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.


John Sloan, Boy with Piccolo, oil on canvas, 1904 Museum Purchase with a Grant from the Kinney-Lindstrom Foundation

After the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, artists began expanding the way they depicted a human likeness.  John Sloan’s Boy with Piccolo is not a formally composed portrait; instead the artist has captured a happy moment in the life of an ordinary boy.

Sloan’s interest in social reform led him to join with other artists to form a group called The Eight.  These American painters were united in opposition to the conservatism of National Academy of Design and wanted to bring painting into direct contact with life.

Later The Eight formed the nucleus of the Ashcan School, which was active through World War I.  The artists of the Ashcan School rebelled against American Impressionism which was the leading style of American art at the time.  In contrast to Impressionism’s emphasis on light, their works were frequently dark in tone, capturing the harsher moments of life and often portraying such subjects as prostitutes, drunks, butchered pigs, overflowing tenements, boxing matches and wrestlers.  

The Ashcan artists were action painters who mirrored the ebb and flow of reality with the flux of their brushwork.  Like Sloan, many were well prepared for this approach, having started their careers as newspaper illustrators.  While they chronicled the lives of poor city dwellers, they were neither social critics nor reformers, but a lively bunch of provincial rebels who created America’s first true avant-garde. 


The Clay Wagon, Arthur Dove. Oil on canvas, 1935. Gift of the Francisca S. Winston Trust. 1965.1

Arthur Dove was the first American artist to paint a completely abstract picture.  He did this around 1910, perhaps a little before the Russian-born Kandinsky’s first abstract compositions. The difference was that Kandinsky’s abstract work happened in the progressive cultural and artistic context of Europe while Dove’s debuted in the general indifference of American taste.  His own reclusiveness contributed to the lack of impact his work had on the national art scene.

Dove’s work was all about nature. He began his art career as an illustrator for the New York press and in 1907 went on a year-and-a-half trip to Europe, spending most of it in Paris. There he fell in with the circle of American expatriate artists. His early work shows the influence of Cezanne and Matisse.  As soon as he got back to the United States he “went native,” as he put it, spending much of his time camping in the wilderness. “I can claim no background,” he once reflected, “except perhaps the woods, running streams, hunting, fishing, camping, and the sky.  After he failed at farming in upstate New York, he bought a yawl on which he lived for seven years, sailing the waters of Long Island Sound along the Connecticut shore. These experiences fed into his work, while isolating him from New York’s small avant-garde circles

In 1913 Dove explained to a friend his process of abstraction (or, as he sometimes called it, “extraction”): the landscape slowly disappears like the Cheshire cat in the tree, leaving the “abstract” form behind.  The first step was to choose from nature a motif in color, and with that motif to paint from nature, the form still being recognizable.  The second step was to apply this same principle to form, so that the actual object disappeared, and the means of expression became purely subjective.  In this way Dove believed he could arrive at “essences” that would transmit his sense of the spiritual in nature which was the deep concern of his art. Such “essences” were shapes that symbolized life forces and organic growth suggesting (he thought) some inner principle of reality. 

Watch our Art Talk to learn more about Arthur Dove:


Reclining Figure, Alex Katz. 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.

Watch our Art Talk to learn more about Alex Katz:


Sans Titre, Alexander Calder. Painted aluminum sheet, 1973. Gift of Kelly Paulson. 2001.1

Alexander “Sandy” Calder was born in Pennsylvania in 1898 to a family of artists.  As a child some of his first artwork was a small elephant sculpture, and later scraps of copper wired made into jewelry for his sisters dolls.  By 1915 Calder worked on sculptures for the 1915 Exposition, the same year he graduated high school.

Although Calder graduated from college with a degree in Engineering and worked several jobs early on as an Engineer, he moved to New York to pursue a career as an artist.  He studied during this time with regionalist Thomas Hart Benton, as well as George Luks and John Sloan of the Ashcan school.  While still a student he worked for the National Police Gazette as a sketch artist and was assigned to sketch the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, which later influenced his work.  1926 he moved to Paris and he established a studio.  Due to the urging of others, Calder began to make small toys with a circus theme, even giving small performances.  He returned to the United States and designed several kinetic wooden push and pull toys for children which were commercially produced. 

