March 6, 2012
Keichel Fine Art in Lincoln, Nebraska is currently exhibiting a fascinating mystery picture, Landscape with a River and Hills, popularly known as The Bigfoot Landscape. While it has some awkward features and is not included in any of the existing publications about Grant Wood, a number of scholars believe that it is indeed by Wood. But two of Wood’s biographers, James Denis and Wanda Corn, have rejected the piece, though in a recent letter Corn has softened her stance to what I take as a “maybe.” Which way is the truth?
If it is by Grant Wood it’s an important discovery, since paintings in Wood’s mature style are as rare as Vermeers: after Wood developed this style in American Gothic, he produced only a little over 30 paintings.
Decisions like this are resolved through a sort of scholarly consensus. And while we like to pretend that our decisions are based on solid evidence, often our evidence is much less than complete. What’s interesting in this case is that while the attribution depends partly on technical considerations—the materials and techniques employed in the painting—ultimately the decision rests on something more complex and in some ways subjective. Does the picture reflect the mind of Grant Wood? Does it seem to be the product of his imagination?
Let me briefly present the case that it does: I’m one of the scholars who believes that Wood produced the painting. In fact, I wrote about the work in the 2011 Vivian Kiechel Fine Arts catalogue.
I first saw the painting during a research trip to Iowa City, for a book I’m hoping to write about Grant Wood. At that point the painting was in a private collection, and I expressed my opinion that Wood had done it. Doubtless for that reason the gallery asked me to write about the painting when it was put up for sale. I then ran through all the arguments even more carefully than before, and I became more convinced that my feeling about the painting is right.
Let me warn you, I think the artwork is unique: a painting that Wood abandoned halfway through. That would at least partly explain why it looks so odd. (Of course, the final answer to the question of the painting’s authenticity will have an enormous effect on the work’s value.)
What do we see in the work? Like several paintings by Grant Wood, Landscape portrays the sort of gently rolling terrain characteristic of eastern Iowa. There’s a river with a bridge and a road leading into the distance; sprinkled over the landscape are corn fields, corn shocks and a red silo. In the left foreground is a “dancing tree.” The oddest feature of the painting is a hill just across the river on the left, which has a shape that resembles a human foot, with eight green shrubs that seem to form “toes.” It’s precisely this bizarre feature that makes me think the painting is by Grant Wood.
The painting originally hung in Wood’s studio, according to two credible witnesses: Park Rinard, who became Wood’s publicity manager and secretary, and Dr. Titus Evans, a radiologist of international repute, who was Wood’s physician and also an amateur painter. It’s not clear when Wood first hung this painting in his studio. Rinard, who connected with Wood around 1934-35 when Wood moved to Iowa City, once commented “that painting was always around.” According to Dr. Evans’ widow, on several occasions her husband attempted to purchase the painting, but Wood refused, perhaps because he considered it incomplete. In December of 1941, shortly after a cancer operation, Wood gave the painting to Dr. Evans, and he passed away shortly afterwards, on February 12, 1942.
James S. Horns of Minneapolis, who has conserved many of Grant Wood’s paintings, reports in a letter of October 1, 2008 that the materials in the painting are consistent with other paintings by Wood. Specifically: it is executed on a rather heavy cotton canvas similar to some used by him; the canvas was covered with a white ground heavily applied with broad brushstrokes, similar to that found in many of his paintings; and the picture surface contains an uneven coating of pigment that has been partially rubbed off to leave a glaze or scumble, as is often found in paintings by Wood. While Horn notes that analysis of technical issues by itself is not sufficient to provide “absolute confirmation” of the attribution to Wood, he concludes that “the materials and technique would support an attribution to Wood and no features were seen that are inconsistent with his work.”
The general repertory of elements is one that appears frequently in Wood’s oeuvre. The slowly moving river, the gentle hills, the cornfields and corn shocks, the silo, the trees (some with autumnal foliage), the road running at a diagonal and then turning at a right angle—all form part of Wood’s fundamental grammar of expression, which he constantly rearranged, like a writer rearranging words in a sentence. The elements in the foreground are particularly close to Wood’s painting The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, executed in 1931. Interestingly, the composition of the painting seems to follow a design method that Wood employed on other occasions. It is roughly divided into three equal horizontal bands and is crisscrossed by diagonals that point to the corners or to other key points on this geometric grid. Wood taught this method of design to his students at the University of Iowa, and it can often be found in his landscapes, notably his lithograph March, of 1941, where this method is clearly demonstrated.
But Landscape completely lacks the fine detail that we generally find in Wood’s paintings after 1930: if it is a work by Grant Wood, it must be one that he left unfinished.
