pretty little lines and spots over canvas or paper is a waste of time and that it is either stupid or degenerate." That he could find little to crib in the work of Picasso, an artist whom Stieglitz was responsible for introducing to America, was also a reflex of his burgeoning nationalism in the early 1920s, of a steely belief that the United States had its own worthy artistic conventions, that there was no need to emulate the "degenerate" compositions that Stieglitz and other subsequent dealers were importing from Europe. Where Dove, O'Keeffe, and others had similarly seen their work as abiding by "the Great American Thing," Benton would now characterize their abstractions of nature as "slavish imitations of French models . . . that denied the value of the subject." The absence of palpable or readable content in Dove's painting in particular became for him not only a flaw or shortcoming but an egregious transgression, one that was morally reprehensible, as it forsook what he saw as a responsibility to American history.
Yet Benton was not nearly as doctrinaire or rigid as Thomas Craven, especially when it came to Stieglitz's work -- that is, not until he reclaimed the Midwest as both a subject and a domicile in the mid-1930s, a move that would further escalate his sense of nationalism. Benton acknowledged that Stieglitz's photography stood out from the more homogeneous and bland productions of a new class of professionals that had traded on the aesthetic potential of the medium, opting instead for its commercial viability. In fact, he wrote to Stieglitz soon after seeing his work at the Anderson Galleries in New York in early 1921, "I have always looked upon photographs as differing merely in the matters of texture and subject and therefor frequently said (as it has of course been told you) that I would look over a summer girl with more interest than I could muster the efforts of a serious photographer. After seeing your things together I find it necessary to readjust my ideas on the subject. I got a lot out of your work -- I find it beautiful and what is more to the point, interesting." (The show at the Anderson Galleries was something of an event, as it was the first time that Stiegltiz had exhibited his work in almost eight years.) However, Stieglitz was not easily seduced, even by these accolades. He understood that he and Benton would never land on the same aesthetic page, that Benton, moreover, could never be fully converted to modernism, and that they were not kindred spirits.
They did reach an amiable standoff once Stieglitz's operations at "291" had come to a close, however. Their dialogue no longer centered on Benton's feelings of estrangement from the work of the artists Stieglitz had once hung on his walls. With Stieglitz's authority seemingly diminished, their relationship became more equal. Whereas Benton had once felt that Stieglitz's "confidence in him was limited to the extreme," he now became more liberated to express his convictions on modern art, able to indulge his chauvinism and openly admit that his leanings toward tradition were decidedly biased. In one telling epistle to Steiglitz he would write,
Whatever their differences, Stieglitz was not entirely dismissive of Benton's remonstrations on modernism, or of his dim take on photography in general. He invited Benton to submit a piece to the special issue of MSS that addressed "Can a Photograph Have the Significance of Art?" in 1922, knowing that his views would be unsympathetic and contrary, too fixated on media. Benton, true to Stieglitz's expectations, was unable to get beyond photography's wizardry, although he had claimed Stieglitz's show a year earlier had been "beautiful" "interesting." He wrote of photography's impediments rather than its possibilities, stating that "its aesthetic accompaniment is not the result of design, of human idealism as in painting, but is a quality of nature, and exists in a fine print as it exists in flowers, crystals or ridges. Man enters into the aesthetic of photography -- builds in a selective capacity, in the isolation of what is aesthetically moving in nature." That the medium was too bound up in nature, and by inference incapable of generating any pictorial transformation (whatever the abstraction attained by Stieglitz in his Equivalents) was proof to Benton of its secondary status, showing that it could never approximate the "humanism" of painting. This declaration came with the tacit understanding that Stieglitz's predispositions and pontifications on art were wrongheaded, that modernism could never be anything more than a limited venture, deprived as it was of the weight and rich narratives proffered by history. Moreover, as Benton would assess it, any attempt to unsettle established media hierarchies by admitting photography into the canon was subversive at best, an affront to accepted standards.
Benton would become increasingly brazen on the subject of a "degenerate" modernism, especially once he left New York to resettle in Missouri in late 1934. He conveniently overlooked his own initial investment in the movement as well as its continuing traces in his painting. But, then, contemporary political and economic events had enabled his festering patriotism (as well as his latent racism, homophobia, and sexism), allowing him the "connection with life" for which he had always yearned. Thomas Craven, too, would become more acerbic in his condemnations of art that departed from mainstream prescriptions. His own conservative ethos would lead to an aggressive disdain for the progressive dimensions of most modernist painting and sculpture; he would deduce from such works that America exhibited no independence from Europe (again, with the salient exceptions of Marin and O'Keeffe). Just after the stock market plunged in 1929 and the Depression began to hamstring the financial lives of the working and middle classes, Craven would forecast that Benton would become a more recognized figure in American art, especially once the forces of modernism receded. He wrote that Benton "will never be a popular artist like the French idol, Matisse, but he has the essentials of the great artist. When we shall have recovered from the vogue in French fripperies, his work will stand as the expression of a real life."
As Benton took leave of New York for Kansas City, having had it with what he described as "the obscurantist routines of modernist art," Craven would depict him as not only a "great artist" but as someone whose work had been deeply misunderstood, who could not be incorporated into any prevailing rubric, since his painting defied the overly binding classifications that had been set in place to describe contemporary American art. As he wrote in 1934, Benton "falls into none of the neat categories of modern art. To the conservatives, he is a Red; to the radicals, he is a Chauvinist. His art is too specifically real, too deeply impregnated with what I shall risk calling the collective American spirit, to touch the purists, methodists, and doctrinaire-those whose idealism kneels to international panaceas and European formula." (Benton had flirted with Marxism and socialist thought, as had many artists, writers, public intellectuals, and academics from the mid-1910s onward into the late 1930s-hence Craven's designation of him as "Red." As Benton expounded on The American Historical Epic, "When I first started painting American Histories, 1919 to 1924, I could see no conflict between American democratic ideals and the ideals of the Soviet Union . . . I was convinced that the American dream had been continually discounted by capitalist organizations which had grown beyond the people's control." That he linked the aspirations of Lenin and Trotsky with the labor movement in the United States was further evidence of a reformist, forward-thinking sensibility, one that was not wholly constricted by nationalism, at least as it pertained to the empowerment of a disenfranchised working class. Later, he would refine his interest in Marx by attaching his essential pragmatism to the ideas of John Dewey, a thinker whose aesthetic philosophy placed a premium on the variety of artistic experience and touted local culture as a starting point.)
The most virile of the U. S. painters of the U. S. Scene
With his decision to leave New York and its "retrograde or degenerate modernism," Benton now felt he could more freely admit to his prejudices, especially once his commissions for murals in Manhattan and in the Midwest soared. In the process he had achieved a certain notoriety, if not celebrity, the magnitude of which had not been attained by any artist in the United States, at least not in the twentieth century. Benton's outspoken contempt for what he perceived as the effete nature of American modernist art would place him on the cover of Time magazine [fig.], with the reporter in the accompanying article declaring him to be "the most virile of the U. S. painters of the U. S. Scene." The masculinized rhetoric brought to bear on Benton's work -- drawn from his own utterances -- would become a rudiment of the charged, appositional discourse that would place the avant-garde and "U.S. Scene" or Regionalist painting in a dichotomous relationship in the mid-1930s. It would aid in forging a narrow and sometimes doctrinaire interpretation of contemporary art that frequently overlooked the shadings of meaning and pictorial similarities that obtained between the two movements.
The language of this discourse, ironically, had its origins in Stieglitz's struggles to establish the prowess of American vanguard art, to affirm its unique identity and highlight its contrasts with European modernism in the early 1920s. While this was an offhanded appropriation, Benton was certainly aware of the Freudian verbiage that Paul Rosenfeld and Waldo Frank had projected onto the work of Dove and O'Keeffe in the early 1920s. Rosenfeld and Frank had imagined the two as a sexual pair and had focused on the alternatively phallic and labial properties in their painting. However, in Benton's hands, this diction became meaner, nastier, and more assertively nationalistic: he would tie his own libido and art to the might of politics and history, his intention being to emasculate what remained of a modernist movement. Or, as he would announce just as he moved back to the Midwest, his murals "represent the U. S. which is also loud and not 'in good taste,'" a patent attack on the refinement of much advanced or avant-garde painting. But the indictment also took aim at highbrow culture, which Benton associated with Manhattan and what had become for him a latter-day Babylon; hence, his constant recriminations in the mid-1930s against its "degenerate" artistic expressions and lifestyles that he zealously maintained contrasted with the more wholesome mores found in the Heartland.
By the time Benton reestablished his residence in Missouri, he was publicly allied with Craven, who had attained the status of an überart critic, his ultraconservative voice now omnipresent not only in the pages of Scribner's but in The New York Times, Art Digest, and The New York American, the last being a daily newspaper published by William Randolph Hearst for which Craven wrote from 1934 onward. Craven, who had been born in Salinas, Kansas, and lived in the Midwest until the time of his graduation from Kansas Wesleyan University in 1908, would never leave New York once he landed in Greenwich Village in 1913, knowing that his livelihood was dependent upon coverage of its galleries and museums. Manhattan provided him with a more effective platform to launch his antimodernist tirades, and to take aim at its denizens' abrogation of tradition. Their stars ascendant, Benton and Craven became entwined in the mass media, as well as in the art press and literary journals, their aesthetic grievances and anathema to modernism now constantly invoked. As their visibility increased, Stieglitz would continue to be a target of their scorn, a figure who still managed to induce in Benton feelings of rejection and to nettle Craven about his tenuous revisionist theories, a nagging reminder that modernism still might have the upper hand.
In retrospect, however, their anger seems misplaced. Or was it? Stieglitz, after all, was a fading presence by 1934. He had long since ceased to possess any real influence, although he would doggedly promote a handful of artists such as Dove, Marin, and O'Keeffe until his death in 1946. Just as Benton left Manhattan for Missouri and Craven assumed his perch at the New York American, Waldo Frank, Lewis Mumford, Paul Rosenfeld, and others would bring out a volume titled America and Alfred Stieglitz: A Collective Portrait, a book ostensibly meant to honor Stieglitz's seventieth birthday. Their sub-rosa aim was to consolidate Stieglitz's position as the major arbiter of American culture. And with that mission came the implication that Regionalist painting was too literal and clichéd to capture the grand themes of American history, that its figurative style did little to enhance a national Zeitgeist, which, they believed, could only adequately be conveyed through abstraction.
Benton acknowledged that Craven's enthusiasms for the revival of bygone pictorial conventions were overplayed, motivated in part by a desire to topple a nemesis. He still retained a vivid memory of Craven's attempt to upstage Stieglitz, recounting at the end of his life, "[W]hen the regionalist movement came on, he backed it, maybe overstrongly . . . of course, he and Alfred Stiegltiz didn't get along. And he would take cracks at the Stieglitz modern views. They never got along. I never got along with him either. Not at all. But we made a surface agreement. I thought he was a pain in the neck; you could never get a word in." Despite his depictions of Craven's exaggerated enthusiasm for the Regionalist movement, and his own alleged pact to remain publicly neutral, Benton had been equally fierce in trumping his resistance to modernism. In fact, soon after he arrived in Kansas City, he reviewed America and Alfred Stieglitz for Common Sense, a radical, anticapitalist monthly publication that featured the likes of John Dewey, Edmund Wilson, and John Dos Passos. Beyond taking on Stieglitz's manner of dress and his signature black "long-flung cape" [fig.], a transparent jab at what he must have thought of as Stieglitz's overly refined or effete leanings (and a description replete with homophobic connotations), Benton would find little of sustaining value in Stieglitz's various ventures, with the exception of his photography. But even that achievement came with a disclaimer: "[T]his is not enough to create a prophet."
