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.

*****

Haystacks, Willard Metcalf. 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.

*****

Flags II, Jasper Johns. Screenprint on paper, 1973. John and Mary Pappajohn Endowment Fund Purchase. 1999.9

Jasper Johns was born on May 15, 1930 in Augusta, Georgia.  Johns studied at the University of South Carolina from 1947 to 1948, a total of three semesters.  He then moved to New York City and studied briefly at Parsons School of Design in 1949.  While in New York, Johns met Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage.  Working together they explored the contemporary art scene, and began developing their ideas on art.  In 1952 and 1953, he was stationed in Sendai, Japan during the Korean War.

He is best known for his painting Flag (1954-55), which he painted after having a dream of the American flag.  His work is often described as a ‘Neo-Dadaist’, as opposed to pop art, even though his subject matter often includes images and objects from popular culture.  Still, many compilations on pop art include Jasper Johns as a pop artist because of his artistic use of classical iconography.

Most of Johns work can be found mostly on the east coast of the United States.  To name a few of the places, Museum of Modern Art in New York, the New York State Theater, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and many others.

In 1998, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York paid more than $20 million for Johns’ White Flag.  In 2006, private collectors Anne and Kenneth Griffin (founder of the Chicago-based hedge fund Citadel Investment Group) bought Johns’ False Start for $80 million.  Johns currently lives in Sharon, Connecticut.

*****

Gateways to the Sea, Alfred Thompson Bricher. Oil on canvas mounted on board, 1875. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. F.T. Davison. 1994.9

Alfred Thompson Bricher was an American painter who specialized in marine subjects, with particular emphasis on subjects from Maine, the Bay of Fundy, and the Maritime provinces of Canada. Largely self-taught, Alfred Thompson Bricher studied in his leisure hours at the Lowell Institute in Boston and also attended an academy in Newburyport, MA.  Bricher was a businessman in Boston from 1851 to 1858 before he became a professional artist.  Bricher was often associated with the group of painters known as “the Hudson River School”. He espoused a conservative and realistic approach to landscapes, while his interests lay not only in the play of light, water, and air, but in a sense of luminosity and spirituality in nature.

Oddly, Bricher continued painting peaceful scenes of nature even at the height of the horrors of the Civil War, a war in which he younger brother was killed. His perseverance in this style underscores his belief in the eternal forgiveness of Nature and the truism that whatever the acts of man, Nature is the more powerful force.

During the later part of his career, Bricher witnessed the advent of modernism, a movement that seemed to make many of his artistic concerns obsolete – but which, in another sense, owed a debt to the discipline and realism in works by Bricher and other Hudson River painters.  He is still considered one of the best maritime painters of the late nineteenth century.

*****

Camel, John B. Flannagan. Fieldstone. Museum Purchase in Memory of Jerome F. Paulson with Funds Given by his Family. 1988.8

John Bernard Flannagan was born in 1895 in Fargo, North Dakota.  His newspaperman father died when John was five, forcing his destitute mother to place him and his sister in an orphanage.  Unrelenting poverty plagued him the rest of his life.  He got into carving as a youth and moved to Minneapolis in 1914 to study painting at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.  During World War I he served in the Merchant Marines until 1922 and then took up residence in New York to resume his study of painting.

Around 1926, Arthur B. Davies, one of the prime movers and shakers in early 20th century American art circles and a key figure in the implementation of the famous “Armory Show,” discovered Flannagan in a state of near-starvation.  Davies took the still young artist to one of his farms and nurtured his health and spirit for about a year.  Flannagan was still pursuing his study of painting but at the suggestion of Davies in 1927, he tried his hand at wood sculpture, starting on a track that he would follow for the rest of his career.  He discovered stone as a medium in 1928 and it became his favorite.

He has been critically acclaimed as one of the best of his generation of artists employing what became known as the “direct carving” approach to making sculpture.  Flannagan’s own sculpture did not follow the academic traditions, which preceded and still dominated during his time.  He worked with fieldstones instead of quarried ones; a choice affected more at first by economics, but one that proved right for his art.

Personality was instilled into the stones touched by his tools and his imagination, capturing and reflecting many moods and mysteries of life.  In 1929, in a letter to Carl Zigrosser, John Flannagan said, “My aim is to produce a sculpture…with such ease, freedom and simplicity that it hardly feels carved, but rather to have always been that way.”

