John Steuart Curry

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The Regionalist Vision of John Steuart Curry
Written by Wendy Katz PhD, Guest Curator, "Curry's America:  The Regionalist Vision of John Steuart Curry," Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, Lincoln, Nebraska. Summer, 1999.

Summarizing his hopes for American art, John Steuart Curry told the Art Association of Wisconsin in 1937, "The social, political, and economic disturbances of the times have brought forth those artists who, taking their themes from these issues, have produced telling and effective works for the cause of social and political justice...Just give us time."  Curry certainly counted himself among those artists who chose what he called "alive and vital" subjects with clear social relevance, but a survey of his work reveals no lines of unemployed or crowded sweat shops, no political demagogues or bank failures, few eroded and dusty landscapes or machine-made products.  Instead, his primary subjects were cows and bulls, hogs and horses, farmers and preachers, circus performers and rural families, tornadoes and floods.  As he said, such subjects suggested that if he used "propaganda" in art, it was only to "make cows eat more grass and produce more milk."  Given that rather than painting the class struggle he painted the struggle of man against nature, why then would Curry and his contemporaries in the 1930s call him a leader of the "new movement" of modern American social art?1

The answer lies in the profoundly Regionalist nature of Curry's vision of the U.S. and in particular, the Regionalist aim of creating a distinctive - but pluralist - American culture, which would spring naturally from the traditions and values of past and present communities.  For Regionalists, any truly national style was impossible as long as American culture remained split between twin evils:  the lofty ideals of high art and the low economic goals of ordinary experience.  Writer Van Wyck Brooks, the subject of a Curry portrait and popularizer of the polarities "Highbrow" and "Lowbrow," observed that the problem with American art was that it had "an integrity as distinct from the multifarious chaotic life of the American people as the crust of a pie has from the less decorative contents it serves to conceal."2  Until the makers of culture found a connection between crust and filling, the elite and the masses, they would continue to produce art only for art's sake, and worse, attempt to graft such art onto the European modernist tradition rather than an American base.

To Brooks and his fellow critics, the only possibility for creating a whole and wholly American pie lay not in acknowledging that such cultural divisions were in fact typical, but in literally rooting artists in the soil;  finding artists who were an organic part of a community and represented their own experience in it.  The artist who was an integrated part of a particular place and time, responsive to and shaped by its customs and traditions, would naturally produce an American art that was inseparable from ordinary people's experience within the same community.  This emphasis on place - and the artist's connectedness to it - was the key to supplying the missing middle ground between art and making a living and thereby the key to creating an authentic (undivided) but unmistakably American culture.   When the University of Wisconsin's College of Agriculture - not the Art Department - offered Curry a job as artist-in-residence, the Western Union telegram stressed that the position was intended "for the development of regional art as a force for rural culture."   While Curry would be free to paint as he pleased, the premise that "Mr. Curry's own life and work is rooted in the soil and expresses in itself a profound understanding of the lives of the people" promised that he would fulfill the regionalist demand of creating a high art that was also an expression of all the members of a community.3 Curry's Monarch of the Glen, showing a monumental Hereford bull rising in massive, thick proportions above a flat landscape, in many ways fulfills the goal of regional art:  communities that raised a well-bred and excellent herd of cattle would have them celebrated on their walls.  The long straight line of neck and back, the deep chest, and full hindquarters, all the qualities of prize stock produced by scientific breeding and pasturage, are Curry's ideal of beauty, and replace the graceful air of Victorian painter Edward Landseer's aristocratic stag in the 1851 painting of the same name.

However, as most Regionalists acknowledged despairingly, most Americans were urban, highly mobile, bought mass-produced or standardized goods, and based political or economic decisions on individual or family interests;  in other words, Americans in general lacked a more than superficial vision of their relationship to a local community.  Since everything was up to date in Kansas City, a Missouri or Kansas artist lived and painted little differently than a New York one.   Accordingly, regionalist artists and writers went to considerable effort to seek economic backwaters in the U.S., where older community traditions, myths and customs either co-existed with modernization or could be convincingly recreated.  If they didn't exist, regionalists invented them, because their vision of society was prescriptive as much as realist:   art should offer resistance to the uniformity and commercial qualities of modern mass culture by upholding alternative symbols and images, which would derive their force and attractiveness from their source in local customs or beliefs.4

Curry did indeed stress his connections with a particular local place, as did his admirers.  The first sentence of his "Life and Letters" emulates the text of a dozen exhibition catalogs in emphasizing his authenticity as a man of the soil:  "I was born on a farm near Dunavant, Jefferson County, Kansas, in 1897 and my parents still live on the land."   However, in a typical pattern, his career as a regionalist began only when he left Kansas for New York and Paris, and his most famous paintings of Kansas were done in Connecticut.   After leaving home for two years of classes at the Chicago Art Institute, he moved to New York and studied with magazine illustrator Harvey Dunn.  His apprenticeship paid off in a successful career as an illustrator of short stories for periodicals like The Country Gentleman and the Saturday Evening Post, during which time he moved to Westport, Connecticut, the home of Brooks and a bohemian colony of fashion designers, socialists, and artists. 

