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Building the Collection: Regionalism and Folk Art

Around the time of the nation’s bicentennial and the opening of the Gallery’s East Building, several paintings by the major proponents of American regionalism were donated: Trail Riders by Thomas Hart Benton in 1975, Circus Elephants by John Steuart Curry in 1976, and Haying and New Road [fig. 1] by Grant Wood in 1982. The Gallery’s regionalist and American scene holdings from the 1930s were also significantly bolstered by the gift of 5,000 American prints from the Dave and Reba Williams collection in 2008. Led by Benton from Missouri, Curry from Kansas, and Wood from Iowa, the regionalists rose to prominence during the Great Depression by opposing what they characterized as the international urban modernism being promoted in New York by Alfred Stieglitz and others. They instead advocated an art that more closely reflected the rural lives and concerns of ordinary working people in their midwestern home states and across the country. While sometimes seen as simply conservative traditionalists or antimodernists, the regionalists, as recent scholarship on these artists has articulated, are better understood as important threads in the fabric of modernism itself.[1] Benton, for instance, produced color abstractions in a synchromist style after studying in Paris early in the century and later mentored and influenced Jackson Pollock at the Art Students League in New York. Alternately Stieglitz’s support in the 1920s and 30s for rooting artistic practice in an intimate knowledge of American landscapes outside of Manhattan, whether in Maine, New Mexico, or elsewhere, can be related to the regionalist movement’s emphasis on rural life.

During the teens, many artists, critics, and dealers, in their search for a distinctive national form of modernism, began exploring an indigenous source of inspiration that seemed to exist beyond the influence of the European avant-garde and outside the traditional canons of high or fine art: American folk art. The modernists’ ongoing fascination with folk art was later evinced in two distinctive collections that came to be housed at the Gallery. The Index of American Design, a compendium of 18,000 watercolor renderings of American decorative arts from the colonial period through the late 19th century, was commissioned by the Works Progress Administration beginning in 1935 and accessioned by the Gallery in 1943. Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch’s collection of more than 400 paintings and drawings of American folk art was accessioned by the Gallery between 1953 and 1980.[2] Modernist painters saw folk art as an authentic expression of American culture rooted in the past and, simultaneously, as a valid source of inspiration for contemporary art apart from any specific historical associations it might have. Because of this duality, folk art dramatized in powerful ways the complex relationship between past and present that was one of modernism’s most salient characteristics.

In the Gallery’s collection, this paradox of being both in time and out of time, insider and outsider, is found in the work of the painter and quilter Marguerite Zorach (American, 1887 - 1968) and the African American painter Horace Pippin (American, 1888 - 1946), artists whose uncertain social, political, and cultural status was part and parcel of the modernist dilemma. Christmas Mail [fig. 2], given to the Gallery by the Zorach children in 1974, depicts a commonplace view of rural life in Maine that, while rendered in an outwardly direct and naïve fashion, is also inflected by Zorach’s knowledge of the shallow, fragmented, planar space of cubist painting. In his School Studies [fig. 3], Pippin, using a similar strategy, presents a seemingly unassuming scene of country life in a straightforward folk style. But the painting’s cozy familiarity again belies its radical abstraction. Bold, flat shapes and insistent patterns composed of discrete, tactile, painted gestures on the surface of the canvas pull apart and flatten the representational elements. Here, the ostensibly warm, safe space and integrity of the interior is threatened and compressed, both psychologically and pictorially, by the ominous darkness looming at the window.


[1] See, for instance, Erika Lee Doss, Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism (Chicago, 1991); James M. Dennis, Renegade Regionalists: The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry (Madison, 1998); or Wanda Corn’s essay “Grant Wood: Uneasy Modern,” in Grant Wood’s Studio: Birthplace of American Gothic, ed. Jane C. Milosch (Cedar Rapids, MI, 2005).

[2] See Virginia Tuttle Clayton et al., Drawing on America’s Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design (Washington, DC, 2002); and for the Garbisch Collection, see Deborah Chotner, American Naïve Paintings (Washington, DC, 1992).