*****

Charles Atherton Cumming 1858-1932 o Sunset (Farewell to Iowa); 1926; oil; 2000.012

Charles Atherton Cumming was born in Rochester, Illinois to parents of French and Scottish descent, he became a leading painter in Iowa and also a key figure in establishing art related studies. He studied briefly at Reading College Academy in Abingdon, Illinois, and then enrolled at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. His talent was evident, and he was encouraged to attend the Art Institute of Chicago and there studied with Lawrence C. Earle. Lawrence Carmichael Earle was the first artist that Grand Rapids could call its own.

By 1895 Cumming became director of a young Des Moines Academy of Art. It enjoyed so much success under his leadership that in 1900 it was renamed the Cumming School of Art! In 1909 he was invited to establish an art department at the University of Iowa. Charles Cumming served as a superintendent of the Department of Art at the State Fair. He helped form the Iowa Art Guild in 1914 that was active into the 1970s. Cumming died in 1932, one of the earliest Iowans to become widely recognized as an accomplished painter, teacher and arts administrator.

His approach in painting as in his teaching was from an academic perspective.  He believed in fundamentals and in a personal discipline to be applied to the creation of art.  He produced images of still life, landscape, and many important people as one of the state’s most active portrait painters.  He had a special relationship with the State Historical Society of Iowa and was called on often to work on subjects that would become part of the Society’s collection.  At least twenty-four of his portraits are held by the Society, more than by any other artist. As time and tide changed in the approach to teaching and creating art, in large part due to the advancement of “modernist” theories and practices, Cumming’s influence lessened and his name and his work has not remained in the limelight as much as he perhaps deserves.  It is, however, obvious when one reviews the record that Charles Atherton Cumming’s hand not only touched but also was at the root or seedling stage of much that happened in art in Iowa around the turn of and into the twentieth century.  And even though he didn’t “go with the flow,” Cumming put in a lot of the foundation blocks for all that we do and for all that we have in Iowa today.

*****

Queen Mary, Reginald Marsh. Watercolor on paper, 1937. Bequest of Mrs. Felicia Meyer Marsh. 1979.1.5

Reginald Marsh was an American painter, born in Paris, most notable for his detailed depictions of life in New York City in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He painted using egg tempera, a forgotten medium revived in the mid-twentieth century. He also produced many watercolors, oil paintings, Chinese ink drawings, and a number of lithographs and etchings.

Marsh attended the Lawrenceville School and graduated in 1920 from Yale University, he then worked as a freelance illustrator, then for the New York Daily News and for The New Yorker. He also submitted illustrations to the New Masses. Marsh was impressed by the ‘old master’ paintings he saw on a 1926 European trip. He returned with a desire to utilize the principles he felt were evident in the art of the Renaissance painters, particularly the practice of taking notes from observation of human subjects in their environments. Marsh then studied under Kenneth Hayes Miller, John Sloan and George Luks at the Art Students League of New York, and chose to do fewer commercial assignments.

Reginald Marsh’s paintings and drawings combine an almost baroque drawing style with a newspaper reporter’s attention to the minutiae of urban public life. Filled with facts, his art is unabashedly topical, often based on his own photographs and numerous on-site sketches. Marsh’s headlines, signs, and advertisements are specific and legible while his faces and figures are often indistinguishable.

Marsh was a great draughtsman, but did not think he would be a painter, for as he recalled, “Painting seemed to me then a laborious way to make a bad drawing. . .” He disliked oil, but of watercolor he said, “Watercolor I took up and took to it well, with no introduction.” In late 1929 Thomas Hart Benton and Denys Wortman introduced him to egg tempera on a gesso ground, which “opened a new world to me” because it was the perfect medium for a draughtsman. In 1930, having found his subjects and his techniques, Marsh joined the Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries and enjoyed artistic success and recognition for the rest of his life.

*****

Blues, Adolph Gottlieb. Oil on canvas, 1959. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald Winston. 1978.3.4

Adolph Gottlieb was born on March 14, 1903 in New York. From 1920-1921 he studied at the Art Students League of New York, after which he traveled in France and Germany for a year. In the mid-1930’s, he became a teacher using his acquired technical and art history knowledge to teach while he painted.