His Interior of a Studio (ca. 1925), painted during this early period, suggests not so much the rustic Kansan as the aspirant to the ideal of art for art's sake.  It depicts a studio closed off from the outside world, and filled with objets d'art  selected on the basis of their formal qualities rather than any organic or natural connection:  a fishing net, a Japanese lantern, a straight-backed chair and apron, and a portrait of a woman in Victorian white.   The artist's refined sensibility, capable of perceiving the beauty of design in apparently unrelated objects, arranges them within the coherent geometry of a shallow space composed of crisp squares and rectangles:  the door frame, the picture frames, the floorboards.  Curry's other paintings from this period, such as the series done of Lake Otsego, near Cooperstown, New York, or of his house and cat, demonstrate his acquaintance with and skill at converting a landscape into an abstract design:  in Cat on Fence (1924), fence, feline and foliage become elements in an elegant, slightly stylized two-dimensional pattern.

For the cultural nationalists, such painting was condemned as effete and "precious;"   like Whistler's monogram of the butterfly, it suggested an image of the artist as floating above reality or roots (though at the same time curiously typically American in being rootless);  a form of perception that was pure surface in its concern for representing the superficial formal attributes of things, and so divorcing them from living culture and social realities.  Such an artist could never then achieve the aim of a distinctive American culture that unified art and life.  Curry very deliberately went to Paris to remedy just this literal and metaphoric lack of depth.  He studied at Boris Schoukhaieff's Academy, and he principally studied the figure.  In the academic tradition, his sketchbooks are filled not just with anatomical studies, but with how to convincingly represent the body in space, fully and clearly modelled in all its solidity and mass.

His paintings on his return from Paris show a dramatic departure from his earlier work, both in subject and style.  Spring, Barber City, done during a visit home in 1929, depicts what would become his typical Kansas landscape.  A raised foreground, with a road or fence line leading diagonally into the lower middle ground, where stocky buildings, trees or cattle create a focal point and unit of measurement, while hills, creeks, or lines of trees form looser swirling lines to the horizon's strong buttes and rises.  Unlike Cat on Fence, it is a landscape with depth, as well as a depiction of a recognizable specific place - his home.   His sketch for a Farmer's Wife (1940) shows his continuing application of his knowledge of form:  done in crayon, the woman's face emerges sharply and distinctly from the background. 

In later years, a student asked Curry what he meant "by the word "solidity" in an "arty" way" and whether this effect was achieved through color, shading, brushstroke or layers of paint.  Curry answered that solidity is sculpture-like solid form, achieved with light and shadow.5   Color came later, especially for Curry, usually in the layers of oil and varnish put atop forms already modelled in monochrome tempera.  The result is a curious separation between solid structure of forms, based on knowledge rather than the eye, and the creative exaggeration allowed in the layers of color, the location for personal reaction or originality of feeling, perhaps just because it is freed from the necessity of modelling masses.  His work over the next 15 years testifies that the solid was essential to him in a painting, because it was key to giving figures the symbolic monumentality dear to the regionalists' program for cultural formation.

Like other modernists, regionalists believed that art's integrative power could bring about social change, inspiring and unifying Americans with shared ideals, but they searched for collective symbols capable of doing so in the local and provincial rather than the subjective or universal realm.  In the words of Maynard Walker, Curry's New York dealer and fellow Kansan, Curry's paintings accurately depict but at the same time go beyond the "immediate, factual circumstances of humble life in the Middle West" to the "imponderable, elemental forces that, far beneath the surface, unite us all."6   He might depict the MidWest, but his style gave these images the depth that connected the tangible with the mythic, the aesthetic realm of feeling with ordinary experience.  In a lecture Curry gave several times, he lambasted 19th-century murals with their classicized allegorical goddesses as static, unchanging, and absent of real ideas, suited for museums rather than public buildings.  Modern civic symbols, to have the dramatic and emotional force required to unite people, needed to be found in the changing realities of the day.  Such modern art "lacks their refined elegance, our line is cruder, the mass more insistent," in accord with "that great part of America which has surged good-naturedly around and past the ballyhooers of the status quo and to the attractions at the other end of the fair ground."7    What is important in Curry's manifesto, is not that he truly discards the aim of 19th-century muralists to create public symbols, but that he argues they went about it the wrong way.  Rather than elevating the masses to an abstract ideal or virtue, he encourages the abstract ideal to find its embodiment in the mass.