It was the legacy of the "291" Gallery, however, that most addled Benton, who depicted it as a "contagion of intellectual idiocy . . . [that] rose to unbelievable heights." His venom was matched if not outdone by Craven, who had already employed a more racist tact, portraying Stieglitz as a "Hoboken Jew without knowledge of, or interest in, the historical American background." Craven's only concession to Stieglitz's prescience as a dealer and artist was to admit that he had "valued art as a human activity." And even that praise smacked of cosmopolitanism, an outlook that Craven maintained had to be reversed. Stieglitz had always remained publicly stoic when it came to any form of condemnation. Yet he wrote to Dove soon after Benton's piece in Common Sense appeared to say, "Have you seen the slop pail Benton has poured over me & the Book? . . . It's a wonder. -- Gangsterdom in every field is in the ascendancy. -- It all makes me smile. I'm accustomed to that sort of thing." Dove, too, was incensed by the onslaught of Benton and Craven. However, he was equally mystified by their newfound critical muscle and weight. As he wrote to Stieglitz, "I saw Benton's self-portrait in 'Time.' If the people, in general, even do not see through that, they are dumb . . . Wonder what the Craven mixture will think up next. Maybe they are all actors and we don't get it."
His genius is no antique presence wheeled out of the old masters
Thomas Craven might have become the most vocal advocate for the Regionalist movement; however, he was not wholly responsible for shaping its nationalistic content or even for determining its participants. The phrase was suggested by an exhibition organized by Maynard Walker for the Kansas City Art Institute in 1933 that drew on the work of Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood, among other historic and contemporary figures. Walker was a dealer from New York who worked for the Feragil Gallery until 1935, when he left to found his own midtown establishment, which represented the trio of artists in addition to such émigré figures as George Grosz. Not only did his project for Kansas City assert that these artists shared a sensibility but, more defiantly, that their work represented a "vital" new direction in American art, one that enlarged and reconstituted modernism by evoking subjects exclusively associated with the Heartland. As Walker stated in an interview in Art Digest at the time of the exhibition, "[O]ne of the most significant things in the art world today is the increasing importance of real American art. I mean an art which springs from the American soil and seeks to interpret American life . . . much of the most vital modern art in America is coming out of our long backward Middle West."
Unlike Craven, Walker was disabused of any critical position that hawked the resuscitation of tradition to explain the prowess of Benton, Curry, and Wood. He deemed that there were original features to their painting that should be woven into description. Yet Walker was hardly a moderate voice, someone who could temper and overcome the factions of vanguard culture and its conservative opposition. He could be just as conformist as Craven, as well as fiendish and crude, especially when it came to European modernism. He believed that Picasso and others had wielded too much damaging influence on American painting, perpetuating an ingrained cliché that the art associated with the "Stieglitz circle" was derivative. Like Craven, Walker capitalized on the catastrophe of the Depression to empower his convictions, citing nationwide economic hardship as his justification for questioning this assumed intrusion of foreign artistic expression. In his interview with Art Digest, he employed a now familiar patriotic rhetoric, proclaiming that "with the crash of 1929 everyone began to look around to see if there were any realities left in the world. The shiploads of rubbish that had been imported from the School of Paris were found to be just rubbish. The freaks and the interesting boys with so much 'naivete' have lost caste. There have been pictures which gained great fame when it became noised about that their author bit another man's ear off. But the balloon is 'bust'; those days are no more. People have begun to look at pictures with their eyes instead of their ears."
That Walker ascribed a certain modernity to the paintings of Benton, Curry, and Wood rested on some supposition of their "virility," of their contrast with the work of the "freaks" and "interesting boys" that he sought to downgrade and spurn. But the tag, even in his vicious hands, lacked any specificity outside of its generalized masculine tone; it was used primarily to reinforce his imputations of servility to those artists who still produced abstract art, whether they be European or American. The distinction did little to add to the originality of the Regionalist movement, stalled as it was in the same appropriations that Craven had drawn from Rosenfeld and other modernist exponents when he first attempted to pinpoint and elucidate the work of Benton. Nevertheless, the sexualized undercurrents of this growing "virile" discourse (which would extend into the late 1960s) came in handy, enabling Walker to connect the homegrown, mostly rural themes engaged by these Midwestern artists with fortitude and valor, the aesthetic likes of which he read had not been attempted by many other contemporary artists. Paintings such as Wood's Stone City (1930) [illus.] and Fall Turning (1931) [pl.], with their tidy, pristine rows of trees and crops set in undulating landscapes, possessed, as Walker implied, the same formal bravado and newness as any nonrepresentational painting. Wood's canvases also came with the bonus of a recognizable subject, one that was bucolic and idyllic, that provided instant uplift and gratification.
Walker knew these figurative hallmarks were essential to his efforts to develop a new base of collectors in a highly challenging marketplace, at a time when the acquisition of art had become publicly perceived as self-indulgent, part of a louche, arrogant subculture that was yet another spin-off of a corrupted modernism that needed to be reconceived, made more wholesome, respectable and upright. As part of his bolstering of Regionalist painting, he maintained that his effusive clientele was unswayed by foreign art. "American collectors and buyers are staying home to buy them," he claimed. (There were, interestingly, no sales from the show at the Kansas City Art Institute. Purchases were made primarily from the Ferargil Galleries in Manhattan, a situation that underscored the dialectical complexity of the new Regionalist movement, as it remained dependent on a major urban center, specifically New York City, with its media outlets, art scene, dealers, curators, and writers for both coverage and the generation of its meanings. Regionalism's adversarial stance toward European painting in particular came to constitute a major ingredient of its ideological posturing, one that could be weighed only through its juxtaposition with international modernism as it continually appeared in Manhattan's showcases.)
By the time Walker founded his own gallery in 1935 and assumed the representation of Benton, Curry and Wood, Regionalism was not only a known aesthetic entity but a national sensation, a movement that drew on a widespread population of followers, exponents, and collectors. Like the trademark innocence that Wood managed to conjure in The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover (1931) [illus.] with its trim, orderly, decorated cottages and lawns, Regionalist painting not only rekindled a romance with American history that had been dormant since the mid-nineteenth century, but offered an image of national stability that soothed a country scrambling to make sense of its economy and environmental devastation. Walker was particularly adept at utilizing the new Luce publications, such as Time and Life, to promote the work of his artists. In fact, he was more responsible than Craven for orchestrating their celebrity. The American Mercury and Scribner's, for which Craven wrote, could not pull off that type of glory, as their subscription base and circulation were far more limited. Moreover, it was Walker who brought Curry and Wood to Craven's attention. Craven had previously publicized Benton as the lone misunderstood revisionist painter, but after Walker's introduction, the others became integral to his construction of a Regionalist canon.
Works such as Curry's Tornado Over Kansas (1929) [pl.], with its vivid, theatrical scenario of impending danger, would become for Craven an exemplar of a new pictorial stratagem that contained the possibility of reorienting painting. The composition dispenses with allegory or any veiled symbolism or meaning; its literal format provides the essential drama. Against a background composed of a tousled landscape and a dark funnel cloudlike formation, a family runs toward cover. Their flight alone is compelling enough to hold the viewer's attention. Or is it? Craven knew that such pictures purposefully avoided dabbling with any form of abstraction, that their emotional freightage was best conveyed through straightforward, unadulterated figuration. Yet he also believed that Curry had pulled off a remarkable transcendence in his work that was rooted in firsthand observation of the natural features and erratic weather patterns that defined the terrain and meteorology of the Midwest. As Craven wrote of this feat, "His genius is no antique presence wheedled out of the old masters, nor is it a synthetic agent evolved from modernism. It is a living spirit, springing out of the ground like growing wheat, or out of elements like the storm cloud."
Curry grew up on a farm near Dunavant, in northeastern Kansas. Like Benton, he had made the requisite trip to Paris in the late 1920s, after working as an illustrator for several publications, including Boy's Life, County Gentlemen, and the Saturday Evening Post. Yet he was unswayed by the Cubist pictures that he saw in France. Instead, while abroad, he pursued drawings that emphasized facility and skill, patterned variously on works by Gustave Courbet, Eugene Delacroix, and, especially, Peter Paul Rubens that he had seen at the Louvre. When he returned to Westport, Connecticut, where he had lived since 1924, his resistance to tampering with and unsettling representational approaches to painting would only heighten. Even though Westport had become a loose-knit colony of artists and writers long before the Depression, attracting the likes of Dove, Rosenfeld, Paul Strand, and Van Wyck Brooks, Curry would remained undaunted by these legacies.
While Craven was misguided in dismissing the impact of the "old masters" on Curry's painting, he would aptly describe Curry's stint in Paris as an atypical experience, claiming that he "refused to be caught in the hurry of cubism, never herded with the louts of the Latin Quarter, and fired no volleys of impressionist color at the face of nature." Long after he had digested his reactions to the collections, exhibitions, and salons that he saw in France, Curry would write to Frederic Newlin Price, a New York dealer, "Learned something . . . from the Louvre and have been trying since to carry out my ideas of how an American should paint." That he should locate his aesthetic faith in the past while ferreting out American connections revealed an affinity with Benton and Wood. Yet Curry's relationship to the Regionalist movement, and to his native state of Kansas, would remain always more ambivalent, torn initially by physical separation and then by an innate sense of rejection.
Just before Maynard Walker assembled his exhibition at the Kansas City Art Institute, Curry traveled to Iowa to meet Grant Wood. It was a symbolic pilgrimage that aimed to establish the Midwest as a worthy, if not an elevated, subject for art, as well as to consolidate Regionalism as a bona fide artistic development. Depictions of urban scenes then amounted to a new genre in modern painting, the existential loneliness and industrial prowess of American cities being caught alternatively by such artists as Charles Sheeler, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Edward Hopper [illus.] from the early to mid-1920s onward. Hence, some urgency attended Curry's trek to the Stone City Colony and Art Center (founded by Wood in 1932), where he would teach for a three-week period in the summer of 1933. (Benton met Curry in New York in 1926; he would become acquainted with Wood when he relocated to Missouri in late 1934.) Whatever media coverage Walker had mustered for his show in Kansas City, Curry's neighboring home state had not been unforthcoming with recognition for his work. That would not surface until 1937, when he was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka. In those murals, he would ennoble John Brown [illus.], the scorned abolitionist, who was incarcerated and executed in Kansas in 1859. (Abraham Lincoln once referred to Brown as a "fanatic," so radical were his tactics to repeal slavery in the Midwest).
The project, which generated widespread controversy before its completion in 1940, was instigated through Walker's lobbying, an extension of his conviction that Curry should be more prominently situated as a native artist in the Heartland. By the time Curry began work on the murals, however, he had assumed a position as an artist in residence at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. This locale, rather than his birthplace, would become his latter-day Midwest home, compounding both the psychological and real distance that he always felt from his family's farm. In fact, Dunavant had been a place from which he had needed to escape, as he found its religious culture and rural life ultimately too confining for him. The metaphor of agrarian identity that Walker and Craven had imposed on Curry's work was overly labored and simplistic, belying the artist's unease with a homogeneous middle-class population and its self-acclaimed virtuous way of life; this was precisely the group that would eventually take exception to his murals for the statehouse in Topeka.Curry had appeared in the first issue of the newly reconstituted Life magazine in November 1936. Under Henry Luce's direction, the publication emphasized photojournalism, with text reduced to captions and imagery paramount. The spread on Curry's work was occasioned, in part, by the prices that Maynard Walker had established for his painting; the article noted at the outset that "his agents . . . ask over $1,000 a picture." Yet, in contrast to these formidable Depression-era sums, Curry was cast in Life as a diffident and malcontent individual, overturning the macho image of him that Thomas Hart Benton had promulgated in Time. The unnamed reporter observed that he was "gloomy and uncertain of himself, has repeatedly decided he is no painter at all," a perspective that ostensibly contradicted Maynard Walker's criterion for "vitality," at least when it came to his persona. (Curry was a mercurial figure who could be shy in public, clumsy, and unassuming, yet he was steely and determined when it came to his career.) To underscore a point, Life also noted that "[t]he Greatest Painter Kansas has produced, John Steuart Curry, has long resented his state's failure to appreciate him." While his commission for the murals in Topeka would do little to correct these snubbed feelings -- the furor over his inclusion of John Brown in the series would leave a lasting aversion -- Curry's defiance also surfaced in other statements that he made to the press. For example, he had been forthright in proclaiming in Art Digest that he deemed his work to be novel, if not trailblazing, although unencumbered by the urgent subjectivities that immersed modernism. There he listed both his creative allegiances and his divergences, maintaining that "cartoonists, illustrators, fashionable portrait painters are all loaded down with stock mannerisms and symbols, but none so much as the radical artist. There is a great opportunity for a new view point. A little intelligent observation and a more powerful art expression would arise. It would be better propaganda too." That Curry should allude to the propagandistic traits of his work was telling, a confession that he had also engaged in mythmaking, spinning a view of the Midwest that was sometimes illusory, that he had adopted fictive devices in order to substantiate the Regionalist program.
