Off the Wall

Off the Wall showcases pieces from our permanent collection individually so you can learn a little bit more about the pieces in our museum one at a time.


Reclining Figure
Alex Katz (b. 1927)
Aquatint color, etching on paper, 1987.
John and Mary Pappajohn Endowment Fund Purchase. 1988.5

Born and reared in New York, Alex Katz is a prominent artist in the generation of painters who dedicated themselves to the figure when Abstract Expressionism ruled the art world and all but declared the death of portraiture.  Katz’s flat expanses of color, reductive compositions and cool ambience are a stark contrast to the Abstract Expressionist splatter and vigorous application of paint.  This measured combination of representation and abstraction in Katz’s work has had a lasting influence on generations of artists working today.

Katz is still actively producing art as an octogenarian.  During his long career he has consistently made portraits of his wife, Ada.  These images have achieved iconic status and are extraordinary in their focus on a single figure over many decades.  His work is seldom critically described without mention of its “cool.”  This mood is fostered in part by the air of poise and effortless chic radiated by Ada, who has been described as being at once “wife, mother, muse, model, sociable hostess, myth, icon, and New York goddess.”

In Reclining Figure, Katz visits his most frequent subject in familiar attire; sunglasses, and plumbs her image once again for more insight.


Children of Colonel and Mrs. Turnley
George Peter Alexander Healy (1813-1894)
Oil on canvas, 1863. Purchase with Belle Parker Jackson Bequest. 1970.1

George Peter Alexander Healy was born in 1813 in Boston, the eldest of five children.   When the family was left fatherless he helped to support his mother.  He started to draw at age sixteen and immediately began to pursue a career as an artist.  His very earliest works were reproductions of other artist’s work, which he used as a tool to learn, as well as to sell for income.  By age eighteen he was able to make a living painting portraits.

In 1834 Healy traveled to Europe to further his schooling in painting.  He left Europe in 1840 and traveled to Chicago where he remained till 1869, and where this portrait was painted.

Colonel Turnley was from a prominent Southern family, which were frequent customers of Healy’s.  This portrait is of three of Turnley’s five children: The child in the middle, while dressed in a tartan dress, is actually believed to be their son, Ernest.  Historically it was normal for all children, even males, to wear dresses while young.  On each side in white dresses are their daughters Emma and Ethel.  Common for his portraits, the background of the work is muted to focus attention on the subjects of the work.   Before photography became widely available, it was customary for many wealthy families to immortalize themselves and their families in art.

Healy painted many important portraits of the 19th century including Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, Henry Clay.  One of his most famous works was his posthumous portrait of Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln sat for Healy in August 1864 and Healy began working on sketches, however, after the president was assassinated, he did not conceive the painting until 1869.  It now hangs in the White House’s State Dining Room.  Healy died in 1894, well known and respected as one of America’s most prolific portrait painters.


Byron Burford (1920-2011)
Oil on canvas, 1965. Museum purchase. 1968.2

Byron Burford was born in Jackson, Mississippi July 12, 1920.  He studied with Grant Wood at the University of Iowa, earning a BFA in 1942.  He returned to the university after serving in the U.S. Air Force during World War II and he received his MFA in 1947.

Upon graduating he was appointed to the faculty and preceded to teach painting until 1986, when he was named professor emeritus.  Additional teaching was done at the University of Minnesota, California College of Arts and Crafts, and the Joslyn Museum.

Burford is known primarily as a painter and printmaker.  Almost all of his work is figurative and done with a muted palette. Many of his collections are found at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, J.S. Guggenheim Collection in New York, Des Moines Art Center, Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Joslyn Museum in Omaha, and many others.  He has had exhibits in New York, Washington, Chicago, Venice, Italy, Colombia, Zurich, Switzerland, and others.

One thing that Burford is best known for is the images depicting circus life.  When he was only 14 or 15 years old, he briefly joined the Tom Mix Circus.  Since that time, he has gone out with circuses whenever he can – Clark and Walters, Famous Cole, Franzen Brothers, Great American – often as a drummer in the circus band.  Other bodies of work deal with the military, industry and sports.  Common elements include the passage of time and human endurance.


Martha Graham – Letter to the World
Barbara Morgan (1900-1992)
Photography, 1940. Gift of Mr. L. Bradley Camp (via the Ackerman Foundation). 1993.6.1

Perhaps the most recognizable work in the MacNider Art Museum’s collection of American photography is Barbara Morgan’s silver gelatin print of modern dance innovator Martha Graham. In Martha Graham – Letter to the World (The Kick), Morgan effectively uses dark and light, negative and positive space, and a dynamic sensation of movement to capture the essence of modern dance.

Morgan took up photography in the mid 1920’s. From the beginning, she was inclined to explore the rhythmic motions of her subjects and was drawn to the developing field of modern dance. In the United State, modern dance, perhaps more than any other art form, provided artists with fresh ideas to explore. Photography, too, was ripe for experimentation in the 1920’s, through manipulated images of photo-montage, light drawings using photography processing, and other constructed forms of image-making. Morgan’s dance photographs rank among the classic experiments of Modern American Expressionistic photographic art.


