In the 1930s, a trio of artists created Regionalism, a distinctively Midwestern painting movement.
The Regionalists — Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton, Iowa’s Grant Wood and Kansas’s John Steuart Curry — aimed at creating a genuine American art form, rejecting avant-garde styles for representation of small towns and rural life in the Heartland.
In Benton’s words:
“Together, we stood for an art whose forms and meanings would have direct and easily comprehended relevance to the American culture of which we were by blood and daily life a part.”
The paintings of the Regionalists, including Wood’s iconic “American Gothic,” can be found in prominent museums, in murals in government buildings and in private collections.
Now, more than 80 little-seen works by Curry can be viewed at Lincoln's Kiechel Fine Art, most of them included in “John Steuart Curry: A Regionalist Perspective,” an exhibition that will remain on display at the downtown gallery through Aug. 6.
Those oil and watercolor paintings, preparatory drawings and sketches are from Curry’s estate and family and private collections into which they were rapidly sold when they came on the market.
All but the latter are for sale at the gallery, which has handled Curry’s artwork for decades.
“We’ve represented the Curry estate, the John Steuart Curry family, since the mid-'90s,” said gallerist Buck Kiechel. “Curry died in 1946. We initially had his estate through his wife. She passed away on Sept. 10, 2001, three days short of her 103rd birthday. Now we have it through her grandchildren.
“The bulk of the collection we’re showing has been in storage in Rochester, New York, for the last 25 years. It’s from the John Steuart Curry trust. The proceeds go to the furthering of his name, his art.”
One of the most important paintings in “A Regionalist Perspective” just came off the wall of the Rochester Art Museum, where it has been on loan for years.
“Morning II (Sunrise Over Kansas),” a peaceful depiction of a Kansas sunrise that’s a counterpoint to Curry’s well-known paintings of the impending destruction of thunderstorms and tornadoes, was painted a year before his death — a strong example of his mature work.
It also, in a sense, caps what it is a chronological survey of Curry’s career that started in the 1920s, when he was studying in Paris, and continued after he ran off with the Ringling Brothers circus in 1932 — there’s a gem of a painting titled “Fire Diver” from 1934 — and was appointed artist in residence at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1936, an experience which generated a trio of images of football players (Badgers, not Jayhawks or Cornhuskers).
Through it all, Curry returned to depictions of the Kansas farm where he grew up: landscapes and storms, plus other images of rural life, like the religious revival of “Salvation in the Rock,” and Ajax, the bull which is one of his famous murals in the Kansas State Capitol and in preparatory drawings at Kiechel.
Thomas Hart Benton once said, “A play was written and a stage erected for us. Grant Wood became the typical Iowa small-towner; John Curry, the typical Kansas farmer; and I, just an Ozark hillbilly. We accepted our roles.”
The regionalist style fit those roles and, in its conservatism, the Midwest. Again, in the words of Benton, who served as the Regionalist spokesman:
“We objected to the new Parisian aesthetics, which was more and more turning away from the living world of active men and women into an academic world of empty pattern,” Benton wrote in his autobiography. “We wanted an American art which was not empty, and we believed that only by turning the formative processes of art back again to meaningful subject matter, in our cases specifically American subject matter, could we expect to get one.”
As can be seen by visiting Kiechel’s second floor — where a suite of small Benton paintings of “The Embarkment” of U.S. troops to World War II is on view along with some Curry pieces, including a drawing of “John Brown” and other studies for the Kansas statehouse murals — the Regionalists didn’t paint identically.
Nor does their work have the same emotional content, something Benton found in Curry’s work.
“It is not for me, yet standing, to judge our success as a whole. But I will risk this — whatever may be said of Grant Wood and me, it will surely able said of John Curry that he was the most simply human artist of his day. Maybe, in the end, that will make him the greatest.”
“A Regionalist Perspective” wouldn’t be widely expected to be found in Lincoln, Nebraska. Rather, it feels like should be in one of the houses-turned-galleries by New York dealers that specialize in historic and estate work.
That, to a large degree, describes Kiechel Fine Art.
“The regionalist artwork and early 20th century artwork is what allows our business to grow and prosper,” Kiechel said. “This is what makes our business go. Ninety percent of the work is sold outside Nebraska. A lot of the estate work starts online. Then a lot of it, I go traveling around the country — New York, Los Angeles, Dallas or wherever. Actually, we just sold a couple in the U.K. So it’s international.”
Kiechel always has Regionalist work by Benton, Curry and, usually, Nebraska Regionalist Dale Nichols on view in the second floor of the three-floor gallery at 1208 O St. But “70 percent of the people who come in here never make it past the first floor,” he said.
Until last month, when “John Steuart Curry: A Regionalist Perspective” opened, Kiechel had devoted its first floor — and curbside window view — to work from contemporary artists, many of them Nebraskans, such as Francisco Souto, Dan Howard, Keith Jacobshagen, Jenny Kruger, Hal Haloun and Aaron Holz.
In addition to handling the Curry estate, Kiechel works with the Benton family, selling work from its extensive holdings. Next year, Kiechel said, the gallery will present a major Benton exhibition, again making Lincoln an unlikely spot for such a show while confirming it as the go-to Regionalism outlet.