Progression of Art
Baptism in Kansas
Baptism in Kansas was Curry's first major success, produced soon after his return from Paris and depicting a scene recalled from his childhood. During one of the region's many droughts, Kansas communities in 1915 found themselves having to use farmyard water-tanks for baptisms. In the center of the painting, the local pastor baptizes a blonde, white-robed woman. The service is watched by the entire community - families, farmers, policemen, and animals alike. The concentric, spiral-like composition of the scene leads the eye from a partially depicted automobile in the bottom left to the spectators with their backs to the viewer in the foreground, over to a group of soon-to-baptized dressed in white, circling around the tank to a gentleman holding a hymnal, and finally ends with the pastor and young woman in the center. Beyond the spiral of people one sees the buildings of the farmstead and the vast landscape beyond. The sky beams with sunlight, and the fields and roads stretch into the distance, while Noah's dove and raven fly over the scene. The painting is epic and intimate at once.
The subject of the painting - religion, rebirth, and community ethics - was common to Regionalism, as it rejected urban cosmopolitanism in favor of heartland realism. The triangular composition of the priest propping up the woman's body mirrors the timber structures of the sturdy farm-buildings, celebrating the strength of core American values and institutions. The motor-cars, a symbol of 1920s capitalism and urban youth, are relegated to the outer fringes of the frame in favor of a vocal community chorus.
Present also are the beginnings of Curry's unique compositional style and his feel for expressive potential. The combination of the dominant spiral formation and multiple triangular shapes - the priest's legs, the perspective lines of the road and fields, the roofs, the sunbeams - create a tension between a sense of activity and motion and stability. As art historian Henry Adams explained, Curry's composition "simultaneously expresses claustrophobia and agoraphobia."
Oil on canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Tornado Over Kansas
"It was action he loved most to interpret: the lunge through space, the split second before the kill, the suspended moment before the storm strikes," said Grant Wood of his fellow Regionalist painter, Curry. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this gripping, muscular scene, where a tornado screams towards a Kansas farm. The family hurries for shelter across the foreground. The buildings and the people seem to tilt and lunge in tense, expressive motion within the frame, reminiscent of the falling figures of a Paolo Veronese painting. Careful, emotionally charged details like the basin for catching rainwater, the expression on the eldest son's face as he carries the piglets, and the patchwork textures of the infant's quilt are offset by the biblical power of the tornado's swirling arm, driven hard into the Kansas earth from a dark sky. The family moves to the left of the frame, towards the light-source and away from the gathering shadow.
This work earned Curry second-prize in the Carnegie Institute's Thirty-first Annual International Exhibition of Paintings, confirming his position as the foremost emerging painter of his day. It's a canvas of extraordinary power, both for its narrative thrust and its emotionally rich composition. Its turmoil and turbulence could also have a biographical reference, as Curry's own marriage at the time was uneasy. Curry's style here, too, is wrought from instability. Though it's figurative and peopled, art historian Henry Adams sees this painting as being right on the edge of abstraction, writing "With its distended figures and exploding buildings, the work appears to threaten to transform itself into a synthetic cubist composition. Traditional composition has here been pushed to an expressive limit, has come to the verge of becoming something completely different."
Oil on canvas - Muskegon Museum of Art, Michigan
Hogs Killing a Rattlesnake
Curry is best known for his powerful, socially and historically located canvases and murals - paintings of actual people, real communities, and tangible geographies. Often there is a phantasmagorical feel, an electricity in the air, a pseudo-Biblical power. But we're usually aware of who, when, and where we are. Sometimes, however, as in Hogs Killing a Rattlesnake and the later painting, Ajax, Curry moves into a rarefied space of ambiguous, allegorical expressiveness. Here, seven furious hogs converge from all sides of a woodland glade upon a doomed rattlesnake. The power of the hogs is noisy and total. One pig looms into the frame from the foreground, making a viewer feel compelled forwards with bestial energy, even complicit in the hunt. The snake rears and bares its fangs bravely, its twining musculature seeming unreal, unlike anything else in the forest scene. Curry dashed and stroked his paint with more blur and vigour than usual, even scratching the canvas with his fingernails to give the coarse and hairy effect on the boars' hides.
The tree's canopy bears ripe, red fruit, one of which has fallen plump to the ground, suggesting fertility and life even amongst the throes of death. Curry's flair for capturing facial expressions is here transferred from people to hogs. Their snarls and focussed eyes exude personality and power, and the snake, too, has a voice. Violent and verdant, composed around the dark hole in the tree's trunk at the painting's center, the painting communicates a vital sense of the world's natural forces, its pounding rhythm and thrilling energy celebrates the pulse and cycle of life and death.
