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Thursday, 14 February 2013 05:22

Modern Dialect: American Paintings from the John and Susan Horseman Collection


American art connoisseurs John and Susan Horseman have assembled a collection of American paintings that are being traveled by the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee. The exhibition, Modern Dialect: American Paintings from the John and Susan Horseman Collection, brings together sixty-eight paintings from the collection to explore artists and the works they created in the tumultuous years surrounding the two World Wars.

According to Kevin Sharp, the director of the Dixon and contributor to the exhibition catalogue, the paintings in the show are “a tribute to the quickening pace of American life in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s,” and an artistic response to social issues that emerged during that time.1 The exhibit is currently at Springfield Museums’ Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts (DMFA), where it spans two special exhibition and two flanking hallway galleries on the museum’s third level. Modern Dialect is displayed by sub-themes that provide an overview of early twentieth-century American history. These include the Early Modernist Period, America in Isolation, Seeking Community, American Industry, The Surreal Influence, and Toward Abstraction.

Brilliant red accent walls in the Wheeler Special Exhibition Gallery at the DMFA serve as a backdrop for works by early modernist artists such as George Bellows, Marsden Hartley, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and William Sommer (Fig. 1). America’s modernists were inspired by the radical European works they first encountered at the transformative Armory Show in 1913. But unlike their European artists, Bellows, Hartley, and the others responded in a more intuitive way than their European counterparts, relying less on narrative and more on emotion.

In the same gallery, chilling images by Charles Burchfield (In Memoriam), John Steuart Curry (Portrait of Stanley Young) (Fig. 2), Roy Hilton (Back to the Barn) (Fig. 3), Martyl Suzanne Schweig Langsdorf (The Town), and Charles Sheeler (Tree and Landscape) convey a strong sense of isolation and detachment experienced by Americans during the Great Depression; a period when factories and businesses closed, banks failed, and jobs disappeared overnight, setting many people adrift, while the drought of 1934, in combination with a period of over cultivation, caused severe dust storms and forced the closure of one-third of the farms in the Great Plains.

The search for employment was at the same time a search for community, experienced by artists as well, who banded together during the Depression years as “creative workers,” encouraging a collective voice in response to social injustices. Paintings by Abraham Harriton (6th Avenue Unemployment Agency), Walter Quirt (The Future Belongs to the Workers) and Louis Riback (Nocturne) illustrate the frustrations of unemployment, the struggle of the American worker, and the ugliness of oppression. In the face of seemingly intractable circumstances, Americans hungered for simple pleasures to distract them from life’s realities. These amusements are depicted in paintings such as Reginald Marsh’s Mad Men of Europe, James Gantt’s Side Show, and Clyde Singer’s Barn Dance (Fig. 4).

A number of artists explored the industrial and residential districts of modern American cities with an obsessiveness that mirrored the examination of the rural countryside by nineteenth-century painters. The warehouses, smokestacks, trains, and construction cranes that had replaced the bucolic American landscape found expression in Edmund Brucker’s Cleveland Flats, Lois Mabel Head’s Factory Town, Harry Louis Freund’s Crossroad Forum, Arthur Osver’s Saint Louis, and Earl Rowland’s The Smelters (Fig. 5).

Works by George Copeland Ault (The Stairway) (Fig. 6), Benjamin Messick (Jitterbug Contest), Robert Elton Tindall (Winged Victory), John Wilde (Untitled) and John Rogers Cox (Wheatfield) contributed to American Surrealism of the 1930s and 1940s. A stream of visual material, the imagery was more than an embrace of the irrational, and also defined the anxieties and experiences of the era following the trauma of World War I.

The final section of the exhibition traces the development of American abstraction, with works by Valleja “Wally” Strautin (Abstract) (Fig. 7), Burgoyne Diller (Early Geometric), and Charles Biederman (Abstraction)(Fig. 8). These artists were members of a group called American Abstract Artists (AAA), who developed their own vision, distinct from the European stylistic source that provided an escape from the societal problems exposed by the works of the Social Realism movement of the 1930s. Just as the ideas and techniques of Surrealist artists helped define the anxieties and experiences of their time from a barrage of disparate visual material, the approach of abstract artists transported viewers to a different world where narrative disappeared and only form, space, color and line remained creating a genuinely aesthetic experience.2

