As America moved from an agrarian to an industrialized culture, it was inevitable that the art of the period would reflect so radical a transformation. With fundamental shifts in the economy came equally profound shifts in modes of living itself, and something of the invention of the urbanized society. Then, as the departure from the farm-based environments brought with it a distance from the natural, the entire nature of mankind’s worth and being was quite literally a subject of concern, and consequently artistic expression. If the new movements of Cubism, Dadaism, and Expressionism would be increasingly employed as the 20th century advanced, so too was the technology of photography allowing for expression, rather than documentation (online lectures). Painting, however, remained a major force, and two works in particular illustrate the divisiveness of feeling regarding the national changes, as well as conflict discernible within the artists themselves.
Social context invariably fuels the art of any era, but here the role is pronounced, in that art was fixing on “moving targets”; ambiguity in artist as well as viewer is then amplified. John Marin’s 1912 Woolworth Building No. 31 and Grant Wood’s Fall Plowing of 1931 blatantly represent, in stark contrasts in style and theme, this ambiguity within and without. Regarding style, Marin’s painting takes a more abstract form in keeping with the modernity of his subject. It is realist, yet it borders on the fantastic in its seemingly unlikely use of bright color and simple line. Wood, conversely, is iconic by virtue of his precise style; in Wood’s rural images, no leaf is out of place on a shrub, and order dominates his fields as meticulously as if the painting were a farmer’s account books. As to theme, the viewer receives multiple impressions in both works, and these are abetted by the ways in which the subjects are presented. With Wood, for example, the rural setting seems lacking in an “aliveness” that Marin’s more presumably artificial subject demonstrates. There is an inescapable dynamism in Marin’s rendition of the Woolworth Building. It is surging with energy, seemingly pushing itself up and beyond the lower parameters of the city as a crop surges forth from the soil (Fenske 187). Wood almost seems to challenge
Woolworth Building No. 31, 1912, watercolor
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
the viewer; his theme is organic and relies on ancient rituals of pastoral life, yet there is a discordant quality of stillness. Most dramatically, no human guides the plow, as though the scene were, in spite of its bucolic nature, post-apocalyptic. This also may be seen as going to context, in that Wood’s deliberate precision seeks to emphasize the gravity of his farm in a world turning to the city and the machine. The same rationale may be behind Marin’s skyscraper, evincing energy born from progress as a natural force. With each, then, there is a type of promotion in play, political in character, and ironically relying on associations attached to the other.
Fall Plowing, 1931, oil
Deere and Company Art Collection, Moline, Il.
Of course, the pristine precision of Wood’s image belies the daily hardship inherent to the farmer’s life (Waddington). It is, if a formalized view of rural life, nonetheless idealized. It has been remarked of Wood that his work is viewed with either “adulation or disdain” (Pohl 431), and the artist appears to be similarly divided. Clearly, Wood is not out to seduce the viewer, no matter the gravity of his scene. He offers a statement and demands that his audience accept the weight of it, regarding the fundamental aspect of rural life. Put another way, it is easy to conceive of Wood presenting a factory in much the same style, and as an inescapable platform for human existence. If Wood cares deeply for his farm, it may be called a Puritan affection, and the innate repression indicates ambivalence in the artist. Marin, on the other hand, seems to “woo” his viewer. He does not ask that a relationship be in place between audience and subject; instead, he seeks to convey what must be called charm along with the impressive essence of his scenario.
All of this then goes to artist assumption, in that both Wood and Marin do not appear to have a particular viewer in mind. Again, there is a political aspect to these works. They want support and/or understanding. They week to sway by virtue of distinct forms of emphasis, and this supports the idea that the artists both appeal to a viewer identity, if once known, now obscured by the era: the “American.” It is not unreasonable to conjecture Wood and Marin asking the same question: who, exactly, is my audience today? As the times were shifting, so too was the American persona, and it seems likely the artists were acutely aware of this. Consequently, Marin’s painting may be an appeal to the city dweller requiring a different perception of his environment, or to the farmer with too fixed and unfavorable a sense of the alternate environment. Switch out the subject matter, and Wood’s agenda may be precisely the same.
Fenske, G. The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Web. <http://books.google.com/books?id=pztaI-C0Ck8C&dq=marin+woolworth+building+no. +31&source=gbs_navlinks_s>
Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.com). Woolworth Building No. 31, John Marin. 2012. Web. <http://www.metmuseum.org/en/collections/search-the-collections? where=North+and+Central+America&who=John+Marin&rpp=20&pg=7?
Online Lecture. 2013. Web.
Pohl, F. K. Framing America: A Social History of American Art, 2nd Ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2007. Print.
Waddington, L. “Farmer Suicides Spotlight Lack of Mental Health Care in Rural America.” Iowa Independent, 2009. Web. <http://iowaindependent.com/16472/farmer-suicides-