Most of the images in this exhibiton take up precisely that subject:  Curry's effort to find and depict the regionalist civic ideal of the democratic, cooperative community with shared traditions, surviving in an age beset by standardization, rootlessness, and centralization.  To this end, he emphasized the persistence and survival of the past and its traditions, as a reminder that it had not been erased by modern technology.  He does this by using history to construct an ideal of the present, as when an illustration like Democratic Politicians in Kansas, showing a trio of 19th-century men talking, reappears in modern dress as Curry's Three Men Near Street (1941).  The anecdotal quality vanishes in the latter, but the theme remains the same:  that the 19th-century tradition of small-town democracy, conducted by informal gatherings of ordinary men in the street, persists in present-day customs, regardless of Good Government or machine politics.  He does this more literally, in Commerce, (1932), where Curry stands overall-clad men on the (sweep? cow catcher?) of an oncoming train.  Despite the nude figures in the upper corners, appropriate for an abstract subject, the train and its workers are set in a modern railyard, and the contrast of human and machine dramatizes not so much the inevitable triumph of modern progress over the regional as it suggests the adaptation of rural figures to it.  Later Curry would prominently use a similar vignette for his Washington DC mural of the Oklahoma Land Rush;  after all, commercial-minded men and women, bearers of technology as well as tradition, had created much of the Midwest's distinctive character.   That this was indeed a regionalist point of view is clarified by the fact that the government mural commissioners forced him to remove that particular scene to the far background.

If Commerce reassured that the rural had always survived in tandem with the modern, Curry also showed new forms of community developing within that modern world.  His Cattle Fair (1933), with its group of men gathered to gossip and conduct business in near timeless fashion, coexists with Diner Scene (1934), where a cafe becomes a new small-town hub for men and women, dressed for business or shopping, to work and socialize.  The circus itself was a particularly inclusive community, as Beauty and Clowns (1932) suggests, one that in its variety and extremes was and is pluralist, housing its diversity under one big tent, in the still popular political metaphor.  In 1932, Curry travelled with the Ringling Brothers circus for six months and began a series of paintings and sketches of its star performers.  But the circus's general mode of production and distribution were also appealing to a regionalist, since the skills of aerialists like the Cadonas in Passing Leap (1932), as well as jugglers and animal trainers, are handed down through families, apprenticeships and an oral tradition, while the circus itself was an entertainment that found a popular audience without being a standardized or centralized production, as it travelled through the country.  In Touchdown, done while artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin, the emphasis is more on the audience and the idea of the game as an autumn community ritual and tradition, marked with music, pennants, and cheering crowds - not unlike the audience and spectacle of the visiting circus.

Curry was not purely celebratory.  He painted negative examples of communities formed by destructive forces, such as the men huddled together in Hobos (1930), or more frighteningly, the lawlessness behind Man Hunt (1931), which he developed into the anti-lynching theme of paintings like The Fugitive, Lawless of the Country, and Justice Defeating Mob Violence.   Curry felt ardently about this issue;  he had memories of hearing man hunts pass by as a boy, and when he did this sketch for Man Hunt in 1931, a hastily convened all-white jury had just convicted nine black youths of rape and sentenced 8 of them to death in the infamous Scottsboro affair.  He later contributed work to the controversial exhibition An Art Commentary on Lynching, sponsored by the NAACP in 1935.  But when he came to design the mural of Justice Defeating Mob Violence for the Federal Justice Department, he had trouble painting in the face of the leader of the mob.  He tried a skull or death's head, but ended up with a masked face;  putting an American 'type' to the image of lawlessness and by implication, racism, was not possible for him. Curry's series of sketches of the path and wake of tornadoes seem to speak to the negative theme of a community threatened or destroyed by overpowering natural forces.  In one sense, the drawings are simply preparatory sketches for oil paintings like The Tornado, but in this early form, done immediately after a tornado hit near his family home, Curry depicts a devastated landscape with all human effort laid waste and dispersed into chaos.  Yet the knowledge is there too for viewers that this scene is not permanent, that Midwesterners survive natural disasters - Curry also painted floods and storms - and persist in the landscape because neighbors, with government assistance, come together to help each other rebuild.  Some ten years later, Curry would paint America Facing the Storm (1941), showing the threat of natural disaster pulling the townspeople into a common feeling and action;  the grand scale of the picture - despite or because of its destination as a layout in Esquire magazine - indicate clearly enough that the storm is a symbolic one:  the "mortal storm" of war.