Modern Dialect is a perfect complement to the permanent collection of American art at the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, which boasts works by early twentieth-century artists such as George Bellows, Isabel Bishop, Burgoyne Diller, Reginald Marsh, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Opened in 1933 through an endowment from James Phillip Gray and Julia Emma Burbank Gray, the museum is part of the consortium Springfield Museums, which includes the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, the Springfield Science Museum, and the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History. The exhibition Modern Dialect: American Paintings From the John and Susan Horseman Collection was organized by The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee, and is on display at the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Art, Springfield, Massachusetts through February 24, 2013. For further information, call 413.263.6800 or visit

Fig. 1: William Sommer (1867–1949)
Adam and Eve, ca. 1912–1915
Oil on board, 31½ x 23¾ inches
Collection of John and Susan Horseman

William Sommer was born, raised, and began his career in commercial lithography in Detroit before accepting a position with the Otis Lithograph Company in Cleveland in 1907. Almost immediately, he became an influential member of the Cleveland arts scene, a mentor to younger artists such as Charles Burchfield and William Zorach, and an advocate for modern art. Painted during a time of great creative activity for the artist, Adam and Eve reveals the profound influence Henri Matisse and Fauvism had on Sommer and his art. Both the subject and the composition speak to his spiritual approach to painting, as well as to his trust in nature over what he believed to be a corrupt society. Sommer created his Eden with simplified forms, distorted perspective, and intense colors, all dominated by a powerfully radiating sun, a recurring motif in his art. In clearly defining the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the foreground of the painting, Sommer identifies it as the source of civilization’s unrest.
Fig. 2: John Steuart Curry (1897–1946)
Portrait of Stanley Young, 1932
Oil on canvas, 32 x 30 inches
Collection of John and Susan Horseman
One of the major figures in the Regionalist movement, John Steuart Curry was born and raised on a farm near Dunavant, Kansas. After studying in Kansas City, Chicago, and Paris, Curry came to prominence in the late 1920s with paintings inspired by his Midwestern upbringing. Touching on everything from farming life to religious revivals, his work was widely embraced as authentically American, free of European influences. From 1924 until his move to Madison, Wisconsin, in 1936, Curry worked in a studio in Westport, Connecticut, and was represented by prominent Manhattan dealers. During his time on the East Coast, Curry came to know many artists and writers. His Portrait of Stanley Young, painted in 1932, captures the aspiring author and playwright three years before he became a literary critic for the New York Times. Curry captures Young as a large and powerful figure, but also as contemplative, even wistful, in a moment of artistic struggle. For an artist who often focused his work on the external forces of nature, Curry’s portrait of Stanley Young reveals an ability to describe the inner man.

Fig. 3: Roy Hilton (1891–1963)
Back to the Barn, ca. 1947
Oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches
Collection of John and Susan Horseman
A native of Massachusetts, Roy Hilton spent the majority of his early career working in Boston. In 1928 he moved to Pittsburgh to teach painting at that city’s Carnegie Institute. Throughout the 1930s, Hilton regularly exhibited at the nation’s premier venues and completed two post office murals through the WPA. He also spent his summers working in the artists’ colony that emerged in the coastal village of Ogunquit, Maine, where he exchanged ideas with artists like Yasuo Kuniyoshi. Increasingly drawn to the Precisionist style of George Ault, Charles Sheeler, and others in the early 1940s, Hilton’s work began to feature hard-edged outlines and geometric patterning. He completed Back to the Barn around 1947, a work that reveals the steady hand and precise line that had already garnered him recognition. Hilton placed even greater emphasis on abstract patterning in the painting; his increasingly reductivist style omits specific details in service to the coherence of the overall composition.

Fig. 4: Clyde Singer (1908–1999)
Barn Dance, 1938
Oil on canvas, 39½ x 49½ inches
Collection of John and Susan Horseman
Clyde Singer painted engaging scenes of American life, in his hometown, Malvern, Ohio, and later in a basement studio in Boardman, Ohio, near Youngstown. Apart from a two-year stint (1933–1934) in New York, Singer spent his entire career in his native state. Usually tinged with homespun humor, his work appeared regularly in major exhibitions across the United States and garnered praise from some of the country’s most notable critics. In addition to being a busy artist, for fifty-five years Singer was also the assistant director of the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown. One of Singer’s early masterworks, Barn Dance is a tightly packed composition filled with couples taking rousing turns on a rural dance floor. Couples of all ages swing and turn merrily, a fiddler works his bow at the far left, and the farmer next to him (the host, perhaps?) raises his hand in celebration. Singer sent Barn Dance to the 1938 annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design in New York, where it received the Julius Hallgarten prize for its “lively and rustic” character.