Oil on canvas - Art Institute of Chicago
"The / soot-brown tail-tuft on / a kind of lion-/tail; what would that express? / And John Steuart Curry's Ajax pulling / grass - no ring / in his nose - two birds standing on the back?" Marianne Moore's 1932 poem, The Buffalo, pays tribute to Curry's colossal ox, Ajax. Named after the mythical Ancient Greek warrior, nemesis of Hector and survivor of the Trojan War, Ajax the cow is a figure of epic scope and stature. He stands here, utterly dominant, upon his own hermetic patch of earth, backdropped by rolling plains, and framed by a cumulus, billowing cloud. The heavens and the earth conspire to frame his power. As Moore observes, his nose is un-ringed - he is an untamed bull, all the more imposing because of his calmness and poise. He is almost geological, continental, in his size. Two cowbirds warble around on his indifferent back. Curry's friend and contemporary, Reginald Marsh, quipped that this painting was secretly a self-portrait. Curry was a stocky, athletic man, but Marsh is probably also referring to the fact that most of Curry's mature paintings mix a broad geographic sweep with a profound, internal tension.
Curry of course here occupies Grant Wood's Regionalist ideal - "a feeling for one's own milieu and for the validity of one's own life and its surroundings" - but reaches beyond to deconstruct epic myth through the starkness of the present moment. His face, four legs, and tail are rooted firmly in the American turf, but the sheer statement of his presence is timeless and placeless. Marianne Moore was a poet at the forefront of the high modernist movement, so her reference to Curry, the traditional Regionalist, is perhaps surprising, but points to Curry's strange and singular power, his unique positioning in the modern age as a small-C conservative with a modernist's sense of complexity, form, and contemporaneity. The language of Ajax is firm and absolute, but its possibilities and meanings refract through the ages.
Oil on canvas - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Justice Defeating Mob Violence
In this mural, created for the Justice Department as part of the Federal Arts Project, Curry presents a stark narrative depicting a crazed lynching mob and the powerful forces of justice. He uses classical figurative elements to communicate the allegorical power of the judge in holding off the oceanic forces of the mob. In the center, a masked man holds a rope, as if prepared to snap it into action, but in the left foreground, an angry dog and a blaring automobile form the most threatening element of the crowd. Included in the crowd is an unlikely man dapperly dressed in a linen suit and two young women waving their hands and taking in the spectacle. While primarily allegorical, this sinister depiction of a certain American mindset belies the more bucolic and idealized versions of rural America that Regionalists depicted.
The figures in the mob are crouched and aggressive, their poses mirrored by the submissive posture of the accused man, who crawls, bloodied, onto the steps of a courthouse. He has been reduced to an animal, or perhaps it is the mob who are dehumanized by their own actions, reeling into an indistinguishable mass in the center-background, engulfed in flame that is more hellish than it is purgative. The judge bears a serene expression on his face, every bit as monumental in his pose as the Neo-classical pillars of the courthouse behind him. His palliative, controlling arm is mirrored by the bough of peace in the top-center of the frame. The mask of the central figure along with the shadowed faces of the other figures suggests the impersonality and senselessness of mob-rule.
Art historian and Curry champion Lawrence Schmekebier described this painting as "not a symbol...but a universal situation, valid in the past as it will be in the future." Schmekebier identified Curry's penchant for slipping beyond immediate circumstance into something like Messianic Time, where past, present and future seem to occur simultaneously. The mob is a mob for the ages, the judge a figure of Absolute Justice.
Oil on canvas - Robert F. Kennedy Building, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.
Curry's epic panel for the Kansas Statehouse mural shows the towering figure of John Brown, the militant abolitionist leader who abhorred slavery and fought violently against Confederate forces during the American Civil War. Wind and fire reign over a Kansas horizon beyond him. Farmers and cattle traverse the prairies, re-purposed as soldiers and beasts of war. Forces from the Union and the Confederacy clash in the middle-ground, as Brown tramples opponents underfoot. An African American family can be seen, caught among the Confederates.
Curry's depiction of Brown is visceral, but also nuanced. Many saw Brown as a hero, others branded him a murderer and a terrorist. After Brown was sentenced to death for murder, the Transcendentalist writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said he would "make the gallows glorious like the Cross," and so Curry paints Brown in a stark and monumental cruciform, bellowing to the sky. Brown the soldier-prophet brandishes a bible and a rifle. There is blood on both of his hands. Curry paints an Old Testament fury into his figure, giving the painting a visionary power alongside its brutal violence. This painting is enduringly relevant as an exploration of the tensions at the core of American national identity.
Curry himself felt torn between his beloved but backward home of Kansas and the more cosmopolitan life he led while studying in New York and Paris, and this ambivalence perhaps found its way into his work with exaggerated and threatening figures. Citizens and officials in Topeka, the Kansas Capital, were critical of Tragic Prelude, worrying that tornadoes and prairie fires showed the state as stereotypically wild and dangerous, that the blood on Brown's hands portrayed him as the murderous lunatic that some historians believed him to be. The menacing and ominous overtones, which were not uncommon in Curry's work, often met with confusion and even dismissal, thus complicating his legacy. In this instance, Curry stormed out of Topeka and left the mural unfinished and unsigned. Despite this rejection, the painting survives as an important moment in the country's history, a complex commentary upon America's past and potentially its future.
Oil and egg tempera mural - Kansas State Capitol, Topeka