Skip to main content

Chester County Press

American art in a time of transition

11/03/2016 10:57AM ● By J. Chambless

'Spring Turning' (1946), by Dale Nichols.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

As an ambitious new exhibition with more than 60 works, “Rural Modern: American Art Beyond the City” looks at a period of transition, both in society and in art, between the 1920s and 1940s.

The show, which opened on Oct. 29 at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, makes a statement early with the first large painting you see, “The Crucified Land,” by Alexandre Hogue. It explicitly spells out the effects of improper farming, and the subsequent erosion, that turned much of the American West into a dust bowl.

Next to it, “When the Grass Grows Green” by Dale Nichols is a brilliantly lit view of a grain elevator and train that is expressed in sharp cubes and rectangles, but still starkly realistic.

There's a thread of sadness through much of this show, reflecting the time when these paintings were produced. In “Farmers” (1943), by Ben Shahn, three grim-faced men gather around an antiquated piece of farm equipment that suggests a failed farm and a passing of their way of life. The desperation and determination of the working men in “Miners Resting” (1935), by Paul Sample, is expressed by the rock-solid, muscular worker that anchors the composition.

The ochre-red tone of “Oklahoma Barbershop” (1931), by James Brooks, conveys the emptiness of the landscape, and the shadowy gloom of the sky.

One nice surprise in the show is Andrew Wyeth's “Road Cut” (1940), a tempera of Ring Road slicing through a hill, revealing Mother Archie's Church in the hollow beyond. It's as stark and contemplative as any of Wyeth's later works. Elsewhere, N.C. Wyeth's “Ridge Church” (1936) is depicted with a dramatic sunrise behind the building. Next to it is Andrew Wyeth's view of the same church, also from 1936. It's starker, with more dry grass and a dark treeline beyond, but the stark white walls recall the sharp, bright light in an Edward Hopper painting. It's a fascinating pairing of the father-and-son artists, and it's one of the highlights of the show.

But there are plenty of other strong points, as well as works and artists you won't be familiar with. There's a hyper-reality to the deserted nighttime crossroads in “Bright Light at Russell's Corners” (1946) by George Ault; and an abstract quality to Charles Demuth's “End of the Parade, Coatesville, Pa.” (1920) and Demuth's boldly geometric “Buildings Abstraction, Lancaster” (1931).

“Wheat Field,” by John Rogers Cox, is immediately arresting, with its undulating field, microscopically rendered home in the distance, and its central cloud, which is pinned in the center of the upper edge like a medal. It has a folky appeal as well as a hint of dreamlike menace.

There's a wonderful overhead perspective in “Crossroads Forum” (1935), by Harry Louis Freund, which makes the casual crowd conversing around a pot-bellied stove something unexpected.

Charles Sheeler both depicts and expands the curved stairs in “Staircase, Doylestown” (1925), in which the artist captures each step and slat with an all-seeing perspective that celebrates the spiraling nature of the composition.

Roger Medearis, in “The Farmer Takes a Wife” (1941), takes a sardonic view of a grim and resigned couple in their parlor – both of them forlorn and rumpled.

There's an immediately charming work by Grant Wood, “Appraisal” (1931), a view of a farmer, rooster and customer that luxuriates in the textures of the people's winter coats, the tidy garden, and the herring-bone pattern of the barn wall behind them.

The works of untrained artists figure in the show as well, with Horace Pippin's poignant “Saying Prayers” (1943), a pencil drawing of a mounted figure by outsider art superstar Bill Traylor, and “Bringing in the Maple Sugar” (1938) by Grandma Moses, with its tiny figures very busily working among the trees.

The tone of weary determination continues in Thomas Hart Benton's “Tobacco Sorters” (1942/44), which was commissioned by a tobacco company but ultimately rejected for its depiction of the gnarled farmer and the sickly looking girl, both of whom do not look happy to be sorting tobacco.

Don't miss the splendidly detailed view of a railroad town by self-taught artist John Kane (“Turtle Creek Valley No. 1” (1932-34), and John Marin's 1948 “Sea, Light Red and Cerulean Blue,” which points the way toward the new world of abstract expressionism.

Accompanied by a wonderful catalog, “Rural Modern” captures America as it weathered an economic collapse and massive social shift, and stood on the cusp of becoming something else entirely. After its run at the Brandywine, the show moves to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Ga., expanded with murals and photography of the era.

“Rural Modern: American Art Beyond the City” continues at the Brandywine River Museum of Art (Route 1, Chadds Ford) through Jan. 22, 2017. The museum is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for ages 65 and older, $6 for students and children ages 6 to 12, free for children 5 and younger. For more information, call 610-388-2700 or visit www.brandywinemuseum.org.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Chester County's free newsletter to catch every headline