Lincoln Journal Star reviews "Defining America" at Kiechel Fine Art

Strong regionalist show at Kiechel Fine Art includes rarities
L. Kent Wolgamott, Lincoln Journal Star
Published September 24, 2011

If you’re a regionalism fan, you’ll want to get to Kiechel Fine Art between now and Thanksgiving to catch “Defining America: Images of the 20th Century,” an exhibition that includes works by Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry — some of it rare and little seen.

The three big names of the mid-20th century movement associated with the Midwest are joined by lesser-known artists, such as Roger Medearis, Benton’s second most prominent student, who’s represented by a 1948 wagon train painting that very much reflects Benton’s stylistic influence. It’s “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” after the old folk song.

Benton’s most prominent student was Jackson Pollock, whose work certainly doesn’t look like regionalism. But the fact that Pollock studied with Benton is evidence of the prominence and respect of the regionalists in the 1930s and 1940s.

The best-known regionalist painting — and likely the best-known American painting ever — is Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” from 1930. The exhibition includes a Wood landscape that hung in his studio at the time of his death in 1942 that gallery Director Buck Kiechel says is the last post-“American Gothic” painting still on the market.

It’s in a fascinating cluster of Wood-related art and objects, feeling almost like a mini-museum exhibition.

It includes a shelf with three pieces of metal work (I didn’t know Wood worked with metal until I visited the gallery), including a tray that sat on his easel in which he kept hazelnuts. On the floor is his “wig trunk,” in which Wood stored, among other things, receipts for his work. That trunk was confiscated by the IRS when Wood failed to pay taxes.

On the wall is an ink drawing from 1908 that he did for his high school newspaper, a line-drawn owl on a branch with “The Pulse” and “February” lettered above and below. He signs it “Wood ’10,” which isn’t a reflection of the year it was made but his graduation date. The impressive drawing was done when he was a sophomore.

The Wood trunk is echoed by the marriage chest of Curry and his second wife, Kathleen, that sits on the other side of the gallery. Brightly painted by Curry, the chest was filled with random objects, such as his passport, when it was obtained by Kiechel.

The show includes two equally personal Curry paintings. One is a depiction of a cornfield with a central stalk dominating that Curry gave to Kathleen as a wedding present. The other is the only known portrait of his first wife, Clara, painted while Curry was in Paris in 1926.

The other notable Curry piece is the final study for “Western Migration,” a mural that is in the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

As for Benton, the show includes “Lumbermill,” an oil on masonite painting of a train sitting in the mill from 1928, the artist’s most important period; and “The Flood,” a 1938 painting of a flood on the Missouri River with a man sandbagging, an African-American family cooking on the riverbank and another family looking out at its flooded home. That painting has some serious resonance right now.

The exhibition includes a pair of Nebraskans, with a handful of paintings from Dale Nichols, the David City regionalist, and a very interesting piece from John Falter, a Falls City native who was one of the top midcentury magazine illustrators.

“Abraham Lincoln” was done as an illustration for a Readers Digest book by Carl Sandburg and shows Lincoln as a young Illinois lawyer standing in the middle of a field, probably corn, settling a fence dispute with a group of men. The tall, lanky Lincoln towers above the men, and he can’t be missed; he’s wiping his brow with a bright red handkerchief.

This sort of historic commercial gallery show is common in major markets, particularly New York, but it is rare in the middle of the country and in cities the size of Lincoln.

But because Kiechel Fine Art specializes in regionalism and has relationships with the artists’ families and estates, shows like “Defining America” are regular there. This one is particularly strong and informative and shouldn’t be missed.

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