Against the Grain: Modernism in the Midwest

Santos Zingale (1908-1999)(/br)White Station, 1948(/br) Oil on masonite panel, 23.25 x 30.875 Milwaukee Art Museum Gift of Gimbel Bros., Milwaukee

Any discussion of American Modernism begins in New York.  Legendary figures like Stieglitz and events like the 1913 Armory Show form our shared perception about the movement and its rise to prominence.  Such certainty provides clarity, but it can also limit our ability to appreciate how ideas flow through communities.

In Against the Grain: Modernism in the Midwest curator Christine Fowler Shearer – former director of the Massillon Museum of Art – examines the modernist impulse far from New York.

Concentrating on works produced between 1900 and 1950, the exhibit features 65 paintings from 34 artists, where most have had roots that continue to thrive in vibrant immigrant communities throughout the Midwest.  Because of that fact, Shearer convincingly argues that progressive ideas also came to the region through family ties and direct connections to European artists.

Manierre Dawson (1887-1969), Differential Complex, 1910, Oil on board, 54.61 x 44.45 cm Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund

William Sommer was the son of German emigrants and became a commercial lithographer in Cleveland before traveling to Munich in 1890 to further his education.  A patchwork of experiences – including his friendships with artists who studied in Paris – led him to develop a curious blend of German Expressionism and regional scene painting.  Sommer’s “The Pool,” (c. 1918) is dream-like and symbolic while “Blue Dairy Cart,” (1917-18) is an evocative record of place.

Born to Sicilian emigrants, Santos Zingale documented Wisconsin’s rural, urban, and political landscape.  Having studied under John Steuart Curry, an embrace of regionalism would have seemed a foregone conclusion.  But paintings like “White Station,” from 1936 reveal an artist composing with simple graphic shapes and patterns.  Chicagoan Manierre Dawson used his training in mathematics and engineering to produce full-fledged abstractions as early as 1910.  In “Differential Complex,” (1910) a rhythmic array of lines and ovals suggest equations, charts, and symbols.

William Sommer (1867-1949), Blue Dairy Cart, 1917-18, Oil on board, 16 1/2 x 23 1/2 Collection of John and Susan Horseman, Courtesy of Keny Galleries, Columbus, Ohio

Against the Grain reveals the Midwest as a surprisingly vibrant crossroads – a mingling place, where ideas were far more than novelty.  An extension of the ethos found in many emigrant communities, modernist thought provided a blend of the old world with the new.  For most artists in the show, it was a way to translate everyday life in contemporary terms.

Against the Grain is on view from Nov 4 – Jan 9 at the Ohio Arts Council’s Riffe Gallery, Columbus, Ohio.

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