Curry was a perfect ideological fit for Life magazine, which was in the business, after all, of selling print and was underwritten by a conservative, largely corporate advertising base. Not only did he uphold the popular conception of the artist as a depressive, maladjusted person, but he asserted himself as a contrarian, one who had no qualms about publicly assailing the state of Kansas for overlooking the considerable stature he had achieved as an artist in New York. But Curry had also painted monumental, lush, verdant landscapes, such as his close-up view of a Kansas Cornfield (1933) [pl.], that eluded any sense of the Depression. That images such as these were anomalous and misrepresented the widespread ecological ruin that affected most of the Great Plains during the 1930s were inconsequential to Life. There were still verdant pockets that had remained untouched by drought and the widespread practice of farmers to forgo crop rotation, adding to the devastation. Life had a vested interest in telling a story of survival and hope, of providing a lifeline to a readership in need of emotional rescue, as well as evidence that tragedy was not a component of the country's destiny. Representations of beauty and abundance, such as those that appeared in the backdrop to Tornado Over Kansas and were full-blown in Kansas Cornfield, were powerful affirmations of human and natural fortitude. They were also emblematic of the very "vitality'" that Maynard Walker thought should be the prerequisite of modern painting.
Curry, like Grant Wood and later Thomas Hart Benton, chose to focus on the oases and sanctuaries that survived the vast natural disaster of the Depression, on the landscapes that were spared and had become extraordinary exceptions. Yet Curry's paintings were not all fantasy and gloss, as the murals for the statehouse in Topeka would reveal. If Kansas Cornfield peddled idealism and endless bounty, it was counterbalanced by the urgent social criticism that informed paintings such as Man Hunt (1931) [pl.] and The Mississippi (1935) [pl.], works that presaged the racial inequality that Curry would later foreground in his huge mural of John Brown. While Man Hunt, with no victim in sight, only alludes to the then pervasive practice of lynching, the painting is all condemnation. The menacing look of an armed central rider presages some type of evil activity. (The prelude of the chase was a known trope for the hanging and murder of innocent African Americans in the 1930s.) The spread in Life magazine may have represented Curry as a committed nationalist, but this acerbic, political statement revealed a deep preoccupation with civil rights that extended to his activism as a member of the National Urban League. Man Hunt was acquired by the vice president of the NAACP soon after it was painted, his interest having been sparked by antilynching legislation that was then before the U.S. Congress. Life never did follow up with a sequel showing Curry's impassioned mural that depicted the fury of John Brown, splayed Christ-like before his implied martyrdom and against a background landscape that was decidedly barren, ravaged by both a tornado and brushfire: obvious, biblical stand-ins for ruin and damnation. Nor was Man Hunt featured in its layout of images in 1936. There was never any reference in the magazine to the continuum of racism that was also an equal part of Curry's concern.
Curry was a more progressive individual than he publicly let on, at least not as conveyed in his utterances in such mainstream media as Life (which he must have known was adverse to radical politics). While his paintings perpetuated the forms of Rubens, his socialist leanings, outrage, and empathy for the stalked and dispossessed made him the modernist figure that Maynard Walker thought had reinvested art with "vitality" and authority, rendering modernist tinkerings with pictorial invention -- the "stock mannerisms," as Curry had called them-mute in the face of ecological adversity and social injustice. Works such as The Mississippi, in which a house and family have been uprooted by a flood, added to Curry's considerable inventory of social protest. (The flow of the Mississippi River had been tampered with by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1933, making for increased pressure on its levees and dislocating countless largely poor people.) But these issues that would be subject to a certain hype and gloss in the mass media and its counterpart, the motion picture industry. Indeed, the latter would turn to Tornado Over Kansas for the opening scene of The Wizard of Oz, finding surreal possibilities in the composition rather than the foreshortened moment of flight and anxiety.
Such was the national discussion and popularity of many of these Regionalist paintings that they were collected, as well as referenced and absorbed, by Hollywood's film directors. King Vidor, for example, who in 1934 directed and co-produced (with Charlie Chaplin) Our Daily Bread, a Depression-era saga of a communal farm made good, acquired Grant Wood's Arbor Day (1932). Similarly, Sidney Howard, the playwright and screenwriter, owned Curry's Line Storm until his death in 1939. Vidor was responsible (although uncredited) for the Kansas scenes in the Wizard of Oz and would have known of Curry's Tornado. While his appropriations were not entirely visible, Vidor's sensibility matched that of the Regionalist painters, as he was similarly drawn to their themes of transcendence and triumph. Moreover, in 1937, Benton would be commissioned by Life to produce a painting that would aggrandize the film studios and the celebrity culture that they spawned. Although the work and its many sketches were ultimately rejected and never appeared in Life, Benton was taken by the hidden, complex labor force upon which the motion picture industry hinged: its web of cinematographers, lighting designers, audio technicians, wardrobe assistants, and set designers would become the subject of his spurned painting. In fact, he saw their interdependence as constituting "a sort of communal Art," one that was more substantial and tangible than the fiction the stars enacted as it represented the foundation and optimism that drove American capitalism.
On the heels of Benton's failed assignment, in 1938 Maynard Walker opened a satellite branch of his gallery in Hollywood, knowing that the Regionalist artists he represented had also frequently traded on reality, whatever their feelings of fraternity with the working class. The imagery in their populist narratives had put a largely positive spin on the Depression, siphoning adversity into advantage, honing the cornfield and farmstead as an enduring American icon. There were formidable thematic and ideological linkages, Walker sensed, to be made with the dream machine that Hollywood propagated. But, ultimately, the flip side of Regionalist art, such as the dark underpinnings of racism that Curry and Benton (who had also engaged lynching as a subject in 1934) brought to life would overwhelm the pleasing, mediated stockpile of representations, such as Kansas Cornfield, that Walker and Craven had asserted were the central core the movement's thesis. Even then, their uneasy, disquieting compositions focused on bigotry and the lingering brutality of slavery would eventually be eclipsed, ironically, by more abstract representations. Isamu Noguchi, for instance, made the point more viscerally than Curry and Benton in his Death (Lynched Figure) (1934) [fig.] through the literal incorporation of a noose, the mutilated body of a hanging bronze figure a poignant reminder than the avant-garde was not bereft of tragedy and stirring subjects.
Their works really mean what they mean is Hearst's new scene
John Steuart Curry had met Benton in New York in 1926. Once Curry returned from Paris in 1927, their relationship would begin to flourish. Both were locked in the same ambition: to press for the unique traits of American painting, and to promote the Midwest as having a major role to play in the reinvigoration of its standing. Benton would recall that he "found John's Middle Western Americanism coincided with my own outlook. He was offended by the satellite condition of American painting and by the denial of value to the particularities of American experience and expression which followed there from." Once he moved to back to his native state of Missouri and accepted a teaching position at the Kansas City Art Institute in late 1934, he began to make the Midwest an almost exclusive subject, focusing on its erstwhile or interrupted agricultural glory: the now remote paradises that could still support its conceptualization as the Heartland. He would later admit that the dust bowl was far more widespread than he had initially imagined. Yet Benton could never allow this devastation to undermine the rural values that were central to the Regionalist platform. As the Depression stretched into the early 1940s, these restorative, pastoral sites obviously became more rarified and harder to find. They would largely become figments of Benton's imagination, wistful evocations of a vanquished terrain.
Toward the end of the 1930s, Benton would acknowledge the extensive soil erosion that had ravaged his native Missouri in Prodigal Son (1939-1941) [pl.], a painting that doubles as a parable and a self-portrait, emerging as a combined metaphor for the years that he had squandered in the "degenerate" artistic crucibles of Paris and New York while toying with the precepts of modernism. The abandoned, ramshackle farmstead and skeleton of a steer, along with the eerie brown cloud striations, are clear tokens of decline. Yet this painting was largely anomalous, with scenes such as Cradling Wheat (1935) [pl.] and July Hay (1943) [pl.] becoming the norm for Benton after he returned to Kansas City. In these works he distilled the Midwest as a place populated by benevolent, hardworking folk whose farms continued to yield endless harvests. Even in Persephone (1938) [fig.], a more transgressive work that contains another thinly masked self-portrait-here of an aging, lecherous farmer who gazes at the nude body of a sleeping woman-the theme of fertility is amplified by the surrounding luxuriant, grassy landscape, where every floral and vegetal detail is cast in magnificent full bloom.
Benton would outlive both Curry and Wood by almost three decades. He would therefore become the movement's de facto spokesman, defending its authenticity against a new generation of modernist writers and artists from New York who would become increasingly aggravated, as Alfred Stieglitz had become, by his continuing hostility to any form of art that departed from tradition, that could not integrate the Great Plains into its pantheon. (Wood died in 1942 and Curry in 1946, leaving Benton the remaining champion of a regionalist aesthetic until his death in 1975. There were, of course, countless other advocates, such as Thomas Craven and Maynard Walker; but in the absence of Curry and Wood, Benton determined the latter-day definitions of the movement.) Long after the term "Regionalism" had acquired lasting usage, Benton would attempt to spell out its limitations, contending that the label was misleading and had failed to get at the nuances of the movement, that it was unable to fully incorporate the multitudinous interests of the triumvirate that Walker had constructed. He felt some correction was in order, that a historic sketch of the phrase might diffuse the modernist animosity toward their project. As he would point out, the "name [was] taken from a group of southern writers, poets, and essayists, who in the late twenties called themselves 'agrarians.' But this Regionalism was not a clear term. Neither Wood, Curry nor I ever held ourselves, either in space or time, to any American region. It is true that we painted many pictures of rural life of the Midwest but the Midwest is not a single region but many regions-each with its own peculiar cultural character."
The designation "Regionalism," as Benton rightfully stated, had been artificially foisted on his work and that of Curry and Wood. It could neither thoroughly account for the diverse landscapes of the Midwest nor for the singularity of their individual responses. There were, however, overriding unities implicit in the term that Benton would never be able to explain or reconcile, making his argument perpetually vulnerable. Allen Tate, one of the Southern Agrarian poets responsible for phrase, noted in 1931, just as the literary movement coalesced, that "Regionalism . . . I think that most people will agree, is less self-conscious, less abstract and philosophical; it is often a conscious program, but its turned upon itself; a cultivation of the local characters, the local customs, of the community for their own sake." Tate's definition of Regionalism was not, however, nearly as generalized and as vague as Benton had assumed, making Benton and his brethren perpetually subject to his terms and definitions. Tate had allowed for certain ideological intrusions in his program of rural uniqueness. He was well aware that a focus on "local customs" came with aesthetic risks, which, if used politically, posed the danger to the movement of succumbing to what he called "sectionalism." Tate, ultimately, was prey to his own caution. (As an anti-abolitionist and defender of the Old South, his prose had frequently devolved into racism.) Yet his cogent descriptions of the potential misuse of regional material and the pitfalls of what he referred to as "sectionalism" were prescient, however impossible they proved for him to uphold.