After his 1930’s one-man show he won respect amongst his peers. In 1935, he and nine others, including Ben-Zion, Ilya Bolotwsky, Louis Harris, Jack Kufeld, and Mark Rothko, known as “The Ten” exhibited their works together until 1940. They would come to be known as the Abstract Expressionists.

Gottlieb’s work and awards are found in the Dudensing Galleries in New York, the Guggenheim Museum.  Other places include Paris, Pennsylvania, Texas, Brazil, and others.  One thing that Gottlieb created was “Pictographs” and these are found in New York.

In 1932, he married Esther Dick.  In 1970, he suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair because he paralyzed his left side of his body, but he still continued to paint.  In 1972, he was elected member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.  On March 4, 1974, Adolph Gottlieb died in New York City.

*****

Dillinger: The Great Mason City Raid, Warrington Colescott. Etching on paper, 1965. Gift of Norwest Bank of Mason City. 1995.11.5

Wisconsin artist Warrington Colescott is best known for his satirical etchings.   Born in Oakland, California to parents of Louisiana Creole descent, food, music and Creole culture played a large role in upbringing.  Comic strips were also important to the young Colescott, especially the work of Des Moines Register cartoonist, Jay “Ding” Darling.  Darling’s caricatural and narrative components greatly influenced Colescott’s mature work.  As a teenager, he discovered vaudeville and burlesque.  The broad humor and slapstick, as well as the eroticism of these performances, would inform his art throughout his career.                                                                  

Colescott created a series of etchings about the Depression-era gangster, John Dillinger, which grew into a suite of images mixing fact and fiction about the farm boy-turned-outlaw who mesmerized the public in the 1930s.  Colescott had no compunction about enhancing the narratives with imagined details and anachronistic additions.

Colescott portrayed Dillinger, known at the time as Public Enemy No. 1, as a super anti-hero in the series.  For The Mason City Raid, he came to the scene and interviewed locals who had been at the event.  Colescott’s version of the crime has the feeling of a movie still, with department store signs in the background and gun molls accompanying the thugs.  Colescott observed, “The Dillinger men took their girls with them wherever they went.  I’ve tried to convey the feeling of the gang: very rowdy, very adolescent, very sexual.” 

On March 13, 1934, John Dillinger and his gang robbed the First National Bank in Mason City, Iowa, and escaped with approximately $52,000.  Surprised bank employees and citizens were used as shields from police gunfire.  A switchboard operator on an upper floor of the bank crawled to a window and shouted news of the holdup to a man in the alley.  He brandished a machine gun and shouted back, “You’re telling me, lady?”  The man was Baby Face Nelson who was standing lookout.

*****

Rio Hondo, Peter Hurd. Egg tempera on panel. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald Winston. 1978.3.7

Peter Hurd, the world-renowned western artist, was born in Roswell, New Mexico, on February 22, 1904. His parents named him Harold Hurd, Jr., but called him Pete, and in his early twenties he legally changed his name to Peter. The elder Hurd came from a prominent Boston family, graduated from Columbia University Law School, and established his legal practice in New York City. Peter Hurd grew up in Roswell, where his parents settled for health reasons. Following three years of high school at New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, Hurd was accepted as a cadet by the United States Military Academy at West Point. He entered as a plebe in July 1921, at the age of seventeen. Within two years, however, he was disillusioned by the rigors and values of military life and was drawn increasingly to art. In 1923 he resigned from West Point in good standing, with his father’s reluctant consent. He transferred to Haverford College, where he studied the liberal arts and devoted himself to painting. In December 1923, in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Hurd became acquainted with N. C. Wyeth, an illustrator of children’s classics and the father of Andrew Wyeth. He persuaded Wyeth to accept him as a pupil in the spring of 1924. Hurd soon fell in love with Wyeth’s eldest daughter, Henriette, herself an excellent painter. In June 1929 they married.

In 1959 Hurd was appointed to the Commission on Fine Arts by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1967, he painted what would have been Lyndon B. Johnson’s official portrait. President Johnson only allowed Hurd one sitting, during which he fell asleep. Hurd had to use photographs of Johnson to finish the painting. Johnson did not like his portrait, declaring it “the ugliest thing I ever saw.” The painting is now part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, in the Smithsonian Institution.

