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.
Sunset (Farewell to Iowa)
Charles Atherton Cumming (1858-1932)
Oil, 1926. 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.
Karl Mattern (1892-1969)
Oil on canvas, 1945. Gift of Miss Julia Annette Keeler 1970.4.1
Karl Mattern was born in Durkheim, Germany, on March 22, 1892. He was a painter, and specialized in watercolor. He came to the U.S. with his family when he was 13. After two years in the East he moved to the Midwest where he worked on a farm. Mattern studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Art Students League. He was a pupil of George Bellows. His career as an artist and teacher began in 1922 when he taught at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and at the Denver (CO) Academy from 1923-24. He also taught at University of Kansas, Lawrence in the painting department 1926- 48.
From 1948 until his death in January, 1969, he lived in Des Moines, IA, where he taught in the art department at Drake University. Karl Mattern exhibited his work continuously for over forty-seven years in national and local exhibitions. He painted nearly every day of his life. Mattern died in Des Moines, on Jan. 18, 1969.
Reginald Marsh (1898-1954)
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.
Left-Sided Figure Pointing
Stephen DeStaebler (1933-2011)
Bronze, 1983. Museum Purchase from John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, CA. 1990.1
Stephen DeStaebler was born in 1933. He is a nationally known, Bay Area based sculptor whose work is based on the expressive potential of the human figure. His academic work was completed at Princeton University with a thesis on St. Francis.
After working primarily in clay during the 1960’s and 1970’s, he began to work with bronze in the 1980’s and began his association with Artworks Foundry, starting in the early 1980’s.
DeStaebler’s work can be seen locally at the City Center in Oakland, near the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, the M.H. DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park and in the Oakland Museum.
His work was the subject of a major museum retrospective in 1988-89, which traveled to San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and other cities. A catalogue of this exhibition, “Stephen DeStaebler: The Figure” was written by Donald Kuspit, and features many works in bronze that were cast by Artworks Foundry.
Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974)
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 (1921-2018)
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.
John Costigan (1888-1972)
Oil, 1923. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Donald Winston. 1978.3.1
John Edward (J.E.) Costigan was a celebrated American artist widely recognized for his work in three media —oil painting, watercolor and print (etchings and lithographs). It is estimated that, in a career spanning some 50 years, he produced about 500 oils, 250 watercolors, 400 drawings, over 130 etchings, 20 lithographs, and a smattering of pastels and mixed media.
John Costigan was born of Irish-American parents in Providence, Rhode Island, February 29, 1888. He was a cousin of the noted American showman, George M. Cohan, whose parents brought the young Costigan to New York City and was instrumental in starting him on a career in the visual arts. They were less successful in encouraging him to pursue formal studies at the Art Students League (where, however, he later taught) than in exposing him to the commercial art world through the job they had gotten him with the New York lithographing firm that made their theatrical posters.
In addition, Costigan’s work has been—and continues to be—included, side-by-side with that of some of America’s most high-profile artists, in museum and gallery exhibitions throughout the country. His renown had peaked in the early 1930s, by which time his work had been honored with nearly every major award then being bestowed in the fine arts and had been acquired for the permanent collections of several prestigious American museums, including New York’s Metropolitan (which only recently, in 1997, deaccessioned his “Wood Interior,” acquired in 1934).
John Costigan died of pneumonia in Nyack, NY, August 5, 1972, just months after receiving his final prestigious award —the Benjamin West Clinedinst Medal of the Artist’s Fellowship, Inc., presented in general recognition of his “…achievement of exceptional artistic merit…” in the various media he had mastered in the course of his career.
Outdoor Soda Fountain
Isabel Bishop (1902-1988)
Etching on paper, 1953. Gift of Ann and John MacGregor. 1995.8.7
Isabel Bishop was an American painter, draughtsman, and etcher who worked in an urban realist style. Bishop grew up in Detroit, Michigan. She moved to New York City at 16 to study commercial art, attending the New York School of Design for Women in 1918. She shifted from commercial drawing to painting in 1920, enrolling at the Art Students League. During this period, she developed a realist technique as well as an approach to light and shadow reminiscent. By 1928 she was working on her own, establishing a reputation as an urban realist. Two years later Bishop had with her first show at the Dudensing Gallery in New York.
Bishop often depicted moving figures and crowds in New York’s Union Square, which the studio that she leased from 1934 to 1978 overlooked. She is best known for her paintings and drawings of working women, hobos, and students. Also an accomplished draughtsman, she often produced etchings based on her paintings. Her body of work illustrated the changing face of Union Square from the post-Depression milieu of the 1930s to the war protesters and students of the 1960s and ’70s.
Peter Hurd (1904-1984)
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.
Grant Wood (1891-1942)
Lithograph on paper, 1939. Bequest of Katherine M. Zastrow. 1997.14.1
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.