Tate had specified that "sectionalism is by necessity a doctrine, philosophical at its rare best, at its worst boastful propaganda. Sectionalism is a kind of politics, a set of social values, but regionalism is, or should be, self-contained and unaware of whatever value it may have." Whatever high moments Regionalist painting had achieved-such as the sublimity and grandeur of Benton's Persephone, Curry's Kansas Cornfield, or Wood's Fall Plowing -- the work of its adherents had delved into the "sectionalism," or the drawbacks that Tate had described. Curry had invoked "propaganda" as a means to fortify his painting. Wood would write a beseeching doctrinaire tract, known as "Revolt Against the City," soon after Benton made his prodigal trip back to Kansas City, weighing in with the disclaimer that "the Great Depression has taught us many things, and not the least of them is self-reliance. It has thrown down the Tower of Babel erected in the years of a false prosperity; it has sent men and women back to the land." The Regionalists' oratory of independence from urban centers and what they regarded as a reprobate modernism was ongoing and prolific; in addition, it tended to become rigid, self-righteousness, and caustic, propelled as it was by an enthralled mass media spearheaded by publications such as Henry Luce's Time and Life. Yet there were real connections between the Southern Agrarian writers and the Regionalist painters, however much Benton would doubt their efficacy. Tate, along with John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren, and others -- most of whom were associated with Vanderbilt University in the early 1930s -- were bound by an anathema to the rampant industrialism that had broken up the South and the disruption of its small communities that had thrived on self-sufficient farming. Therein lay a symmetry of interest with the Regionalist artists. However, as Benton had suggested, the Midwest clearly had its own separate agricultural history that was not only far more monumental in scale but was driven by farm cooperatives that sold their harvests to national distributors. While the small Southern farm would be co-opted by developers, disturbing its once Arcadian associations, the Great Plains would suffer less from the impact of industry than from the inability of its farmers to generate the cash they needed to restore their lands during the Great Depression. With the banks unwilling to provide credit, foreclosures forced many families to abandon their homesteads and seek work in California -- an exodus that would be documented by photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and others.
The idea of community was as appealing to the Regionalist trio as it had been to the Southern Agrarian poets. And in the wake of ongoing bankruptcies, nostalgia would become a powerful motivating force, as the Regionalists sought to reclaim a protective, shared image of rural harmony, a device that seemed to echo the strategies of Tate, Ransom, and their colleagues. Benton, Curry, and Wood would never address the liquidation and auctions of farms and their assets during the 1930s in their paintings; that crisis would largely become the province of photographers such as Lange, Rothstein, Margaret Bourke-White, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, and others. There was never even a faint subtext or hint of critique in their work that related to the failings of the economy to preserve the idealism that they expounded. Like the poetry of their not so mismatched Southern counterparts, longing and sentimentality for a pastoral ideal would continue to pervade their work (with the notable exception of Curry's indictment of the racist dimensions of this utopian construct).
There were, however, compelling reasons for Benton to distance himself and his fraternity from the aspirations of the literary figures in the South. Tate and his colleagues were basically modernists who would delimit the content of a poem while they focused instead on its craft and structure, the refinements of which became a means to avoid the context -- the abhorrent commerce or materialism they denounced. In fact, their closed textual emphasis would be recognized by the editors of the newly restructured Partisan Review -- the foremost cultural and literary organ to emerge in the United States in 1937 -- as a precursor of formalist developments, presaging the prose and criticism of figures such as Clement Greenberg, who would later become one of the primary architects of Abstract Expressionism. Benton would never situate his qualifications to the term "Regionalism" within this intellectual history. But as the warring factions of modernism and Regionalism continued to unfold, threats to the Regionalism's ascendancy would surface in magazines such as Partisan Review as well as in the art press, making Benton accountable for his early work as an abstract painter. For all Luce's prowess as a publisher, his coverage of Benton, Curry, and Wood would never elevate their work within the New York art establishment. Their painting had entered the realm of popular culture, the likes of which most modernist artists and writers would spurn, fearing its associations with what Greenberg had termed " kitsch." Regionalism, moreover, would soon acquire the taint of fascism. Those who promoted it were assumed to possess a questionable lack of judgment and willful anti-intellectualism that mimicked the rhetoric and propagandist aims of totalitarian regimes abroad. These claims were exaggerated, invoked partially for effect, but in the wake of militaristic regimes that had infiltrated Russia, Germany, Spain, and Italy during the 1920s and 1930s, Benton's boosterism of the Midwest became perceived as fanatical, sectarian, and extreme.
For instance, Meyer Schapiro, who reviewed Benton's first memoir, An Artist in America, for Partisan Review soon after it was published, would dwell on the irony of Benton's alleged abrogation of modernism, while noting the imprint it still exerted on his work:
Schapiro, a Marxist historian who would deftly bridge social analysis with an examination of style, and who subsequently became one of the foremost interpreters of modern and medieval cultures in the mid-twentieth century while teaching at Columbia University, tempered his reservations by adding that "Benton repudiates European fascism, but fascism draws on many streams including the traditional democratic. The appeal to national sentiment should set us on guard, whatever its sources." Allen Tate and the Southern Agrarian poets had avoided such pitfalls by occluding the industry that had altered the Tennessee landscape to which they were rooted and perpetually drawn, forcing it into the background of their prose and poems while treating writing as a formalist endeavor. Schapiro was almost alone, however, in wondering what had happened to Benton's modernist origins, why the Midwest and abstraction could not be conjoined in one pictorial equation; that is, he was one of the few in the late 1930s who questioned the outcome of Benton's early interest in pictorial languages and its ongoing reverberation in his paintings.
Other writers, such as the artist Stuart Davis [illus.], who served as the editor of Art Front, the monthly journal of the Artists' Union that was published from 1934 to 1937, would presuppose that the avant-garde had long since ceased to hold Benton's attention (and, by extension, that of Curry and Wood), that Benton's spleen and tirades against Stieglitz and others had impeded any consideration of contemporary visual expressions, even though works such as Persephone and Prodigal Son would exhibit robust modernist features, their swelling, skewed, off-kilter compositions offering new possibilities for the rendering of landscape. Soon after Benton appeared on the cover of Time, and Curry and Wood were combined in its apotheosis of Regionalism inside, Davis would purposefully avoid the issue of Benton's and Wood's modernist beginnings. Instead, he would pay more attention to the media, to the dealers and writers responsible for their fame and national stature. He would write in Art Front that "their works suggest that what they really mean is Hearst's New American Scene, that Craven's values may possibly be clouded by a lively sense of commercial expediency. His efforts to bring art values to the plane of a Rotarian luncheon are a particularly repellent form of petty opportunism and should be understood and explained whenever one has the misfortune to slip on them."
Davis ostensibly had targeted the wrong publishing mogul: William Randolph Hearst had little involvement in the actual construction of a "New American Scene"; that primarily fell to Luce, through his bolstering of photojournalism in the United States in the 1930s. However, his observation that Craven had a major hand in manufacturing the visibility of the Regionalist trio issued from his prominence as an art critic for the New York American, a Hearst newspaper. Like Alfred Stieglitz, Davis knew Craven to be a formidable adversary, and that through him the debates on contemporary art had devolved significantly, becoming too tied to business and to the "Rotarian" sector. Yet these aesthetic skirmishes would always be localized within New York and in its media outlets, with Craven vociferous on the frontlines and Benton on the defensive far off in the Midwest, sending his own rebukes to Scribner's and Common Sense (the "slop pail," as Arthur Dove had described it). Davis, not unlike Meyer Schapiro, believed that rural subjects could be subsumed within a modernist framework as long as they showed some evidence of pictorial invention, as well as resistance to sentiment, ideology, and nationalism. He would argue that politics in particular had little place in the arena of art, that activism should be confined to the sidelines, or to the street. Davis would always regard the canvas as a private, sacrosanct, autonomous space. Keeping this distinction in mind, he would contend that "Benton conceives the Middle West as provincial, he sees it in his own image. I, too, think that great art will come out of the Middle West, but certainly not on the basis of Benton's prescriptions. It will come from the artists who perceive their environment, not in isolation, but in relation to the whole . . . Regionalist jingoism and racial chauvinism will not have a place in this great art of the future which Benton foresees, but the ideological basis of which he is unable to understand."
No movement should be judged by its manifestos
This sort of embattled rhetoric would overshadow most of the painting that emerged from the Heartland, obfuscating its at times subversive meanings. Grant Wood's American Gothic (1931) [pl.], for instance -- which would immediately attain the status of an icon, such was its widespread reproduction and critical reception -- was perhaps less an ennobling portrait of a plain-clothed, prim, rural couple than a work of social satire that mocked the resolute simplicity and puritanism associated with Iowa farm life. While Wood would never admit to his intentions, willfully compounding the painting's ambiguity, the gloomy, stiff features of this work-obsessed pair surely teeter toward comedy, with the title of the painting seemingly injecting an element of levity. The word "Gothic," after all, was not only an architectural term-here building on the central, arched farmhouse window with its minimal tracery that frames the couple-but one replete with nineteenth-century literary associations relating to horror, mystery, and bizarre experience. (None of this would have been lost on Wood, who had spearheaded a bohemian culture based in Cedar Rapids, his home, and that had ties to the East Coast through such individuals as the journalist William L. Shrier and the writer and photographer Carl van Vechten.)
The irony that Wood had spun in American Gothic certainly had not evaded the painting's early audiences, some of whom felt that it ridiculed them made them the subject of a Midwestern parody. Wood was bemused by the response. "[W]hen the picture was printed in the newspapers," he said, "I received a storm of protest from the Iowa farm wives, because they thought I was caricaturing them. One of them actually threatened, over the telephone, to come over and smash my head."
Wood clearly was not playing into the Regionalist agenda as Walker and Craven would fashion it a few years hence: at least not in American Gothic, where the rural lifestyle is depicted as anything but enviable. The couple here is too withdrawn and depressed to exude the stabilizing features that Wood had otherwise promulgated in landscapes such as Stone City and The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover. Interpreters such as H. W. Janson, who would become one of the foremost art historians in the United States in the 1950s, would contend that the painting "had been intended as a satire of small-town life." (Janson would later write a widely used, canonical textbook on the history of art in which Wood and other Regionalist artists would be expunged from or otherwise left out of twentieth-century developments. Both Janson and Wood taught at the University of Iowa, where Janson would tussle with a dean and be "fired mid-semester" in 1939 for taking his class to see a show of work by Picasso at the Art Institute of Chicago. Janson claimed that the Art Department "was a hotbed of political and artistic isolationism, with Grant Wood as artist-in-residence, as its patron saint.") That Janson located a modernist sensibility in American Gothic derived from his understanding that "satire" or social commentary had targeted bourgeois culture, along with politicians and government institutions, as a primary object of derision in the early nineteenth century, supplanting old prey such as the aristocracy and clergy after the French Revolution.
Even Gertrude Stein, who spent six months lecturing in the United States in 1934-35, long after she had become an expatriate in Paris, fixated, as Janson would later, on the presumed distortions and exaggerations in Wood's portrait. "We fear Grant Wood," she stated. "Every artist and every school of artists should be afraid of him for his devastating satire." She would add to the accolade, extolling him as "the foremost American Painter." But Wood would undermine this characterization, countering a foreigner's approbation with the disclaimer that "Europe has lost much of its magic. Gertrude Stein comes to us from Paris and is only a seven day's wonder . . . The expatriates do not fit in with the newer American, so greatly changed from the old." Moreover, around the time that Stein would have seen American Gothic, Wood would become more forthright in describing his work, foregoing his earlier equivocation and now asserting that he wanted his portraits and landscapes to be understood as "realistic statements." But that was after Time had run its feature on the new Regionalist movement. Wood recognized that he had to forestall any reading of cynicism or caricature in his painting if he was to buttress the idealistic ethos of its program.
American Gothic was not an isolated piece, however; nor was it the sole statement within Wood's output to seem sardonic. He had subsequently extended the paradoxes that permeated "America's Most Famous Painting," as American Gothic is now touted, to Daughters of the American Revolution (1932), as well as to a series of illustrations for Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (193537) [illus.], the latter accompanying a most decidedly acerbic put-down of Midwestern culture. In the case of Daughters of the American Revolution, it is widely known that Wood was affronted by the local Iowa chapter of the D.A.R., which had taken exception to the production of a stained-glass commission that he had received from the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids in 1927 (he had outsourced the labor to Munich, whose craftsmen Wood obviously deemed superior to those available at home). The gleeful smirk on one its three featured members, along with the proffered Blue Willow china teacup (a British import) from one of her companions, doubles the twist and irony that Wood hurled at his assailants, upending their own collusion with foreign artisans.