Calder’s training as an engineer aided him when he created what Marcel Duchamp would call “mobiles” after a French pun for both “mobile” and “motive.”  By experimenting to develop abstract sculpture that would move with the assistance of cranks and pulleys, he developed what became his signature works –departing from the traditional notion of static objects as art.  By 1931 he moved on to sculptures that derived their motion from air currents in the room using shapes that looked as though from natural forms such as fish, leaves, and birds.  During WWII the scarcity of metal led Calder to create mobiles out of wood.  Once the war had ended, he began to cut out flat shapes from sheet metal.

In addition to sculpture, Calder made prints and jewelry, creating some 1,800 pieces before his death in 1976.  During his lifetime he won many awards for his innovative sculpture.  Two months after his death Calder was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ford.  His work is in hundreds of major museums and collections and he is considered one of the most influential artists in sculpture of the 20th century.

Watch our Art Talk to learn more about Alexander Calder!:


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

Initially trained as a painter, Barbara Morgan took up photography in the mid 1920’s after realizing its artistic potential through seeing the work of Edward Weston. From the beginning, Morgan was inclined to explore the rhythmic motions of her subjects and was drawn to modern art.  In the United States, 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 photographic processing, and other constructed forms of image-making.

In 1935, Morgan met modern dance pioneer Martha Graham; the two women found they shared a common approach and immediately decided to work together, with Morgan photographing Graham’s dance company over the next five years for an award-winning book. The shoots were preceded by conversations between the two, and hours of Morgan observing the dance works in actual theater performances. Morgan selected particular moments from the flow of peaks and repetitions throughout the dance, which to her captured its essence. Working with Graham and the dancers, she recreated these moments in the studio and based her photographs on the results. Morgan’s dance photographs rank among the classic experiments of Modern American Expressionistic photographic art. Photographic meaning for Expressionist photography extends beyond the photograph and becomes a symbol communicating personal vision and cultural values. Thus photography from an Expressionist’s point of view is not essentially a vehicle for documentation, but frequently aims at a metaphorical interpretation of its subject. Expressionists such as Morgan advocate the separation of the medium as a fine art from its functional and casual “snapshot” tradition.


Marta, Chuck Close. Etching on paper, 1986. John and Mary Papajohn Endowment Fund Purchase. 1995.13

Chuck Close has worked since the early 1970s within a carefully defined practice focused exclusively on monumental portraiture.  Starting with a source photograph, Close carefully transposes the image to a canvas or other surface using a grid.  Referencing painting, drawing, photography, collage and printmaking, the resulting works are hybrid objects that merge manual and mechanical processes and explore 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, the print in the MacNider’s collection, 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.

Watch our Art Talk about Chuck Close here:


Todros Geller 1889-1949 “The Accordian Player”; 1938; oil on canvas; 1981.005.0001

In a painting in the Hanford MacNider Gallery of the Museum a strong figure with a shock of dark hair pensively plays an accordion.  The chair on which the man sits seems to be floating in an indefinite space, which draws the viewer more deeply into his reverie.  The musician is not dressed for performance, but in work clothes, and perhaps his most striking feature is the oversized hand the artist has given him.

The painter, Todros Geller, was a Ukrainian American artist and teacher best known as a master printmaker and a leader among Chicago’s art and Jewish communities.  Geller produced paintings, woodcuts, woodcarvings, and etchings. His work focused on Jewish tradition, often including moralistic themes and social commentary and the intersection of Jewish tradition with modern day Chicago. He received commissions for stained glass windows, bookplates, community centers, Yiddish and English books and was regarded as a leader in the field of synagogue and religious art.

Geller viewed art as a tool for social reform and spent a large part of his career teaching art. Many prominent Chicago artists studied drawing and painting under him, including Aaron Bohrod, whose work The Old Doll, hangs opposite The Accordion Player in the MacNider Gallery. 

The Accordion Player was given to the MacNider Museum in the early 1980s by the Mason City Community School District and was produced as part of the WPA Federal Art Project.

Watch the MacNider Art Talk about Todros Geller to learn more!


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.


Greta Garbo, George Hurrell. 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. 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.

Watch our Art Talk about Janet Fish here:


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.