To me, the most compelling reason for the attribution is the curious sense of humor in the work—a sense of humor that is rather childlike. Wood’s paintings are filled with pun-like elements, which are sometimes downright naughty, as in his Daughters of Revolution, in which the three elderly women resemble Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in drag. In Landscape, the most peculiar and remarkable element in the painting is the hill in the shape of a human foot, with shrubs for toes. In some fashion I believe this is a reference to a silly hoax Wood once carried out, a prank that was significant to him and formed part of his personal mythology.
In 1916, while in his mid-20s, Wood and his friend Paul Hanson constructed two small homes in Kenwood Park, Cedar Rapids, one for the Hansons and one for himself, his mother and his sister. Around this time, after reading about the alleged discovery of human bones and a kitchen in Horsethief’s Cave, northeast of Kenwood, a hoax which brought crowds of spectators to view the cave, Wood decided to create a “Superhoax” of his own. As his first biographer Darrell Garwood reported:
He carved a foot eighteen inches long out of wood and made footprints in the ravine leading from Cook’s Pond. With his monster picture and the footprints as proof, he tried to convince the newspapers that a giant had risen up from the pond and then clumped off down the ravine. As it turned out, he didn’t succeed in luring the newspapers. But he did use the footprints: he cast them in concrete and laid them as a sidewalk from front to back of the house he was to occupy; the concrete footprints were spaced so that it looks as though a giant had just knocked at the front door and then hurried around the corner of the house.” (Darrell Garwood, Artist in Iowa, A Life of Grant Wood, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1944, page 53.)
The same story is told with slight variations by Wood’s sister Nan:
About two miles away was Cook’s pond, which Grant called “Corot’s pond.” On hot summer evenings, he and Paul Hanson would swim there. As a hoax, Grant made molds and cast some giant footprints, pressing them into the sand to make tracks leading to the pond. Then he dove in and came up with his head covered with decaying leaves and dripping mud. Paul took a picture of this horrible creature. Grant made more of the giant footprints in concrete and used them a stepping stones from our house to a rustic bridge he built over a tiny stream in our back yard. (Nan Wood Graham (with John Zug and Julie Jensen McDonald, My Brother Grant Wood, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1993, pages 25-26.)
My belief is that the hillside shaped like a foot in Landscape is an allusion to this hoax—or, if you wish, an extension of it into a new and somewhat different artistic statement. In other words, the huge foot visible in the hillside conjures up the fantasy that “Bigfoot” is at loose. In my opinion he was sufficiently taken with this theme to execute the work at least to the stage of under-painting the canvas; but then he ran out of energy or enthusiasm when faced with the task of perfecting the finish of his creation—perhaps because the conceit was too slight and too whimsical to justify a fully polished painting. Instead, he hung the incomplete painting in his studio, waiting for some further bit of inspiration to complete the painting—a moment that never came.
So I believe the mystery painting is by Grant Wood in part because of its provenance, in part because its materials are consistent with Grant Wood and in part because its composition ties in with known works by him. But the most compelling factor is that the piece’s strange humor fits with what we know about Grant Wood’s personality—and not with that of any other artist.
Someday, perhaps there will be a scholarly consensus. But as of today, the jury is out. Am I correct that Grant Wood made this picture? Have you been persuaded?
November 17, 2011
It’s enough to make you want to start doing the Charleston: A masterpiece of earthenware, a Jazz Bowl by Viktor Schreckengost, has been newly acquired and newly displayed at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama. In my view, the Jazz Bowl —several dozen of which were produced—has emerged in the last decade as not only the single finest example of American Art Deco, but as an icon of a new mode of American cultural identity.
Viktor was just 25 years old when he made the first piece at the Cowan Pottery Studio in Rocky River, Ohio, in 1930. One day at the studio’s office when he didn’t have an assignment, as the story goes, he pulled a letter out of a hopper. A woman in New York wanted a punch bowl with a New York theme.
Viktor started by making a plaster mold of the shape—a bold parabolic form. The next challenge was to decorate it. A few months before, he had spent Christmas Eve in New York City, where he was impressed by the skyscrapers, went to Radio City where an organ rose up out of the floor, and took in the music of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club in Harlem. He sketched all these images in a jazzy style. One of the last things he put in was a drum head with the word “Jazz,” which ended up providing a name for the piece.
To achieve his desired effect he developed a novel technique. First he covered the bowl with black engobe—watery clay mixed with glaze. He then scratched out the design, in a pattern of black and white; fired it; then covered the whole bowl with a glaze of “Egyptian Blue”—a sort of radiant turquoise, similar to that of some beads found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. He then fired it again. The result was richly decorative, since the irregular scratching of the design created a kind of glow, almost like stained glass. And the Egyptian Blue evoked a feeling he was trying to capture—his recollection of the strange blue light of New York at night.