His sequence of drawings and spin-off prints for Main Street was just as biting. It took its cues from Lewis's shrewd roman à clef, a book derived from the writer's upbringing in rural Minnesota and his experiences of the complications of fashioning agrarian identity. Lewis would later discover this identity was dependent upon and offset by the more worldly environs of the East Coast (where he would land professionally and subsequently learn had its own brand of provincialism, capable of generating the same type of absurd, local stereotypes). Whatever Wood's playful censure of the Midwest in his illustrations for Main Street, his latter-day denials of their burlesque traits and insistence upon his sincerity in creating them would have little effect. In fact, later critics of his work would often pit his so-called portraits against his landscapes, a split that was not always meaningful, particularly when it came to the fissures that sometimes connected both genres. For example, Lewis Mumford, who would propound a view of cultural disintegration -- maintaining that disparate values molded urban and agricultural settings -- once he became a critic for The New Yorker in 1932, wrote with empathy of Wood's show at the Ferargil Galleries in 1935, the second such project to bring American Gothic to the attention of New York audiences.133 In his review, he noted that "it is [Wood's] misfortune that he has become a National Symbol for the patrioteers. As a symbol he stands for the corn-fed Middle West against the anemic East, starving aesthetically upon warmed-over entrees dished up by Spanish chefs in Paris kitchens."
Mumford reminded his readers that Wood had been an Impressionist painter [ills.] until, like Benton, he supposedly reneged on his modernist allegiances in 1929. He praised Wood's portraits, especially American Gothic, which he believed had assumed the "validity as a symbol that justifies its Flemish overtones." Mumford was not the only reviewer to dwell on the "Flemish overtones" of Wood's work, on its overt references to the early Netherlandish painting that emerged in the fifteenth century, works that had expounded on ideas of tranquility and surety through pristine, orderly landscapes or universes. Lincoln Kirstein, who covered Wood's exhibition for Art Front, similarly referred to the artist as an "Iowa Memling." Kirstein had more reservations than Mumford, finding American Gothic, in particular, to be especially "lazy" when it came to transcending its debt to and appropriations from other artworks, and to have succumbed to an annoying "sweetness" that he felt could be modified by a more realistic dose of misery or distress. This was the Great Depression after all! As Kirstein would have it, "an element of tragedy would make his cleaning farmers less quaint, but closer to the spirit of the Gothic, which is no less beautiful because it is so grim."
Mumford was not as put off as Kirstein by Wood's "innocence," but he was unable to exalt his landscapes, finding them to be "unmitigatedly bad," with "the soil modelled so as to resemble carved plaster, and the trees are made of tissue paper, absorbent cotton, and sponge rubber."137 It did not matter to him what degree of abstraction Wood had effected in these paintings, with the shrubbery and trees in The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, especially, bearing intense, localized passages of formal investigation, every leaf made to conform to an overall pattern not unlike the Blue Willow china cup in Daughters of the American Revolution. (Kirstein, too, had observed these associations but felt they were "mannerisms" rather than pictorial transformations.)138 And while Mumford was one of Wood's more judicious, less partisan interpreters, someone who knew that "no movement should be judged by its manifestos," it would be figures such as Kirstein and James Johnson Sweeney (who became a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935) who would continue to object to what Sweeney framed as the "dominance of sentimental symbolism" in Wood's painting.
However, Kirstein and Sweeney were thinking more of Thomas Craven than of Wood as they composed their reservations, responding largely to Craven's censuring of modernism and its queasy relationship to nationalism. Sweeney would dismiss the integral originality of Wood's work and its reformulation of known prototypes, insisting "that Grant Wood should be accepted and celebrated as a representative American painter is of more interest as an economic symptom than as an art event." The marketplace would now increasingly be invoked as a dubious adjudicator of art, a measure of populist taste, or, more dangerously, as engendering the "kitsch" culture that Clement Greenberg would augur had become the enemy of the avant-garde as of 1939. The harangue and critical diatribes relating to modernism and its setbacks would continue until the mid-1940s, when Regionalism would lose its tenuous foothold in New York, expiring as a movement with the onset of World War II.
This was the great drought of 1934 . . . I had never seen landscapes like this through which we flew
There were, of course, artists from the Midwest who would never feel a part of the Regionalist agenda, such as Joe Jones, a "self-confessed Communist" who was born in St. Louis and moved to New York in 1937, after the movement had coalesced. Jones would never be integrated into Craven's program; he was too opposed to its treacly resurrection of the provinces, and he sensed, like Stuart Davis, that both Craven's and Benton's rhetoric smacked of a certain fanaticism, bordering on the oratory of fascism. While Jones made the reverse career trek by leaving the Midwest for Manhattan, where he would become active in the Artist's Union (an offshoot of the defunct John Reed Club and publisher of Art Front), his subjects and identity remained squarely rooted in Missouri-that is, until the late 1940s, when he gave up on revolutionary politics and became a convert to modernism. As Jones said of this transition in Time, "I was always against the intellectuals. It's good to be against 'em until you are one. Then you can be for 'em." He retained his Midwestern intonation in these declarations, however, revealing a trace of his early allegiances, which gradually morphed into the hybrid of postWorld War II American art with its own complex revisions of nationalism. At the meetings of the Artist's Union-which became one of the primary crucibles for modernist painting in New York in the mid-1930s, perpetually engaging such topics as the contemporaneity of abstraction as it abutted and contended with the renewal of figuration -- Jones became a salient voice for the Great Plains, inserting its subjects and values into the always charged discussions on the priorities of art, not believing they should be localized to Tenth Street or to the studio culture of New York. And while critics such as Harold Rosenberg, who would later construct a theory of "action painting" (a position contrary to formalist criticism that grew out of the social turmoil of the 1930s), would burst out at one such meeting, asking, "[W]ho the hell made you the artistic representative of the Midwest?," Jones made a significant dent in altering the perception of agrarian themes in art. He would imbue his canvases with a dose of reality that veered strangely toward an unconventional beauty -- or toward the modernist presence that he would later enlarge in his postwar painting.
Jones's American Farm (1936) [pl.], for example, was a frank disclosure of the environmental destruction to the Midwest, with its windswept, sculpted terrain configured into a towering form suggestive of Babel, a forlorn fragment of a once splendorous agricultural era, its land no longer fertile or tillable. Similarly, in the Roustabouts (1936) [pl.], the temporary African American workers that he depicts toiling on the docks of the Mississippi plainly allude to the racial inequities pervasive in labor conditions throughout the Depression. Jones revealed a profound proletarian compassion in his Depression-era work, particularly in this narrative of exploitation, in which a white supervisor, dressed in a suit, is the lone figure endowed with any individuality; the laborers' bodies are abstracted into generalized shapes with their faces either hidden or averted. In these canvases, as in St. Louis (ca. 1939) [pl.], where the city is still and seemingly abandoned, caught in a spectral, cool early morning light, each form is treated as a potential abstract entity. In the latter painting especially, the buildings and escarpments are rendered as near geometric blocks or independent planes of luminous color. Jones knew that figuration unassisted by invention could lapse into illustration, and thereby risk the loss of the engagement and empathy of the viewer.
Jones was not the only artist to point up the mutations to the Midwestern landscape and its consequences for labor. Margaret Bourke-White, for instance, a photographer who worked for Henry Luce's Fortune magazine soon after it was launched in 1930 (paradoxically on the heels of Wall Street's collapse) would be given an assignment in 1934 to cover the prolonged shortage of rainfall that had afflicted much of the Heartland. She would focus her imagery on the stretch of ruined farmland that extended from Rosebud Valley, South Dakota, through Omaha, Nebraska, and Vinita, Oklahoma, spinning the loss and suffering in each locale into an inclusive, poignant, staggering photographic statement. Bourke-White's photo spread of images, which were accompanied by captions written by James Agee, would stand as an uncompromising document that did nothing to mask the extent of the ecological damage that she encountered. She would refrain, for the first time in her career, from any artistic embellishment such as seductive soft lighting, or an angled shoot that could occlude the devastation and harshness. As Agee described it, with some capitulation to poetry, "there is the clear dispassionate eye of the camera, which under honest guidance has beheld these bitter and these transient matters, and has recorded this brutal season for the memory of easier time to come."
In these images, known as The Drought: A Post-Mortem in Pictures (1934) [pls.], Bourke-White recorded with unstinting candor the parched fields of this immense landscape, its wilted stalks of corn and emaciated and dead cattle, as well as the desperation of its farmers. These photographs are a far cry from Curry's Kansas Cornfield and Wood's Young Corn (1931) [pl.], in which agriculture is still ample and profuse. Yet whatever "dispassion," as Agee had it, or critical distance that Bourke-White brought to these images, the experience of flying over the Great Plains for this project and landing at its most desiccated sites subsequently altered her work, forcing her to examine anew the purposes of photography. She recalled that the assignment "left a very deep impression on me. This was the great drought of 1934 . . . I had never seen landscapes like this through which we flew. Blinding sun beating down on the withered land. Below us the ghostly patchwork of half-buried corn, and the rivers of sand which should have free-running streams. Sinister sprouts of sand wisping up, and then the sudden yellow gloom of curtains of fine-blown soil rising up and trembling in the air."
Bourke-White's first assignment for Fortune had involved a series of photographs of the Oliver Chilled Plow Company in South Bend, Indiana [pls.], a factory that had manufactured plows since the mid-nineteenth century; it would eventually produce blades for tractors as farming became more mechanized in the early twentieth century. Unlike The Drought, these images are transformative declarations of industry. Here, the worker is depicted as a protagonist rather than as a victim. Bourke-White, like Charles Sheeler, had also worked for companies such as Otis Steel in Cleveland [illus.] and the Ford Motor Company in River Rouge before securing her position as a photo editor at Fortune. In these earlier series, too, she would be taken by the formal properties of industrial structures, as well by as its finished products; she was drawn to the architecture of technology, particularly to its web of furnaces, hoists, and pulleys. All of these objects and constructions, moreover, would be captured in a ravishing sfumato light that caught the more transient features of the manufacturing process, such as the spray of molten steel and the smoke and heat that it generated. (Unlike Sheeler, Bourke-White gained access to the interior of the Ford Motor Company, where she represented the worker as an opaque silhouette whose body is set against an incandescent background, underscoring the theatricality of the manufacturing process.)
Bourke-White would later write of her series of photographs for the Oliver Chill Plow Company that "the whole approach to the South Bend Story caught my imagination and taught me a great deal. Earlier, when working by myself on industrial subjects, I would have gone through factories such as these and spotted the points where I could have made striking compositions, and taken my pictures. Working for the integrated whole required a much wider conception. It added another dimension to photography. It gave the camera one more task: pictures could be beautiful, but must tell facts too." She might have injected more gravity into these works -- or "facts" as she now called them -- and muted or downplayed her once pictorial emphasis to better represent the grit of industry, but some isolated images, particularly her close-ups of the blades themselves [pl.], are inherently abstract, a pattern of geometric shapes rather than a faithful likeness of a tool or instrument. (The pictorial features of Bourke-White's photographs were a carryover from late-nineteenth-century romanticism, a feature that many photographers, including Stieglitz, worked to restrain after 1914, as they believed that the medium had become too dependent upon the trademarks of painting.)
Yet once Bourke-White photographed the drought of 1934, beauty ceased to be a part of her project. The reality of the desolation was too expansive and too haunting to subject to any refinement or alteration. In fact, the series would be a pivotal marker in her work. Thereafter, she moved on to the South, collaborating with Erskine Caldwell on You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), a book in which she focused on the despair of agrarian workers and their families, again, in this body of images, showing things as they are. The outcry from her colleagues -- most notably from Walker Evans, who had worked in the South for the Farm Services Administration (FSA), and from Agee, who would side with Evans -- was considerable; many felt that her work had become exploitative, especially when her lens was focused on the suffering of afflicted peoples. The book forged a vigorous, long-lasting debate concerning the objectives and ethics of photography. And, as the Depression advanced, the question of the propriety of such work would fester, with Evans insisting that some degree of art had to brought to each subject, that mere disengagement was not enough to redeem a photographic project. While Bourke-White and Evans would both be considered "documentary" photographers -- a term that was floated in 1938 by Beaumont Newhall, the first curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art -- their strategies would differ vastly, with Evans propounding the dignity of his figures and Bourke-White centering on the "facts" or the toll of prolonged poverty.