Chuck Close (b. 1940)
Etching on paper, 1986. John and Mary Papajohn Endowment Fund Purchase. 1995.13

Since the early 1970s, Chuck Close has worked within a defined practice focused exclusively on monumental portraiture. Starting with a photograph, Close carefully transposes the image to a canvas or other surface using a grid. Using a myriad of art media; painting, drawing, photography, collage and printmaking, he produces hybrid works that combine manual and mechanical processes and delve into the boundaries between the personal and the social, the subjective and the systematic, the abstract and the representational.

After a rare spinal artery collapse in 1988 that left him with partial use of his arms and legs, Close paints with a brush strapped to his hand. Rather than ending his career, “the event”, as he calls it, has pushed his work further into a looser, freer style he was beginning to explore before it occurred.

Close created Marta by measuring off the grid he uses as the foundation of all his portraits, making marks on a metal plate with his fingerprints, and etching these into the plate with acid. Ink was then rolled over the surface and into the grooves, paper was laid on top of the plate, and the image was transferred to the paper. The tan background of Marta is silk glued to the paper during the printing process.


The Accordian Player
Todros Geller (1889-1949)
Oil on canvas, 1938.

Noted Jewish artist Todros Geller was born in Vinitza, the Ukraine, Russia, in 1889.  He studied art in Odessa at a private academy.  In 1906 Geller moved, with his family, to Canada in order to escape the pogroms in his native country. Pogrom is a form of riot directed against a particular group, whether ethnic, religious or other, and characterized by destruction of their homes, businesses and religious centers. Usually pogroms are accompanied by physical violence against the targeted people and even murder or massacre.

The years following this move were spent working at odd jobs to enable Geller to study art in the evening.  He soon became a photographer.  The artist married in 1913 and a few years later immigrated to the United States.  Arriving in Chicago in 1918, Geller enrolled at the Art Institute.  There, over a period of 5 years, he studied with Norton, Seyffert and Bellows.  From 1920-1927, Geller was an instructor at the Jewish People’s Institute.  He also served as Supervisor of Art for the Board of Jewish Education and Director of Art for the College of Jewish Studies.

Through the professional positions mentioned above, he was able to convey a more sensitive understanding of Jewish art to young people from elementary through the college level.  Geller was a prolific artist and worked in many different medias: oil, tempera, watercolor, metal, woodcarving, etching, lithography, stained glass and wood engraving.


Willard Metcalf (1858-1925)
Oil on canvas, circa 1888. Gift of Mason City Women’s Club. 1967.7

Willard Metcalf was an America artist born in Massachusetts who is generally associated with American Impressionism.  After early figure-painting and illustration, he became prominent as a landscape painter.

The French Impressionists astounded the late nineteenth century art world when they took canvases and palettes out of their studios and painted directly from nature.  They were particularly fascinated by a free handling of paint and the changing effect of light on their subjects.  Considered revolutionary at the time, these innovations are the precursors of modernism and eventually, abstract art.

Though Haystacks may not show the dappled sunlight that characterizes the work of the Impressionists, the loose handling of paint and the outdoor scene are typical of the movement.  Metcalf studied in Paris and by 1886 was painting at Monet’s Giverny.  After his return to the United States in 1888, his production was erratic, but he is known for his New England landscapes.


Porcelain Feelie
Rose Cabat (1914-2015)
Clay ceramic. Gift of The Mulcahy Foundation. 1988.2

Rose Cabat was an American studio ceramicist, classified as part of the Mid-Century modern movement who was best known for her innovative glazes upon small porcelain pots called ‘feelies’ often in the shape of onions and figs, and bowls. She was the oldest known actively practicing pottery artist in the United States.

Rose Cabat was born in New York City in 1914 in the Bronx, and married her childhood sweetheart Erni Cabat in 1936. She began working in ceramics in 1940 after her husband Erni brought home some clay from his job as an assistant to Vally Wiselthier an art deco ceramicist who was making pieces for General Ceramics in Keasbey, New Jersey. After seeing her preliminary pieces, Erni gave Rose a membership at Greenwich House, where Rose learned how to use a potter’s wheel.

Shortly after their first son George was born, he was found to have intractable asthma. The Cabat’s decided to move to Arizona around 1942 in order to alleviate his condition. Rose worked at a defense plant and was able to make primitive ceramics from the extra clay that Erni was able to obtain from brickyards. Rose was able to make some coil figures until Erni was able to convert a washing machine to a potter’s wheel. Eventually, Erni ordered a Randall kickwheel, which Rose used to the end. She made ceramics in her spare time, as she worked in a munitions plant during World War II.