He worked in a variety of media, including oil, lithography, watercolor, egg tempera, charcoal, and fresco. The most notable of his mural paintings depicting the history of southwestern life can be seen in Lubbock, Dallas, and Big Spring, Texas. Hurd achieved the best expression of his personal vision in the tempera paintings of the place he loved best-the small village of San Patricio, New Mexico, fifty miles west of Roswell, where he built Sentinel Ranch in the 1930s. Painting on panels covered with several coats of gesso, Hurd captured the drama of light and shadow on the hills and the vastness of sky and plain in every kind of weather.

*****

Twilight, Jasper Cropsey. Oil on canvas, 1877. Museum Purchase. 1979.2

As a young boy, Cropsey had recurring periods of poor health.  While absent from school, Cropsey taught himself to draw.  His early drawings included architectural sketches and landscapes drawn on notepads and in the margins of his schoolbooks. Cropsey studied watercolor and life drawing at the National Academy of Design and first exhibited at there in 1844.  Trained as an architect, he set up his own office in 1843.

Cropsey’s interest in architecture continued throughout his life and was a strong influence in his painting, most evident in his precise arrangement and outline of forms.  But he was best known for his lavish use of color and, as a first-generation member from the Hudson River School, painted autumn landscapes that startled viewers with their boldness and brilliance. The Hudson River School was a mid-19th century American art movement by a group of landscape painters, whose aesthetic vision was influenced by romanticism.  As an artist, he believed landscapes were the highest art form and that nature was a direct manifestation of God.  He also felt a patriotic affiliation with nature and saw his paintings as depicting the rugged and unspoiled qualities of America.

Jasper Cropsey is experimenting with the abstract properties of color, light, and form in Twilight.  It consists of mostly sky with mountainous and forest-like terrain and also shows little bodies of water with deer drinking from them toward the bottom of the painting.  Night is approaching and the clouds are reflected colorfully with the rays from the setting sun to show a beautiful horizon of distant clouds and mountains.

*****

March, Grant Wood. Lithograph on paper, 1939. Bequest of Katherine M. Zastrow. 1997.14.4

Grant Wood depicted the ordinary people and everyday life of Iowa with both affection and irony.  Wood, along with Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and John Steuart Curry of Kansas comprised the trio of well-known Midwestern Regionalists. These artists rebelled against the abstraction of European Modernism and insisted that American art should present a picture of the American scene.  During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when a much higher proportion of the population lived on farms, their work was widely appreciated for its reassuring images of the heartland.

Wood’s studied in Europe and was influenced by the precise realism of the early Netherlandish painters.  His style matured into the meticulous, sharply-detailed manner for which his work is chiefly known.  A combination of perceptive insight and dry caricature makes his figure paintings distinctive among the artists of the Regionalist School.

Wood was born in Anamosa, Iowa in 1892 and spent much of his working life in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.  He was instrumental in capturing images of fast-disappearing farm life.  His final paintings were completed from his studio in Clear Lake, Iowa before his death in 1942.

*****

Horse Sense, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith. Color lithograph on paper, 1994. Museum Purchase with Funds from the Bill Gildner Memorial Fund. 2009.1

Horse Sense was created by artist, curator, political activist and educator, Jaune Quick-to See Smith.

Quick-to-See Smith was born in Montana and descended from French, Cree and Shoshoni ancestors.  Her father was an accomplished horse trainer and trader, but his work meant she moved frequently. When he was not able to care for her, she lived in foster homes and often experienced discrimination in the schools as a Native person.   School however, was the place where she was first introduced to art materials and fell in love with making art.

Throughout her career, Quick-to-See Smith has worked in many media and today is an internationally-known painter and printmaker.  She is sensitive to the effects of text on images and especially skilled at creating and appropriating texts that capture the paradigms of American culture and open up their meanings. She makes complex juxtapositions that recontextualize the way viewers understand not only relationships between Euro-American and Native culture, but how she, as an artist living in both worlds, views those issues.   Her works are thoughtful and thought provoking, raising questions that explode stereotypes and myths about indigenous people.

The layered and nuanced imagery of Horse Sense is packed full of juxtapositions of loaded images and text, inviting us as viewers to explore its messages.

*****