I had difficulty in making distinctions between photography and painting
Bourke-White's The Drought may have induced fallout from some segments of the photographic community, but it became a contemporary model for Roy Stryker, the first director of the Historical Section of the FSA. The government agency had been founded in 1935 to document evidence of the Depression; it operated through 1942, when it was absorbed by the Office of War Information (OWI). Stryker was responsible for hiring a number of photographers, including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, and Marion Post Wolcott, among others, to document rural areas throughout the United States. As he described the FSA in a later interview, "Our basic concern was with agriculture -- with dust, migrants, sharecroppers. Our job was to educate the city dweller to the needs of the rural population." The project was overly prescriptive, however: it imposed a specific template for visual information relating to the typology of each region, the peculiarities of its farmsteads and the nature of small-town life. While some FSA photographers, such as Evans, Lange, Shahn, and Wolcott, would find Stryker's directives overly rigid and formulaic, resenting the limitations imposed on their creative input, others, such as Rothstein, extolled the virtues of abiding by the guidelines, maintaining that they fueled the collective goals of the agency and its program. (Although the FSA photographers covered vast territories in multiple states, they were assigned to specific regions of the country. Evans, for example, worked in the South and in Pennsylvania; Lange traveled from Nebraska and Oklahoma to California following the exodus of migrant laborers.)
Rothstein would produce one of the most enduring symbols of the Depression, his Father and Son in a Dust Storm, Cimmaron County, Oklahoma (1936) [pl.], an indelible image of desolation, its denuded landscape providing a bleak backdrop for the slumped man and his two sons as they walk toward their splintered shanty. Rothstein was unsparing in his work for the FSA, faithfully following Stryker's strictures to capture images that could uphold the ethos of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal (which sponsored the FSA) and its investment in the recovery of the country's economy and culture. Stryker's mandate drew, in particular, on a New Deal sentiment for agricultural communities and small-town life. It therefore became part of the same antimodernist backlash that had seduced painters such as Benton and Wood. Yet when Rothstein and others arrived in the South or the Midwest, the subject matter of their "documents" would become fractured and bifurcated, full of images that either distilled or undermined the desired nostalgia.
Many of the FSA photographs, including Rothstein's Father and Son in a Dust Storm and his Abandoned Farm (1936) [pl.], would be disseminated to the mass media, a maneuver that many critics felt reduced these works to propaganda, part of a ploy by Stryker and the government to promote its farm bills and agricultural initiatives. Some of the FSA photographers would purposefully attempt to subvert the agency's requirements: Walker Evans willfully shot images that avoided any conformity, and Lange pursued a more narrative or serial format that similarly resisted politicization. (However, Lange's best-known work, Migrant Mother , shot in Nipomo, California, along with Rothstein's Father and Son in a Dust Storm, would be widely circulated by the FSA, transformed into poster images of the Depression, making Stryker's case for government subsidies and intervention more urgent.) When she was not following the flight of workers from the Great Plains to areas such as California's Imperial Valley and San Luis Obispo County, Lange would pause to focus on the innate architectural beauty of religious structures and interiors. In Church of the High Plains, Near Winner, SD (1938) [pl.] and Three Churches, South Dakota Landscape (1941) [pl.], for example, she would dwell on the simplicity of these wooden temples, mining their crystalline, geometric design [pl.] as proto-modernist statements, or their unwitting equivalent.
These photographs clearly contrasted with Margaret Bourke-White's shots of Rosebud Valley. Later, Lange would return to South Dakota, as well as to Iowa and Utah in 1941, on an independent trip (sponsored by a Guggenheim Fellowship) to record the religious communities that she had encountered while working for Stryker and the FSA. The churches of the Midwest and West would still continue to hold her interest, underscoring that places of solace and refuge were necessary counterpoints to the economic misery and hardship that had characterized the Depression. Hutterite Bible, West of Vermillion, South Dakota (1941), for instance, would become an endpoint to her engagement with the Heartland, its solemn, spare interior forecasting the modernist sensibility that would renew photography in the late 1940s, its emphasis reverting, in part, to aesthetic issues that Stryker had wanted diminished in his program.
Although many of these images were subject to intense peer review, as the FSA photographers evaluated each other's work once they returned from the field, Stryker remained a presiding arbiter. He would concede, "We didn't talk about composition. I didn't like the word. I think that it's loaded with all sorts of very spurious things." Clearly, aesthetics had little or no place in his project: his concern was with reinforcing the utilitarian applications, with which he thought all photography should comply. Stryker's overarching script was to prevail at the FSA. Even in the mid-1960s, long after the FSA had completed its mission, and photography had (just) attained its status as art, he would contend that a photo could never stand on its own without a caption, that it needed a text to augment its representations, in the way that James Agee had written captions for Margaret Bourke-White's shots for The Drought. And even though the images that Lange, Rothstein, and others brought back to Washington were eventually assigned titles -- nothing more -- Stryker would maintain that their wider circulation in the press had muddled their real function, that they were mere "documents" after all. He would later assert, "I still think that . . . the word is the dominant thing, and the photograph is the little brother of words." Ironically, he blamed publications such as Life for promoting this (in his view, misguided) approach, maintaining that "they kidded themselves into thinking the photograph was the dominant thing. It is not . . . often the photograph is . . . the corollary, the assistant, and the helper of the word."
While Evans and Lange objected to Stryker's controlling presence, there were other photographers who worked for the FSA who believed that the agency abided by a higher purpose, that there were collective aims that outweighed the question of art. Ben Shahn, for example, who was assigned to cover the region surrounding Columbus, Ohio, in 1938, would write, "I felt the function of a photograph was to be seen by as many people as possible. I felt the image was more important than the quality of the image -- you understand?" Shahn, who shared a studio with Walker Evans in New York during the early years of the FSA, would initially differ from his friend on the issue of Stryker's specifications. He did not feel any restrictions had been placed on his craft; indeed, he claimed that he had been drawn to photography because he had "found his sketching inadequate." After working as a studio assistant for Diego Rivera on his doomed mural commission for Rockefeller Center in New York in 1933 (Nelson Rockefeller, its sponsor, ordered the mural removed after Rivera inserted a portrait of Vladimir Lenin, a revolutionary hero), he gave up on painting, believing that photography might be a more democratic medium, not tied to the same system of patronage. And, as a committed socialist seeking some balance between his vocation as an artist and his politics, he found the collaborative construct of the FSA, at the beginning, especially appealing.
When Shahn traveled to the environs of Columbus -- an area that he knew through his second wife, Bernarda Bryson, who grew up in Athens, Ohio -- a harvest was about to take place. This was a sign of recovery that Stryker wanted chronicled, tangible evidence that the New Deal must be working. Shahn would not only depict this gradual rebound in photos such as Baled Hay in Field, Central Ohio (1938) [pl.], in which he configured the crop as an abstract composition, but he would turn to the signage that dotted this landscape for evidence both of vitality and of regression. As a native New Yorker, he was particularly attuned to the ubiquity of advertising throughout the built environment. Its intrusions into the Ohio countryside must have seemed both familiar and discordant. Shahn's numerous shots of notices of farm foreclosures and public sales posted on trees and fence rails, such as those foregrounded in Sign Along Route 40, Central Ohio (1938) [pl.], seemed, however, to subvert Stryker's postulations of an economic comeback, or at least to provide some counter-spin or note of sobriety. Moreover, he would not miss or fail to record the racial segregation that still inscribed small-town life, with telling images such as Sign on Restaurant, Lancaster, Ohio (1938) [pl.], in which said sign admonished its clients: "We Cater to White Trade Only."
Although some of these images would make their way into Sherwood Anderson's memoir, Home Town (1940), a book not unlike Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (albeit without the derision or irony, as it still promulgated the Midwest and its copious mythology), Shahn would eventually relent on his earlier fervor for the FSA. He, too, would feel the lopsided emphasis of Stryker's mandate, its dismissals of (and unconscious contempt for) the artist's individuality, arguing, "I was not the only artist who had been entranced by the social dream, and who could no longer reconcile that view with the private and inner objectives of art." The compromises to his subjectivity would become too burdensome and crushing. As he thought about the work that grew out of the agency, he witnessed, like Lange and Evans, an oppressive conformity. Later, he said of Arthur Rothstein, who had been a student of Stryker's at Columbia University (where Stryker had taught before assuming his job at the FSA), that he was a "nice guy but I didn't think very bright," suggesting that only an acolyte could work for Stryker, so inflexible were his programmatic imperatives.
Shahn would return to painting in the late 1930s. He no longer deemed the camera the right tool to bridge his "subjective and objective" aims, that is, to mark his social statements with his originality. He would resume where he left off, in canvases such as The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1931-32) [illus.], his indictment of the bungled trial of two Italian Americans electrocuted for armed robbery and murder, falsely accused -- as he would have it -- by the American judicial system. Yet part of the collective "dream" of the FSA would continue to inform his subsequent work, particularly his pro-labor paintings. (In 1942-43, Shahn briefly produced posters for the OWI, the government agency into which the FSA was integrated; however, the agency would use few of these, since they were thought to lack the requisite patriotism. He would later channel his political activism into antiwar paintings.) And however recessive a role photography would play in Shahn's later output, it, too, would inform the compositions of many of his canvases, serving as an aid, sketch, or foundation. In fact, he saw little difference between the aesthetic strategies of the two media, claiming, "[F]rankly, I find difficulty in making distinctions between photography and painting. Both are pictures." This stance would echo Alfred Stieglitz's earlier contention.
Shahn could never relinquish the figure in his paintings, given his socialist ethos and his desire to make art a site of protest (the only feature that he felt could withstand any form of conventionality in art). After the Depression finally ended in the early 1940s and modernism rebounded, supplanting whatever strides Regionalism had made as a movement, Shahn would continue to argue that the artist was most persuasive when traversing invention and tradition, when new subjects and styles were advanced through known pictorial languages. Whatever his predisposition toward abstraction, and his radical trans-media approach, he would later aver that the elimination of recognizable imagery in art presented its own limitations, that formal reductions distilled orthodoxies that were narrow, whatever their progressive meanings. As Shahn said of the work of Jackson Pollock, who would become the preeminent artistic figure in post-1945 American art, "[I]t is the act of painting which is emphasized. The artist becomes actor, sometimes in a drama of his own psyche, sometimes in a vast time-space, in which he becomes only the medium (it is held) for great forces and movements of which he can have no knowledge, and over which he can have no control."
Shahn's use of such words as "act," "drama," and "time-space" revealed the thinking of Harold Rosenberg, who became one of the most widely discussed critics in the United States in the 1950s, known for his existential unease over the increased conformity of American culture after the Depression, or what he called the new "herd of independent minds." Rosenberg would claim that art represented the only possibility for such resistance because of the premium it placed on individuality. Like Rosenberg, Shahn was also cognizant of the drawbacks to modernism, knowing that its mandate for invention frequently became too doctrinaire, that a figure like Pollock "becomes only the medium" in most postWorld War II critical discourse, such was the diminution of content and examination of the relationship of the artist to mainstream culture.
The most beautiful prose I have heard in ten years
The FSA would continue to send its photographers to regions such as the Midwest until 1942. As the Great Depression lifted and the United States joined the Allies to end World War II, the agency would add new subjects, such as the rejuvenation of small-town life, to its inventory, now focusing on the farming communities that over the next few decades would be slowly elided into a global agricultural business, their harvests increasingly subsumed within a corporate network. John Vachon was one of the last photographers to be taken on by Stryker. He would be assigned to areas such as Nebraska, Wisconsin, and North Dakota, where he documented not only the renewed prosperity of the Great Plains but the lingering ravages of the Depression and some of the locales that would fail to rebound. His imagery in Lincoln, Nebraska (ca. 1942) [pl.], for example, with its lineup of cars, flags, and street activity, all shot in color (in the newly developed technology of the C-print), would contrast with the isolation captured in Main Street of Starkweather, North Dakota (1941) [pl.], the veiled windows of its plain wooden buildings connoting both stagnancy and desertion. Vachon would also observe that the walls of structures such as tenant cottages had now occasionally become surfaces or outlets for political dissent. With Sign on Building, Richland Center, Wisconsin (1941) [pl.], Vachon not only depicted individuals decrying the war but also "unjust judges and city officials" who failed to "recognize" or preserve an agricultural economy that could have been spared the drought.