When it was done, Guy Cowan sent the piece to New York—and promptly heard back that the woman who had commissioned it wanted two more. Only then did Viktor learn that the woman was Eleanor Roosevelt.
After Viktor produced the Jazz Bowls for Roosevelt, Cowan Pottery put it into production. But the company folded in 1931, done in by the Depression. It’s not known exactly how many Jazz Bowls were made, but probably about 50 large ones similar to the original and perhaps as many as 25 of a different design that was less expensive to make, sometimes known as “The Poor Man’s Bowl.” Since the decoration was scratched out by hand the large bowls all differ a good deal in execution. It’s not known what happened to the bowls that were made for Eleanor, although her role in providing the commission is documented in newspaper articles from the 1930s, so I believe that the story is true.
The son of a potter, Viktor Schreckengost was born in Sebring, Ohio, and died in 2008 at the age of 101. (Two of his brothers, Don and Paul, were also major figures in ceramic design.) Viktor was one of the founding figures of modern industrial design in the United States. His credits include the first modern mass-produced American dinnerware, the first cab-over-engine truck, the first inexpensive children’s pedal cars and the first bicycle welded in a single step in an electric brazing chamber—an innovation that cut production cost by 50 percent and was used in some 50 million bicylces. He also designed costumes, stage sets, lighting fixtures and lawn furniture; produced watercolors and oil paintings, many of which won prizes in museum exhibitions, and monumental sculpture, for the Cleveland Zoo and the high school in Lakewood, Ohio; and founded the industrial design program of the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he taught for over 50 years. Among Viktor’s students were the designer of the Ford Mustang. (A museum dedicated to Viktor’s work was scheduled to open in Cleveland this past June, but the debut has been delayed.)
Artworks derive meaning not only from the thought and feeling that the artist put into them, but from where they are placed. There’s poignancy to having a Jazz Bowl in Birmingham, which as everyone knows was the site of one of the most ghastly atrocities of the Civil Rights era, when the Klu Klux Klan placed a bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church and killed four young African-American girls. But Birmingham is also a city that has gone to great lengths to atone. The art museum has built up an important collection of works by African-American artists, and it’s not far from the Birmingham Civil Rights District, where the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame are located.
In this context, Viktor’s Jazz Bowl has a special resonance. Viktor’s central goal in creating Jazz Bowl was to find a visual analogue to black jazz music. Indeed, he himself was something of a musician (he played the clarinet) and a personal friend of such jazz greats as Art Tatum. Let’s not pretend that this sort of cross-over can be achieved in an absolutely perfect way, based on perfect understanding, or entirely liberated from the cultural norms of a period. Nonetheless, Jazz Bowl marks a significant turning point in American culture, when a white artist could look to black jazz music as a paradigm of great artistic achievement—as something to ardently celebrate, a model for what he hoped to achieve in the visual arts.
In short, Jazz Bowl marks step toward a new kind of cultural conversation—one that needs to be continued further. What’s more, it’s stunningly beautiful. It’s something not to be missed.
November 7, 2011
I felt a tinge of sorrow when I learned that the collection of books and prints owned by the late Creekmore Fath would be going up for sale at the auctioneer Doyle New York on November 8. But the sale provides an occasion to write a brief tribute to a truly memorable American character, and one of the most important collectors of the great American artist Thomas Hart Benton.
I first met Creekmore in Kansas City back in the mid 80s, when I had just started doing research on Benton. He was a distinguished, courtly man whom I never saw without a bow tie; he was also the product of rural Texas, who spent much of his life in the rough-and-tumble of state politics. Though fascinated by gentility and eager to join the ranks of the elite, he was also the champion of the poor and dispossessed and an early, ardent champion of civil rights. Like America itself, his personality was the synthesis of different constituencies, some of them in harmony, others discretely at odds with each other.
The bewilderingly different sides of Creekmore’s personality were expressed by the house’s long tunnel of a library, filled with books that mirrored his various enthusiasms, including American political history, the Bloomsbury group and its offshoots (he had a notable collection of letters from D. H. Lawrence), and American literature (he had innumerable first editions, many of them signed, by writers ranging from Sinclair Lewis to Henry Miller).
Surely the highlight was the collection of Benton prints—the most complete in private hands. Benton was the unapologetic artist of the American heartland, a figure who, like Creekmore himself, bridged traditional boundaries. Creekmore’s collection will be dispersed, but his catalogue raisonne of Benton’s prints remains one of the most remarkable books in the American field.
Born in Oklahoma, Creekmore Fath grew up in Cisco and Fort Worth, Texas, and in 1931 his family moved to Austin, so he could attend the university there. After getting a law degree, Creekmore practiced law in Austin for about a year, then went to Washington as acting counsel to a congressional subcommittee investigating the plight of migrant farm workers. He went on to serve in a variety of legal posts in Washington, including a stint with Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House, and he returned to Texas in 1947 after marrying Adele Hay, the granddaughter of McKinley’s Secretary of State, John Hay.