After the war, Rose continued to make craft ceramics such as wind bells, animal shapes and other commodity pieces to help support the family, while Erni worked in Tucson as a graphic artist and in advertising. He also wrote several children’s books. They became friends with local artists, and helped to start the Art Center, the forerunner of the Tucson Museum of Art.

In 1956, the Cabats took a glaze calculation class at the University of Hawaii which were later applied to the “feelie” forms that become Rose Cabat’s signature pieces. In about 1960, Rose hit upon the basic form of the vessel which would become the foundation of the “feelies”. She created a pot with a delicate closed neck, which could not hold even a single slender stem or stalk.

By 1966, Rose Cabat was beginning to be recognized as a craft artist, with the exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum, Craftsmen USA, where she exhibited a casserole. In 1973, her feelies were exhibited in Everyday Life in Early America as contemporary counterparts to pioneering American craftspeople. The Tucson Art Museum loaned one of Rose Cabat’s blue-green Feelies to the Mansion of the Vice President, Walter Mondale at the time, to be displayed in the living room along with other works of art.

Rose and Erni continued to produce ceramics, including feelies and bowls with their signature glazes. While Rose and Erni collaborated on the feelies and other ceramic forms, Erni ran his ad agency in Tucson until the age of 62 when he had felt that the family could be supported with the income from the “feelies” and other ceramics as well as his own artwork. Erni ran the business, weighed out the glaze components, while Rose did the craft and the art. On November 8, 1994, Erni died in his sleep.

After 1994, Rose continued to produce feelies and bowls, despite her decreasing mobility, with her daughter June running the business end of things. Cabat died on January 25, 2015 at the age of 100.


Greta Garbo
George Hurrell (1904-1992)
Gelatin silver print on foam core board, 1930. Gift of Marvin A. Sackner, M.D. 1993.4.3

One of the most famous American photographers of all time was George Hurrell.  Born in 1904, he first studied painting at art school.  During this time it was common to use photography to capture outdoor images during the summer months so artists could continue to paint indoors during the winter.  After moving to Laguna Beach, California in 1925, he found that he did not need to use the camera to capture summer scenes, as it never was as cold as Chicago.  He shelved his camera for some time, eventually bringing it out to photograph friends such the aviator Pancho Barnes, who often posed for him. He eventually opened a photographic studio in Los Angeles.  It was Barnes, a wealthy socialite, eventually introduced him to many of Hollywood’s stars in the late 1920s.

He began by taking a series of photos for the actor, Ramon Novarro, who was secretly going outside his contract to explore other options.  Eventually other stars and starlets approached him, his reputation growing.  He was eventually hired by MGM in 1929 and became their head of portrait photography until 1932.  During this time images Hurrell took were used to market the images of the stars and create the glamour images this period of Hollywood history is known for.  From 1932 until 1938 he ran his own studio at 8706 Sunset Boulevard.

By the 1940s Hurrell joined the Warner Brothers studios and photographed such famous actors and actresses as Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Alexis Smith, Maxine Fife, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. Later in the decade he moved to Columbia Pictures where his photographs were used to help the studio build the career of Rita Hayworth.  During World War II he left Hollywood to make training films for the United States Army Air Force.  After the war, he found that the glamour image of Hollywood was no longer desired and studios were turning toward a more gritty image.  Knowing his strengths were in beauty images, he moved to New York where he worked for fashion magazines before returning to Hollywood in the 1960s.

The Museum has many Hurrell images in the collection – all highlighting the glamour era of Hollywood.  Hurrell died in 1992 after complications from cancer.


Watermelon and Peaches
Janet Fisch (b. 1938)
Watercolor on paper, 1990. Museum Purchase, Memorial and Acquisition Funds. 2000.16

Janet Fish was born in Boston, MA in 1938 and grew up on the Island of Bermuda.  Her grandfather was an American Impressionist painter, which inspired her.  Her father was an Art History teacher and her mother was a sculptor and potter.

She went to Skowhegan Summer School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and studied sculpture and printmaking at Smith College in Massachusetts, and graduated from Smith in 1960. She then went on to Yale University School of Art and Architecture in Connecticut, where she received her B.F.A. (Bachelor of Fine Arts) and M.F.A. (Master of Fine Arts) degrees in 1963. (She was one of the first women artists to receive her MFA from Yale.) At Yale some of her classmates included Rackstraw Downes, Chuck Close, Nancy Graves and Brice Marden.

She has shown her work in many major art institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, both in New York, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago, and at many venues around the world. She has also won fellowships and awards, including American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, 1994, and a MacDowell Fellowships in 1968, 1968 and 1972. Her work has been published in several books – The Prints of Janet Fish, by Linda Konheim Kramer, Janet Fish by Garret Henry, and Janet Fish: Paintings by Vincent Katz. She is currently represented by D.C. Moore Gallery in New York City, and divides her time between her Soho loft and her farmhouse in Vermont. Her paintings reflect her indoor and outdoor domestic life, often containing still life objects from her collections of glassware and other objects.