The perennial imagery that grew out of the FSA would, of course, remain works such as Russell Lee's Farm for Sale (1937) [pl.] and Children Tenant Farm (193?) [pl.], as well as Arthur Rothstein's Father and Son in a Dust Storm, all of which reinforced adversity, destitution, and the irrevocable alteration to both lives and the landscape. However, amid this tale of unremitting bleakness were elements of fantasy and comic relief; these would become an equal part of the agency's lexicon, although the FSA would not foreground, tout, or release such images to the media. Ben Shahn's Lerch Made to Measure Suits (1938) [pl.] and Lee's Store Front in Spencer, Iowa (n.d.) [pl.], for instance, focused on the commodity to inject an element of satire into the national calamity of the Depression. Lee's photograph of various hair tonics and soaps, and their invitation to "come in and relax," perpetuated the subversive subcurrent of some FSA work. Withstanding the charges of propaganda that would be hurled at most of these photographs, including charges that they colluded with the government and Roosevelt's New Deal, there was, in addition to Shahn's and Lee's irreverence, an innate beauty that suffused this work that was also a part of its call to action. Very few of the photographers who worked for the FSA were unwitting pawns of Stryker's program. Works such as Lange's Migrant Mother, and her subsequent images of the Hutterite churches in South Dakota, were, after all, immensely stirring images, as was Rothstein's Father and Son in a Dust Storm, whatever their later inevitable commercial destinations and uses.
But there were also films commissioned by the Resettlement Administration (RA), an antecedent to the FSA, such as The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) [pls.] by Pare Lorentz, that would be subject to the same indictments and viewed as proselytizing pieces. Lorentz, who had begun his career as a journalist, had written on the dust bowl for Newsweek and had authored a book on the first year of Roosevelt's presidency (which had endeared him to the administration). He had long since wanted to produce a film that would cover the drought and its impact on the Great Plains. The RA was willing to finance the project, and while Lorentz had no previous film experience, he brought in Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand, Paul Ivano, and Leo Hurwitz [illus.] to work as his cameramen. Following Lorentz's script, they would shoot footage that extended from Montana through the Texas panhandle. Many of the images in the film were based on locations that the FSA photographers had already tracked; the title and theme derived from a photograph that Arthur Rothstein had produced in Oklahoma.
The budget for the film precluded hiring actors and the use of a studio; hence, the sequence of images, such as a dust storm, a lone farmer silhouetted against an illuminated hill, and stretches of barren wasteland, were all photographed on location, utilizing local people rather than Hollywood stand-ins. In one section of the script, Lorentz blamed the overplowing of lands that were subsequently aggravated by drought on the global demand for wheat after World War I, lamenting, "Then we reaped the golden harvest . . . then we really plowed the plains . . . we fumed under millions of new acres for war wheat. We had the man-power . . . we invented new machinery . . . the world was our market. By 1933 the old grass lands had become the new wheat lands . . . a hundred million acres . . . two hundred million acres . . . More wheat!" That Europe was invoked as a culprit, taken to task for exhausting America's breadbasket, was not dissimilar to the charges that Benton and Craven had made relating to the corruption of a homegrown art. In both instances, modernity was a target.
Despite the generalizations that accompanied Lorentz's chauvinism, The Plow That Broke the Plains was a remarkable work, one of the first documentary films produced in the United States. As a prototype, it was engaged in the origination of a new genre, one that combined social awareness with the liberal causes of Roosevelt's government, its patron. But there was little room for subversion in this promotional piece, as there were in the gray areas that the FSA photographers were able to mine and reinvest with their own aesthetics and politics. While the crew was at odds with Lorentz's New Deal optimism, his pastoral values and belief in recovery, Strand and Hurwitz, with their Marxist views, were especially averse to Lorentz's conception of his project. At odds with Lorentz's reformist sensibility, Strand and the others pushed for a more revolutionary piece that would undercut the government's agricultural and relief programs, locating negligence and flawed initiatives rather than progress in the Midwest. Their dissension would eventually result in Lorentz firing three cameramen, with the exception of Ivano. While Dorothea Lange would be pulled in to consult on subsequent imagery -- such as the columns of migrating families on Route 99 --- the film would eventually gain its coherence through Virgil Thomson's score. Thomson's audio track -- a mix of medieval music, hymns, and cowboy and folk songs, together with narration by Thomas Chalmers (once a baritone with the Metropolitan Opera) -- would provide the essential architecture for the film, seamlessly merging the footage that Lorentz retained and edited with key musical movements relating to segments such as the "pastorale (grasslands)," "cattle," "homesteader," "wind and dust," and "devastation," all of which made for a rousing poetic epic, replete with symmetry and a providential outcome.
When The Plow That Broke the Plains was reviewed in Literary Digest, the (anonymous) writer observed that the film was "looked upon in administration circles" as "a modern tool of Government," implying that Lorentz had struck no critical distance from his sponsor, that his work amounted to propaganda. While the writer conceded that Lorentz had made "America's first documentary film," it was linked to strategies of indoctrination, with no perceived difference from the films that Leni Riefenstahl had produced for Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, such as Triumph of the Will (1934). Withstanding this type of condemnation, The Plow, after a series of distribution setbacks, would attract considerable audiences across the nation. Its eventual commercial release would provide fodder for the FSA to produce a near-companion piece, The River (1937) [pls.]. This later film, based on the Mississippi Valley Committee Report, was another patent piece of boosterism for the Roosevelt administration, in this case to promote its erection of dams to control the tributaries and flood plains extending from the country's second-longest river. Lorentz would again work with Thomson on The River, fusing his narrative with the score, which, as in The Plow, once more built on diverse musical genres, producing the same effect of incongruity as it scrambled expectation with astonishment to subtly lure (or manipulate) the viewer into a state of acquiescence. These features, combined with the ravishing cinematography of Floyd Crosby, Stacey and Horace Woodard, and Willard Van Dyke, made for a work of beauty despite its polemical content, its inherent sensuality cajoling and seductive, almost neutralizing its political agenda.
Lorentz's script for The River would be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1938, such was the persuasion of his rhetoric, with passages that read, "But you cannot plan for water and land unless you plan for people. Down in the Valley, the Farm Security Administration has built a model agricultural community. Living in homes they themselves built, paying for them on long term rates the homesteaders will have a chance to share in the wealth of the Valley."Even James Joyce would be taken in by Lorentz's film, writing that it is "the most beautiful prose I have heard in ten years," thereby suggesting that even hype could achieve a certain eloquence, that it could trade in enticement as well as the origination of new cinematic languages. That Lorentz had abandoned a straightforward linear treatment, arranging the visuals for his two films around music and poetry, highlighted their originality and grace while astutely elevating New Deal politics into art.
There were other government-sponsored documentary films set in the Midwest that followed Lorentz's examples, notably The Town (1943) [pl.], directed by Josef von Sternberg for the OWI. Shot in Madison, Indiana, on the shore of the Ohio River, The Town was produced for foreign distribution. It depicts this prototypical American community as a mosaic of European culture, its local architecture a panoply of classical, Gothic, and Renaissance styles. Unlike The Plow That Broke the Plains, this work is all nostalgia and reverie; it deftly weaves the daily routines of Madison's citizens into a sunny picture of American life where the Depression is no longer evident. Like John Vachon's photos of Lincoln, Nebraska, this town has rebounded, its surrounding farms, fields, and crops restored to vigor. Produced during the war, The Town is an affirmative piece, and an unmistakable piece of propaganda: Madison's history and its people are linked to world civilizations; in this telling, the Midwest is no longer a place to propound a concept of Regionalism. But although von Sternberg was clearly adept at manufacturing an image of artifice and fantasy, his earlier studio productions, such as The Scarlet Empress (1935) and The Shanghai Gesture (1941), contrast with this fawning work, conjuring instead scenes of excess and decadence. (Von Sternberg's commercial output dwindled once the war began; hence his need for this government commission and the seemingly different, unvarnished tone of this film.) Nevertheless, despite the spareness of its script (and its grating narration), The Town is also endowed with a certain exoticism; its features are not generally associated with the Midwest (at least not by Wood and Benton): its architecture is a pastiche of foreign influences, and its inhabitants all hail from faraway places. Madison, Indiana, emerges as a dreamy, fictional site, less palpable and real than the footage that made up Lorentz's work. As such, it would anticipate the surrealist imagery that frequently marked American painting in the early 1940s.
After Many Springs
As the Depression eased and the United States entered the war in 1941, Regionalism would cease to retain an aesthetic foothold, dwindling as a movement even in the Midwest. Artists such as Ross Braught, who had worked at the Kansas City Art Institute in the early 1930s and who would become loosely absorbed within the Regionalist rubric, ostensibly extended its range and authority. But Braught's paintings, unlike those of Benton and others, were distinctly more surreal. For example, in Tschaikovsky's Sixth (1935) [pl.], the Badlands of South Dakota are treated as a hallucinogenic space, the barren, undulating topography rendered as a series of erotically charged fleshlike mounds. Here the eroded landscape is alien and haunting, traits that build on its desolation and operate as psychological referents or surrogate emotional states. The spectral dimensions of this composition, combined with the mysterious presence of a hovering dove in the lower right, are too elusive to parse, part of a private symbolism that Braught withheld. Braught was tangentially tied to Regionalism; however, he was clearly more aligned with modernism than with a revival of tradition, drawn to the abstract, uncanny properties that are embedded in nature rather than to concrete objects and scenes that could signify safety and protection.
Through Braught, the Midwest would become an otherworldly place, its landscape magical. (Braught would leave Kansas City for the East Coast in 1936, soon after Benton arrived there, only to return ten years later.) Similarly, John Rogers Cox -- who was born and raised in Terre Haute, Indiana, a city to which he would return in the early 1940s after studying in Philadelphia -- would dwell on these same supernatural possibilities. In paintings such as White Cloud (1943-46) and Cloud Trails,(1944) [pls.], he would compose his fields either with tidy bundles of hay (not unlike the vegetation in Wood's Young Corn) or with kempt grasses contained by rectilinear fences and roads. The stillness that pervades these works, along with their heightened luminosity, is theatrical and eerie, more imaginative than real. As in Braught's Tschaikovsky's Sixth, a bit of Freud hangs over these landscapes, their inert forms and crystalline light resembling the setting of a dream. Moreover, the notices that have been plastered on the side of the barn in Cloud Trails work to extend Cox's subliminal themes, the torn and dated poster for the circus in particular connoting an unrealized fantasy, its appearance here underscoring an overall sense of dislocation. Ben Shahn had focused on the absurdity of advertising in rural settings in his photographs, but Cox has lifted this aberration to a more metaphysical state, making the commodity more appropriately an extension of desire and the property of dreams.
By contrast, Philip Guston, who moved from Woodstock, New York, to teach at the University of Iowa in the fall of 1941, just as the United States joined the Allied forces, would elide this sense of the supernatural with more violent imagery. For example, the street children in Martial Memory (1941) [pl.] are caught in combat, enacting a war scenario. Despite its militaristic theme, a quietude pervades this painting, its realistic features are now rendered bizarre as the image effectively captures the surreal or outlandish implications of international politics at mid-century. The unease that the war had instilled in American life was similarly felt in works such as Guston's Sunday Interior (1941) [pl.], in which an (unidentified) African American sitter, smoking nervously and framed by a half-drawn window shade through which a bit of Iowa City is visible, would become a trope for anxiety and isolation. But the portrait also doubled for Guston's own uncertainty and estrangement, not only from world events but from a new community that was utterly foreign to him. The same restrained agitation and pathos would shape his Halloween Party (1942) [pl.], in which a gathering of costumed children combines allusions to horror and to innocence. Not unlike the foreign architecture in von Sternberg's The Town, the children's attire represented here draws on Venetian prototypes that have been inexplicably transplanted to the Midwest, intensifying the dissonance. These references revealed not only Guston's deepening involvement with Renaissance art histories, but also with the writing of Franz Kafka and his sense of the absurd, of the fragmented rather than cohesive meanings that interrupted and redirected modern life, particularly during the war.
