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An Artist In America
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
Yeah. Lewenthal was a regular entrepreneur, with quite a stable of artists, including myself and Wood and Curry. Regionalism was already pretty strong when he took us on, but there is no question that he did a very effective job of popularizing the Americanist artists, including some of the boys from the John Reed Club who had graduated from their former hatred of the regionalist movement. And Lewenthal brought money in, especially with his five-dollar lithographs, which sold in the thousands.
When did you make your famous caustic remark about preferring to hang your paintings in saloons and whorehouses, where normal people could see them?
It was in 1939, when Lewenthal opened his Fifth Avenue gallery, and I exhibited two nude studies, Susanna and the Elders and Persephone , which caused some controversy, although I’m not really sure why. I did the same thing that’s been done through history, the same thing as Giorgione’s Fête Champêtre , in which the men have the costume of the day, although the women, of course, don’t have any costumes at all. Susanna was rather specifically done, with some pubic hair showing, and that resulted in a bit of a furor that seems absurd today. At any rate the reporters used to come to my openings, and we’d get drunk and get to talking about everything. Well, I made that remark about saloons and whorehouses, and the next day a fellow from the old New York Telegram came to me and asked me if I would stand by it. And I said, yeah. I wasn’t going to back down.
D idn’t the publication of that remark cost you your teaching job at the Kansas City Art Institute?
That was the reason they gave, but I was having a lot of trouble there with the trustees. They tried to get me to resign, but I made them fire me. And it was good for me, too. It was taking too much time that I needed for painting. At the time they thought they had me in an economic wringer, but they didn’t know I was doing pretty well.
What sort of trouble were you having with the trustees?
Well, the main thing was that the trustees had decided they wanted an accredited school, so they could give degrees, and they wanted me to grade the students. I wouldn’t do it. I wanted to run it as a regular oldfashioned art school and not as a goddamned adjunct to a college. I also would not engage in the school’s social activities. And politically, all the trustees were very strong conservative Republicans, more conservative than you can imagine, and everything that seemed to come up, well, we disagreed on. I was glad to get out.
The regionalist school of painting really fell out of favor with the coming of World War II, didn’t it?
Well, you must remember, the regionalist movement, not only in the United States but in Mexico and Germany and even in Italy, to name just a few, had actually dominated the scene for nearly twenty years. But it is true that the war … actually, both wars had the same effect of emptying art of content. That’s something a sociologist or psychologist ought to look into.
How did the public rejection of regionalism affect your colleagues Wood and Curry?
Much more deeply than I. They cared more. Having had fewer controversies than I had, Wood and Curry were probably more sensitive to the criticism of the movement and more easily hurt by it. And neither one of them being highly verbal, I’m sure they took verbal statements much more seriously than I would.
When you visited Grant Wood on his deathbed in 1942, were you shocked when he told you he intended to change his name and start all over again as a painter?
I didn’t take it very seriously. I considered it a state of his illness.
But he had lost confidence in his art?
Was the same thing true of Curry before his death in 1946?
It was. Of course, Curry was suffering from high blood pressure, and that in itself was a depressant. But he was always immensely subject to criticism. From the very beginning he used to cry over it. Great big buck, you know. Seems sort of odd. On the other hand, those periods of depression—the sense of rejection and the uselessness of your effort—I think every artist must have them at some time. I had a number of them, but I always got over them. And I’m sure Jack Pollock had it before he died. His last three years, you know, he didn’t do anything and was in a terribly depressed state.