Fig. 5: Earl Rowland (1890–1963)
The Smelters, 1934
Oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches
Collection of John and Susan Horseman

After serving in the U.S. Army during World War I, Earl Rowland returned to Los Angeles and established himself in the local art scene until 1930. Rowland then moved north to Stockton, California, to accept a teaching position at the College of the Pacific. In 1937, he became director of Stockton’s Pioneer and Haggin Art Gallery (now the Haggin Museum), a position he would hold for more than twenty-five years. Stockton’s busy inland port attracted a number of industries, including ironworks. Rowland’s The Smelters is a bold, plunging view—and a powerful image of American industry. A bucket of molten iron, white hot and expelling noxious smoke, is transported overhead from the blast furnace to the molds. Below, workers alive to the dangers look up and track the bucket’s movement. Enormously disproportionate to the size of the workers, the bucket in The Smelters would seem to inspire awe, not indifference, over the men who operate it.

Fig. 6: George Copleland Ault (1891–1948)
The Stairway, 1921
Oil on canvas, 18¼ x 14¼ inches
Collection of John and Susan Horseman

Born into a wealthy Cleveland family, George Ault spent the majority of his youth in London, studying at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art. But his charmed early life soon turned dark. From the late 1910s on, the Ault family experienced one tragedy after another, including the loss of the family wealth, the death of George’s mother in a psychiatric hospital, and the eventual suicides of his three brothers. Ault himself struggled with alcoholism and died of an apparent suicide by drowning in Sawkill Creek near his home in Woodstock, New York, on December 30, 1948. Despite a life of misfortune, Ault quietly became a leader in the style of painting known as Precisionism, which saw artists using a very controlled hand to create crisp lines, smooth surfaces, and a minimized human presence. Completed in 1921, The Stairway reveals Ault’s command of the style as well as his interest in Surrealism. An ominous sense of loneliness envelops this scene, a reflection not only of Ault’s personal isolation but also of the nation’s feelings of loss and uncertainty following the trauma of World War I.
Fig. 7: Valleja “Wally” Strautin (1898–1989)
Abstract, ca. 1930
Oil on canvas, 36 x 22 inches
Collection of John and Susan Horseman

Wally Strautin studied painting at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York, graduating in 1931. There she met and became friends with modernists such as Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. Though she produced portraits and murals, Strautin found her voice as a painter in a geometric-based abstraction. In conversation with Krasner, Strautin began experimenting with abstraction early in her career. Despite the fact that Strautin’s abstract canvases, including Abstract from around 1930, were produced early on in her career, they exhibit a remarkable refinement that intimates an intense study of European modernism, and in particular, both Fauvism, as favored by Henri Matisse, and the Cubism of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. In Abstract, she created a complex web of colors, lines, shapes, and textures that appears simultaneously flat and dimensional, nonfigurative and evocative of animalistic imagery. In all its sharp angles and crisp color lines, Abstract teems with a tense energy, ripe with the excitement of a young artist on the cusp of innovation.
Fig. 8: Charles Biederman (1906–2004)
Abstraction, 1935
Oil on canvas, 42 x 31¼ inches
Collection of John and Susan Horseman
While a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, Charles Biederman developed an interest in Cubism, leading to a series of hard-edged semiabstracted still lifes and landscapes. Though the first years of the Great Depression were especially difficult for the artist, by 1934, he had saved enough money to move to New York. The move coincided with a shift in Biederman’s style; he began to embrace pure abstraction influenced by the Spanish artist Joan Miró and American contemporaries such as George L. K. Morris. Produced at the start of this stylistic shift, Abstraction exemplifies Biederman’s working philosophy in the mid-1930s. Freedom from any recognizable forms or narrative elements allowed him to experiment with line, shape, and color. Abstraction features the rounded, almost sculptural forms that, in their dimensionality, speak to his growing interest in collage and his desire to create a purely visual experience.

Julia Hollett Courtney is curator of art for the Springfield Museums, Springfield, Mass.

1. Kevin Sharp, “Forward and Acknowlegements,” in Modern Dialect: American Paintings from the John and Susan Horseman Collection, exh. cat., Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 2012, 7.

2. Julie Novarese Pierotti, “An Internal Expression: The American Abstract Artists and the Opposing Forces of Modern Life,” in Modern Dialect: American Paintings from the John and Susan Horseman Collection, exh. cat., Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 2012, 29.