The grander scale and sweep of America Facing the Storm is typical of much of his work after 1937, due not just to the propaganda requirements of World War II, but also to his numerous mural commissions for schools and government buildings.  Murals were extremely popular with regionalists because they offered the chance to invent a "usable past" and have it brought to a large public audience.   This concept of a usable past was an extremely pragmatic approach to history in stressing that the meaning of the past had no objective reality, but rather is "an inexhaustible storehouse of apt attitudes and adaptable ideals," from which artists could select those experiences with value for themselves - and for the present and the future.   There was no canon of what ought to be remembered for regionalists, though they tended to stress the cooperative motif of pioneer families, for simply showing that people in the past  had also struggled against appalling obstacles would help bring about "that sense of brotherhood in effort and in aspiration which is the best promise of a national culture."8     In his mural commissions, Curry was usually assigned a general historical subject - the Emigration Westward, the History of Kansas, the Emancipation Proclamation, etc. - and had the freedom to create a design that would convey the most usable (to the present) meaning of that history.

John Brown (1939), a lithograph taken from a study for the central figure of "The Tragic Prelude," the murals for the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka, shows how Curry assigned meaning to the past.  Rather than a cheery incident or realist attention to historical costume and setting, Curry chose to feature a figure whose career exemplified - to Curry - both the past and present dangers of religious fanaticism and the heroism of the fight for civil rights.  Brown's figure, in the pose of a crucifixion, is enlarged to gigantic proportions, double that of those around him, to express his importance as a Civil War martyr, with his wind-blown head silhouetted against a tornado, a symbol of the War's destruction and of Brown himself, the "Cyclone of Kansas."  In the shadows at either side of Brown are slaves and soldiers from the North and South, and behind them, pioneers trekking west.  Curry's design monumentalizes Brown to create a dramatic icon, who, if not worthy of direct emulation in the present, was still a symbol of human willingness to battle insuperable obstacles.  Not everyone, however, agreed with Curry's selection of what was usable in Kansas's past;  admirers of Brown disliked the open-mouthed fanaticism of the portrayal, while boosters disliked having tornadoes and violence identified as the spirit of the state.  The criticism helped derail the Topeka mural program, which was never completed.

In January of 1941, Curry left Maynard Walker's Gallery for the Associated American Artists (AAA) Gallery.  He was happy with the decision;  during that year he received some $4000 in commissions.  Certainly, the mission statement of AAA, to give contemporary artists a place and stature in society by giving them a social function, suited Curry's ideals:  "Art is of value to society, and that society will see its value if it is exposed under conditions corresponding to those accepted sales practices by which values are established in ordinary commerce...without public interest and insight the life of the artist is likely to be crowded into narrow corners, and that his art will be narrow correspondingly."9   To dealers like Walker, such an approach to art smacked of Bloomingdale's.  Indeed, AAA found Curry commissions from a number of more popular outlets for art, in particular original works done for reproduction in magazines like Life, McCall's, and Esquire;  but they and Curry also eagerly sought corporate sponsorship, whether "notable paintings of the tobacco country by America's foremost artists" for Lucky Strike, or Hershey's payment for paintings of Cuban sugar fields, or "oil interests'" backing for Curry's trip to Panama.  Curry's official biographer notes that this turn toward the commercial was part of Curry's sense of social responsibility and his vision of the artist as a useful part of society.10  This is certainly true and testifies to the success of the regionalist program of making art and culture a part of ordinary life, rather than occupying a sphere reserved for the elite -  though credit for this should go more to the other of Curry's achievements, public education's inclusion of the arts in the curriculum.  But the collapse of local art into national corporate advertising was a long way from the regionalists' dream of a unified American culture that could resist commercial standardization.


1. Curry is quoted in Morris Rubin, "The Spark for the Cultural Enrichment of Rural Life," Wisconsin State Journal, December 4, 1936.  Curry Papers, Roll 165 of the Archives of American Art.  Thomas Craven, Modern Art (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1934) p. 370.
2. Brooks, "America's Coming of Age," 1915
3. Telegram from the University of Wisconsin to Curry, 1936.  Dean Chris Christensen, foreword, Exhibition of Work by John Steuart Curry, Wisconsin Union, 1937.  Curry Papers, Roll 168 of the Archives of American Art.
4. On the Regionalist cultural and political program, see Richard Dorman, Revolt of the Provinces
5. Letter from Mrs. Millard Smith, Lancaster, WI, to Curry, January 26, 1944.  His reply is dated Feb. 21, 1944.  Curry Papers, Roll 167 of Archives of American Art.
6. Walker, ibid, p.2.
7. "Address before the Art Association of Madison:  American Painting," January 19, 1937.  Typescript. p. 5.  Curry Papers, Roll 164, Archives of American Art.
8. Brooks, "On Creating a Usable Past," The Dial, 1917-1918.  Sue Kendall analyzes the usable past as it appears in Curry's murals in >>>
9. "What the Associated American Artists Stand For," August 31, 1944, typescript.
10. Laurence Schmeckebier, John Steuart Curry's Pageant of America, (New York: American Artists Group, 1943) pp. 261-266.