Creekmore ran for Congress, campaigning in a car with a canoe on top, which carried the slogan: “He paddles his own canoe.” As an FDR liberal democrat in a conservative state, he was paddling upstream, and was soundly defeated. He helped Lyndon Johnson win the 1948 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate by defeating former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, by 87 votes. During McGovern’s failed presidential run in 1972, Creekmore became friendly with an eager young organizer in his twenties, Bill Clinton; and years later, on the occasion of Creekmore’s 80th birthday, he was rewarded with a sleepover in the Lincoln bedroom of the White House. He died in 2009 at age 93.
For some reason, Creekmore was a born collector. Book and art collecting were part of his being. As he once wrote: “The desire to collect, and the pleasure derived from each acquisition, are as exciting and compelling as passionate love.” He got started early. As he once recalled:
My first venture at collecting art took place at the age of twelve, as the result of an advertisement in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For the sum of one dollar I acquired ‘genuine reproductions’ of three of Rembrandt’s greatest etchings: Dr. Faustus, The Three Trees, and The Mill. I still have them.
His Benton collection got its start in 1935 when he clipped a New York Times advertisement for Associated American Artists (AAA), which was offering prints by living American artists for five dollars each. Four years later, he ordered a print from AAA—Benton’s I Got a Gal on Sourwood Mountain—purchasing it with part of the fee that he received from the first law case that he tried.
The collection grew, particularly during the 1960s, when he was working as counsel to a Senate Committee chaired by Ralph Yarborough, whom he had helped elect. During this period he was often in New York and had many opportunities to purchase prints from the Weyhe bookstore, the Sylvan Cole Gallery and other sources. When he wrote to the New Britain Museum in New Britain, Connecticut, which was said to have a complete collection, he found that he had several which they did not know about. Before long he realized that he was compiling a catalogue raisonne—a complete listing of Benton’s prints. And this led him into correspondence with the artist himself.
Creekmore had a bit of bluster and definite sense of his own importance. But what’s remarkable about his catalogue raisonne of Benton’s prints is its modesty. Much art history is about the art historian rather than the art—almost as if the art historian were standing in front of the work of art, blocking the spectator’s view. Creekmore had the genius to step aside and let the artist speak for himself. His vision of the shape the book could take flashed into his mind during his very first exchange of letters with Benton, in January of 1965, when the artist wrote:
P. S. I assume you are a Texan. It might interest you to know that I am half Texan myself. My mother came from Waxahachie and I knew the country thereabouts quite well as a boy. My grandfather had a cotton farm a few miles from town. The lithograph Fire in the Barnyard represents an incident which occurred on an adjoining farm when I was around ten or eleven years old.
It occurred to Creekmore that Benton’s comments about his prints might be valuable. Indeed, the final catalogue has a brief listing of each print, its date, how many impressions were printed and perhaps a few additional comments, followed by a space in which he provided Benton’s remarks about each subject—in Benton’s handwriting. (Benton’s letters to Creekmore will be included in the Doyle sale.) Since Benton made prints that record the compositions of most of his major paintings, the result is one of the best records anywhere of Benton’s achievement. When I wrote a biography of Benton back in the 1980s I referred to it constantly; along with Benton’s autobiography, An Artist in America, it was my single most valuable printed source.
Creekmore’s collection of Benton was missing only four early prints, which exist in just one or two proofs. When I last spoke to Creekmore, he indicated that he was planning to donate his collection to the University of Texas at Austin. but for whatever reason this never occurred. It’s a shame in a way since there are surprisingly few large gatherings of Benton prints in public collections: those at New Britain, and those at the State Historical Society in Columbia, Missouri are the only two I can think of that come close to being comprehensive. But perhaps it’s also fitting that a passionate collector should disperse his holdings so that they can be acquired by other devoted art-lovers like himself.
October 14, 2011
ARTiculations aims to shed light on art and comment on what’s happening in the world of art, artists, art museums and art history. The idea is to celebrate what’s best and most inspiring while not forgetting the diversity of the many corners of America.
It aspires to illuminate the serious ideas and deep feelings that lie behind great works of art; at the same time, we’re not afraid to see the ridiculous side of things or to poke fun at incompetence or pretentiousness.
In the end, it’s you, the viewer, who makes the work of art. Without you it’s nothing. We’d love to have your feedback.
About the author:
Henry Adams, a professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University, is the author of acclaimed biographies of important American artists. His works include Eakins Revealed:The Secret Life of an American Artist, which the painter Andrew Wyeth described as “without doubt the most extraordinary biography I have ever read on an artist,” Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original, What’s American about American Art, and, most recently, Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock.