Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Midwest Museum of American Art

I'm a huge fan of American regionalist painting and lap up any chance I get to see it. On Sunday I attended the Midwest Museum of American Art's opening reception for my Unbroken Thread exhibition. MMAA is the latest stop for this 8 museum traveling exhibition organized by the University of Maryland University College. I was in good company. Below are two paintings that were hanging in the MMAA's other galleries.



Grant Wood, (1892-1943) Sheaves of Corn, oil on wood panel, 1931

Years ago in the early '90's I had my first art museum solo exhibition in Grant Wood country at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in Iowa. As his hometown museum, CMRA has a huge collection of early Grant Wood paintings that all but hit me over the head. Ever since I've made a point of studying his work. Wood has a wonderful assortment of massively heavy volumes in his work. Notice the subtle modeling of his fields and hill sides in this oil. The amazing thing about him is the way he combines this with decorative pattern of the corn sheaves and the yellow saplings. The play between solid heavy forms and intricate weightless patterns enchants one's eye. One of his tricks is he knew just how much pattern to contrast against more restful empty areas. Brian Byrn, the MMAA's Curator told me this oil by Wood was chosen to travel to China to introduce audiences there to American painting during the Olympics. No wonder, it's a world class painting.



Charles Burchfield, (1893-1967), Summer Morning, watercolor, c. 1917

While Grant Wood almost seems to be sculpting his forms out of clay, one of my other favorite artists is represented in MMAA by this watercolor that was also hanging in the main gallery. Burchfield a contemporary of Woods and a fellow midwesterner couldn't be more different in depicting hills and fields. Instead of massive solid forms Burchfield can adopt a lighter touch where matter seems likely to dissolve into pure light and energy at any moment. That he manages to feel so deliberate and yet so felicitous with forms that look like they could pop up and dance across his page is remarkable.





The MMAA is housed in a big limestone building that must have once been designed for a bank that wanted to project an image of infinite stability. The building looks like it could survive an atomic blast. Below are the banner and the Museum's sign advertising the exhibition that greet passers by on Main Street in downtown Elkhart.





Here I am with Jane Burns the Musuem's Director since its founding and a guiding force in bringing the Museum into being. We're posing in front of my oil Inland. Visiting Indiana once again is full of memories for me (I had attended graduate school for my Masters degree in Painting at Indiana University in Bloomington from 1970-72 and lived again in the state for a summer painting its landscape in 1974). It struck me how much a painting like Inland could have been painted anywhere in the state, even though I hadn't consciously thought of it as a midwestern painting.




Below is Brian Byrn, the Curator and an artist himself. He gave my a personal tour of much of what is hanging now in the galleries. Here he is with an oil of mine, Edward Hopper's Road, that the museum added to its Collection in 1995 when they held an earlier show of my paintings. This oil is a studio adaptation of a smaller plein air oil I painted during one of my residencies staying and working in the famous American realist painter's studio in S. Truro on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. It is the view of Stevens Way, a narrow dirt road that winds the half mile in from from the main road to Hopper's studio. When I chose this view to make a painting I was excited by the curves of the road as is rose and fell going over the characteristic rounded sand dunes that make up the outer tip of Cape Cod. It was great in Hopper's day and it remains unchanged in ours.




Intriguingly, this same road is one of the issues in dispute in a long running legal battle between the owners of the Hopper studio and other neighbors and the people who want to build an enormous oversized mansion on one of the very last undeveloped stretches of coastline immediately adjoining the Hopper studio. One of the issues in dispute is the capacity of the tiny road to handle extra traffic generated by the huge new building.

But the far larger question is on whether we value our artistic heritage. Hopper looked out of his studio window daily for forty years as he painted some of his greatest paintings. I am convinced the unspoiled land helped put him in touch with the deepest recesses of his creativity and allowed him to paint art that is treasured the world over. To me who has had the unique opportunity to stay and work in Hopper's studio as a painter and to see what Hopper saw, this is a no brainer. There is no question we need to preserve something as unique as this. I fervently hope the courts rule the unfinished mega-mansion sitting on the Hopper landscape will have to be removed. To do otherwise is to diminish a big part of our history and ourselves.

And below is the new Assistant Curator at the Midwest Museum, Stacy Jordan posing beside my large oil The Song of All Days.



It's a painting that to me asks what is important in our lives. Naturally it's a sunset, but really it's a summation of the thousands of sunsets I've studied in my decades as a landscape painter. The light begins to fade and details and incidentals fall away leaving only the tall silhouetted pines against the sky. What do we remember of our day? The fading of the light seems to ask this of us. Unconsciously I think people are drawn to the landscape and its differing moods as they stir up in us such reflections. Living is a deep, serious business. Art is a tool to help us take that in and make sense of it. That's why museums do us all such a service.

I'll write more about and show more images from the Midwest Museum of American Art in my next post.

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