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After Many Springs: Regionalism, Modernism & the Midwest

January 30 - May 17, 2009


The Des Moines Art Center is presenting After Many Springs: Regionalism, Modernism & the Midwest, an exhibition larger in scope, complexity, audiences served, and impact in the region and nation than any project the Art Center has undertaken. This is the first exhibition to address the artistic battles that were waged simultaneously in New York and the Midwest during the 1930s and the early 1940s. It provides a fresh look at regionalism and modernism through not only works of art but also ephemera such as magazines, books, films, and exhibition notices. It is hoped that the project will add to a new discourse on the subject, collapsing current distinctions between the two movements.


About the exhibition:

In the midst of the Great Depression, one of the most contentious and fractious artistic debates emerged, one that pitted progressive modernist figures, such as Jackson Pollock, Charles Sheeler, and Philip Guston, against artists who sought a revival of tradition. Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood fought against abstraction, believing that American subjects should be conveyed only by straightforward, recognizable imagery. Debra Bricker Balken, guest curator, notes in the exhibition catalogue that as a key regionalist painter, "Wood's canvases came with the bonus of a recognizable subject, one that was bucolic and idyllic, that provided instant uplift and gratification."

While Benton would become one of the most vocal spokespersons for the movement that became known as regionalism, his painting, like that of Wood, actually had its origins in abstraction and the modernist movement. Balken notes that Benton explicitly stated, "I believe the representation of objective forms and the representation of abstract ideas of form to be of equal artistic value." Yet, according to Balken, "Benton construed modernism's range, in short, as too narrowly prescribed by a mandate for invention; he believed that it ought to be able to encompass the figure." She goes on to say, "Benton realized . . . that he would never be able to fully comprehend a devotion to abstract painting, finding its mission both too utopian and too speculative for him, as it lacked the foundation of tried traditions that figures such as Michelangelo had long since established."

Drawing on the work of artists such as Benton, Curry, and Wood, as well as Margaret Bourke-White, Guston, Dorothea Lange, Pollock, Ben Shahn, Sheeler, and others, After Many Springs aims to rethink and probe such terms as regionalism and modernism. While these movements are usually seen as opposites, this exhibition aims to challenge that perception by highlighting the various formal and thematic correspondences that subtly weave them together.

Comprised of painting, photography, and documentary film, acknowledging that all three media became implicated in these debates, the works in this exhibition portray not only the Midwest landscape, but convey complex issues prevalent in the Depression era, including poverty, racism, and ecological devastation. Approximately seventy-five works of art and ephemera will be presented. The complete project includes the exhibition, a significant publication of approximately 200 pages which will be sdistributed internationally through Yale University Press, extensive marketing strategies, and a wide variety of educational outreach programs.

After Many Springs is organized by guest curator Debra Bricker Balken (who is nationally known for her work on American modernism) and Art Center Director Jeff Fleming.

The exhibition has been made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius. Additional support has been provided by Roberta and Howard Ahmanson; Hometown Perry, Iowa; Humanities Iowa; the Iowa Arts Council; the Robert Lehman Foundation; the Meredith Corporation Foundation; the National Endowment for the Humanities; and the Principal Financial Group Foundation, Inc. The views and opinions expressed by this exhibition and related programming do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities Iowa or the National Endowment for the Humanities 



On view will be Thomas Hart Benton's After Many Springs, Grant Wood's American Gothic (on view through March 29), Jackson Pollock's The Flame, John Steuart Curry's Kansas Cornfield, Charles Sheeler's Classic Landscape, Margaret Bourke-White's Oliver Chilled Plow series, Pare Lorentz's The Plow that Broke the Plains, and Arthur Rothstein's Farmer and Sons in Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma to name just a few.


Exhibition catalogue:

After Many Springs will be accompanied by a substantial catalogue of approximately 200 pages that will include a foreword and acknowledgements by Jeff Fleming, director of the Des Moines Art Center. Guest-curator Debra Bricker Balken will contribute a 30,000 word essay. The publication will also include a checklist, index, and color plates of all featured works (approximately 75 in total). Yale University Press will distribute the catalogue, which will insure widespread national and international distribution of the publication.


(above: Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), After Many Springs,1945, Oil and tempera on Masonite, 30 x 22 1/4 inches. Collection of the Thomas Hart Benton Estate. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY) 


(above: Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985), Farmer and Sons in Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936, Gelatin silver print, 8 1/4 x 9 1/4 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri (Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc.) 2005.27.4330. Image courtesy the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Photograph by John Lamberton) 

Resource Library editor's notes

The Des Moines Art Center asked Resource Library to emphasize that although the exhibition runs through May 17, American Gothic will only be on view through March 29.


About Debra Bricker Balken, author of the catalogue essay:

Debra Bricker Balken is Guest-curator of After Many Springs: Regionalism, Modernism & the Midwest, and author of the catalogue essay for the exhibition. Ms. Bricker in 1980 received an M.A. in Art History from the University of Chicago. In 1977/78 she engaged in Post-Graduate Studies in Art History at the University of Edinburgh under a William Dickson Travelling Fellowship. In 1977 she received a B.A. in Art History from the University of British Columbia. She has written numerous articles, essays, and reviews on modernist and contemporary artists and curated many exhibitions during her career. Recent visiting professorships have been at Rhode Island School of Design, Williams College, Mount Holyoke College, Institute of Fine Arts - New York University and Brown University.
-- excerpted from information provided by Des Moines Art Center


More about the exhibition catalogue:

Google Books says:

After Many Springs: Regionalism, Modernism, and the Midwest
By Debra Bricker Balken, Jeff Fleming
Contributor Jeff Fleming
Edition: illustrated
Published by Yale University Press, 2009
ISBN 0300135866, 9780300135862
125 pages
After Many Springs is the title of a Thomas Hart Benton painting that evokes nostalgia for a fertile, creative time gone by. This bold new book -- taking the name of this work by Benton -- examines the intersections between Regionalist and Modernist paintings, photography, and film during the Great Depression, a period when the two approaches to art making were perhaps at their zenith.
It is commonly believed that Regionalist artists Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood reacted to the economic and social devastation of their era by harking back in tranquil bucolic paintings to a departed utopia. However, this volume compares their work to that of photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn and filmmakers such as Josef von Sternberg-all of whom documented the desolation of the Depression-and finds surprising commonalities. The book also notes intriguing connections between Regionalist artists and Modernists Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston, countering prevailing assumptions that Regionalism was an anathema to these New York School painters and showing their shared fascination with the Midwest.

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