It was in Iowa City, however, that Guston embarked on a series of paintings that would presage many of the themes that would subsequently determine his work. As he stated toward the end of his life, "[I]n the solitude of the Mid-West for the first time I was able to develop a personal imagery." At the University of Iowa, Guston would meet H. W. Janson and become immersed in many of the battles that had constrained the Art Department, what with Grant Wood's presence and Regionalism still pervasive and dominant, perpetuating a lingering hostility to modernism there. After Janson left Iowa City for Washington University in St. Louis, he would write that Guston's painting had stood out, not only locally but within the national artistic arena: his "profound seriousness of purpose, his refusal to substantiate the experiences of others" were distinguishing attributes. It was during this period that Guston's study of Italian painting became particularly concentrated. He would be drawn in particular to Piero della Francesca, in whose work he would locate the tranquil and extramundane aspects that he would transmit into Martial Memory and Sunday Interior. But unlike Wood, whose study of Memling would result in more orderly universes, as in The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, Guston would respond to the spatial intricacies and sense of dislocation in Piero's work, knowing that these disjunctive features had become not only the territory of modernism but stand-ins for the chaos of international politics.
Guston would spend four years at the University of Iowa, then move to Washington University, where he would teach until 1947. His relationship with Janson was integral not only to the early reception of his work, but also to the growing differentiations that would obtain between Regionalism and modernism. As Janson became vexed by the ethnocentrism of the work of Wood and Benton, and by their adulation of the Midwest, Guston would emerge as a counterpoint, his reworkings of and modifications to European art history providing the requisite difference by making him an "internationalist." For Janson, as an émigré, Europe would not only remain his consuming and salient reference but would mold biases that teetered on a sense of entitlement and arrogance. For all of his affirmation of Guston, his chauvinism would preclude any long-lasting recognition of Guston's painting. He would maintain that "contemporary America has so far failed to produce even one great master -- a man of sufficient artistic stature to command an international audience." Guston would eventually be left out of Janson's textbook, The History of Art, when it was published in 1962. In this book, which would service a generation of students in the United States, Janson would make American modernism not only the endpoint in his construction of the progression of art history but dependent upon the forerunner of Paris, the fulfillment of a logical, formal trajectory that had its origins in the Renaissance. Guston, whose training was limited to the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles (where he befriended Jackson Pollock) would never satisfy Janson's criterion for "greatness." Few Americans would, with notable exceptions -- Pollock being one of them.
Wood and Benton, of course, would be similarly expunged from Janson's schema, as their revisionist themes were anathema to his narrative. But that would not prevent his continuing to rant against Regionalism in more focused articles. For example, in 1943, around the time that the Art Institute of Chicago staged a memorial exhibition devoted to Wood in which American Gothic was prominently featured, Janson would aver, "The defenders of Regionalism maintain that the American artist must free himself from foreign 'isms' and depend upon his native environment for inspiration; that his work should epitomize the qualities of the particular region which is home. Their opponents, frequently branded as 'internationalists,' believe that artistic problems are universal and that art, in order to be great, must be founded in humane values transcending any region, be it all of America or merely Iowa or Missouri." Janson noted that Wood had studied in Germany, a factor that, unlike Guston's tutelage, should have redeemed him, since he was, after all, "indebted to European sources." But as the war escalated, he would construe the primacy that Wood had placed on American subjects as constituting a virulent and dangerous nationalism, tantamount to the misuse of fascist ideologies by dictators such as Hitler. As he engaged in such obvious hyperbole, Janson bemoaned the fact that neither Wood nor Benton had acknowledged their modernist pasts, that they had, moreover, "retained at least some remnants of their 'pre-regionalist' phases" in their painting. He would point, in particular, to the satire that animated Wood's American Gothic as an example of its modernity, its anti-iconoclastic stance offsetting, even subverting, its technical virtuosity. If only Wood and Benton had addressed this inventive core in their public statements, he lamented, then their work might be not be subject to the disapproval of writers and theorists who would subsequently canalize and control the destiny of art. Or so Janson expounded.
However, once Guston left the Midwest to return to Woodstock, he would forgo the representational foundation of his work, distilling the abstract components of Martial Memory into large-scale canvases such The Tormentors (1947-48), in which contradiction and ambiguity becomes an overriding emphasis, the theme of aggression now reduced to sketchy white outlines that suggest the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. While after the war Guston would be incorporated into new modernist designations such as Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting, the "personal imagery" that he developed in the Midwest would never leave him, resurfacing late in his career. Although compositions such as Painting (1954) [illus.] would eliminate any suggestion of a body or recognizable object, becoming all gesture, with graceful, lyrical strokes of paint congealing into hovering masses, Guston would eventually lament the loss of the figure in contemporary art, declaring in 1970 (just as modernism itself was beginning to wane), "pictures should tell stories."
Guston may have recognized that abstract languages were not the only conduit for the artist's subjectivity, but his work steered clear of the nationalist rhetoric that also informed Regionalism and the circle of artists who still gravitated around Stieglitz. Where the elaboration of his individuality would remain an exclusive ambition, his childhood friend, Jackson Pollock, would collapse this distinction by ironically building on Benton's patriotism, situating a new postwar American cultural authority within himself. Pollock, who had studied with Benton at the Arts Students League from 1930 to1932, would never live or work in the Midwest. But he did become a self-styled Regionalist during the Depression, following Benton's example. The influences that Benton exerted on Pollock's painting during the 1930s, in fact, emerge as a potent metaphor both for the demise of Regionalism and for the eventual displacement of a nationalist agenda. Pollock's identification with both Benton and Regionalist subject matter was so profound that one classmate, Philip Pavia, recalled that "he always walked around wearing his cowboy hat, and had complete contempt for all of us 'foreigners' as he called us. He loved the West and the Midwest." Pollock, whose father (whom he barely knew) was born in Iowa, no doubt projected a fatherly transference on Benton during this period. In fact, the derivation of his early work is unmistakable: his drawing, however awkward and clumsy, is clearly indebted to his teacher, the writhing black line a telltale sign. [illus.]
At Benton's urging, Pollock took several road trips across the United States. The younger artist later remembered, "I saw the negroes playing poker, shooting craps and dancing along the Mississippi in St. Louis. The miners and prostitutes in Terre Haute Indiana gave swell color." As the drought of 1934 forced the first migration of farmers to California, Pollock would respond with Going West (1934-35) [pl.], a painting that similarly recapitulates the rhythmic arrangement and structure of Benton's compositions, the undulating swell of landscape picked from prototypes with which he was intimately familiar. Yet, however dismissive of and aloof from the "foreigners" at the Art Students League Pollock had been, once Benton left New York for Kansas City in 1934, Pollock's Regionalist aesthetic would become less pictorial and more formally experimental. He would suffuse Landscape with Steer (1936-37) [pl.], for instance, with washes of red, yellow, blue, and black color that evoke twilight -- a moody moment that trades on likeness for atmosphere and feeling by deaccentuating whatever discernable image remains. Pollock would continue to dilute any content in paintings such as The Flame (193438) and Overall Composition (1934-38) [pls.], in which the glow of fire is spread into a red and black pattern of abstract elements, vaguely connoting an erstwhile prairie experience.
Pollock's engagement of the Midwest would recede by 1938. However, the insistent nationalism that he gleaned from Benton would always hide behind his work, surfacing in the interviews, statements, letters, and quips that he would use to build his self-mythology. He never traveled abroad, and like Benton remained weary of "foreigners," knowing not just that the United States had emerged as a cultural leader in the mid-1940s but that American art no longer had to fend for its identity, that its authenticity was critically intact and assured by writers such as James Johnson Sweeney and Clement Greenberg. As Pollock's work became visible, eventually appearing in such publications Life, which ran a photo spread in 1949, he would assert that he had usurped Benton. "It's here. It's not Paris," he stated. "It used to be with Benton, but now it's with me."
Pollock's relationship to Benton would become distant, with little sustained contact after the mid-1930s. Yet the desire to topple his old mentor was always there, complicating a once deep bond. Benton would dwell on the "deficiencies" in Pollock's work, believing that his drawing was too inadequate to convey the richness of American life, its landscape, folklore, and legions. Hence, Benton would construe Pollock's capitulation to "new artistic statements" not only as a shortcoming but as a reduction and loss for American art, part of a new process of dehumanization. From his more advantaged position in the mid-1940s, Pollock would attempt to temper and diminish Benton's earlier hold on his painting, knowing that the association was now a drawback. While his statements regarding Benton would always remain contradictory, flitting from adulation toward rejection, soon after his first exhibition in 1943 at Art of This Century, a gallery Peggy Guggenheim operated in Manhattan, he would contend, "My work with Benton was very important as something against which to react very strongly later on; in this, it was better to have worked with him than with a less resistant personality." He thereby reversed any allegiance he may once have had.
By time that Pollock had begun to make headway as an artist in New York, however, Benton knew that Regionalism had lost its currency, that it had become spent. He blamed the decline of the movement on the critics, arguing that the focus of their writing precluded any accommodation of popular subjects and that, moreover, they had capitalized on the shift in international politics as of 1939 to alter their position. Benton wrote in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1951:
Benton, who long outlived Wood and Curry, would continue to act as a spokesman for Regionalism, still insinuating its values in the discourses on art well into the 1950s. He would never comprehend, however, how Pollock got his due, insisting that Pollock's characteristic verbal reticence had enabled a willful, independent art criticism that remained overly speculative and too centered on an explication of form. The issue would consume him, and shortly before his death in 1975, he would still ponder why "the critics, quite frankly, prefer that artists don't speak for themselves, [that] they prefer a guy like Jackson Pollock, who was completely inarticulate." James Thrall Soby, who would become affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art in the early 1940s, both as a curator and as a trustee, would note around the time that Pollock embarked on Autumn Rhythm No. 30 (1950) [illus.], a large-scale canvas that condensed the monumentality of American history into a web of overlapping skeins of paint, spurning any specific episode or reference, that "there is no longer anywhere a vigorous, identifiable painting of region: the younger artists of, say, Illinois, Missouri, or Idaho for the most part follow the same direction as their colleagues in New York-abstraction, abstract expressionism, and so on." Soby would ascribe this repudiation of the Heartland and resulting homogeneity in painting to too much bluster, to a berating and bullying rhetoric that had sought to unseat modernism. He would declare that the "basic weakness of the Regionalist movement of the 1930s [was] rationalized in terms of defensive vituperation by a skilled journalist, Thomas Craven." Benton knew that Regionalism could never make a comeback. It would take the expiration of the modernist period in the late 1960s for local narratives in contemporary art to capture national attention again. In After Many Springs (1942) [pl.], he conceded as much, with a lonely farmer tilling his field as prominent skull looms in the lower right foreground.
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About the author
Debra Bricker Balken is Guest-curator of After Many
Springs: Regionalism, Modernism & the Midwest, and author of the
above catalogue essay for the exhibition. Ms. Bricker in 1980 received an
M.A. in Art History from the University of Chicago. In 1977/78 she engaged
in Post-Graduate Studies in Art History at the University of Edinburgh under
a William Dickson Travelling Fellowship. In 1977 she received a B.A. in
Art History from the University of British Columbia. She has written numerous
articles, essays, and reviews on modernist and contemporary artists and
curated many exhibitions during her career. Recent Visiting Professorships
have been at Rhode Island School of Design, Williams College, Mount Holyoke
College, Institute of Fine Arts - New York University and Brown University.
Resource Library editor's note
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on February 13, 2009 with with permission of the Des Moines Art Center, which was granted to TFAO on February 6, 2009.
The essay pertains to the exhibition entitled After Many Springs: Regionalism, Modernism & the Midwest, on view January 30 - May 17, 2009 at the Des Moines Art Center.
Resource Library wishes to
extend appreciation to Christine Doolittle of the Des Moines Art Center
for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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