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Art Making and Wisconsin Art History

by Gary John Gresl

This is it! This is where you reside. The art you make, the style, the choice of medium and technique is the result of your observation, your reading, your psychological state, your intellectual interests, your life experiences, your motor skills in eye hand coordination…these are all you have to produce that work.
This author has recently (2003) attended the college credit class on Wisconsin Art History, offered by Tom Lidtke, Executive Director of the West Bend Art Museum. This class was the first of its kind. We covered the area’s prehistoric period when Native Americans produced the burial mounds, pyramids, rock art (more than you know exist), personal goods, most of which have been consumed by time and neglect. We moved thru the European visitors of the 18th and 19th centuries, into the settlers from Europe, thru the more adventurous Moderns of the 20th Century.
There were the highly successful world class artists of their day such as Carl Von Marr, Frank Lloyd Wright and Edward Steichen. We touched upon the numerous German academically trained artists who arrived in the 19th century to become teachers, Henry Vianden, Frederick Heine, and Richard Lorenz, all successful in their own right. There were many artists motivated by the Wisconsin and Midwest landscape to produce fine images of the environment, of the rural, the small towns and larger cities, such as John Steuart Curry and Gustave Moeller.
As should be obvious, many of these artists by and large looked at what was around them and reproduced their environment…and the people they knew. There were more artists than might be expected who traveled by train and boat to points then far distant in Wisconsin, to the Western states, and to Europe and who there captured images of other places. The intellectual pursuits and personal expressions were usually restrained, conservative, not unleashed in methods and styles very much outside an acceptable academically secure boundary.
In the first half of the 20th Century that discipline largely held true, in good part because of educators tracing lineage to the German academies of the 19th century. Developments in Europe, such as Kandinsky’s adventures into non objective art, Duchamp’s “ready mades” and Picasso’s Cubism and other more freed expressions made their way slowly into Wisconsin’s art consciousness. The 1913 Armory Show and gradual dispersion of European and progressive American styles filtered to the West, and many artists traveled to see what was happening elsewhere.
The teaching traditions in the State were strong, and there was a belated and gradual evolution into Modernism. Though it was not discussed directly in this class, it may have been the case the a progressive more experimental approach to art making would have been difficult to pursue in Wisconsin, due to the strength of traditions here.  Georgia O’Keefe is one internationally known outstanding example of an artist who left the state in order to find a more fertile ground for her own progressive Modernism. There was Steichen as well, who left at a young age. 
Overall the US was late in coming to explorations with the Modernism that had first arisen in Europe. It was the actions of Steiglitz, the Ash Can artists and the 1913 Armory Show that set the ball rolling more excitedly.  News of what was happening in Europe did gradually reach the heartland of America. While newspapers and the media of the time did carry limited information about the Modernist departures from academia inspired work…it was up to artists to travel and otherwise invest effort in learning about new directions in art making.
The effect of French Impressionism could belatedly be found in works by Wisconsin artists, notably in a number of pieces by Carl Marr, and it could be seen in other artists’ work as well. Obviously work by Spicuzza stands prominently as inspired by the earlier Impressionists. However, the unleashed expressions of the Fauves, Cubists, Non-Objectivists, German Expressionists, etc…only infrequently and belated served as models accepted in our region. That appears to be largely true, with only a limited number of exceptions, until closer to mid 20th century. The lineage and traditions of the conservative, but high quality Academies persisted in Wisconsin art schools/teaching well into the first half of the 20th Century.
We had our share of those associated with the movement called American Scene or Regionalist painting, exemplified by John Stuart Curry, Thomas Hart Benton, Aaron Bohrod, Gerritt Sinclair. These folks fit very nicely into that part of the cultural and social art history of our Nation. While in its time that Regionalism was nationally prominent and appreciated, and while it is mentioned in virtually all books dealing with American art history, there are certainly critics who disregard it as a side track in the development of modern art. 
That sort of Regionalism, so deeply embedded in the conditions of those days, was a phenomenon not only associated with the Midwest. Forms of thematic locally inspired imagery appeared in various places of the US…and today it seems that it is being reevaluated and reappreciated. I am aware of a growing body of collectors of art that was created in the Wisconsin region, representative of a place, time and very much a part of the national subject matter also seen in the literature of the times.
By the 1950’s the teachers who would trace their methods back to German academically inspired models were disappearing and/or being replaced with new artists and teachers inspired by newer art forms and teaching methods. After WWII art students and teachers proliferated and scurried to schools all across the State. The State University system expanded and consumed teachers, many aware of early 20th Century Modernism thru Post-Modernism. Today, while there will likely always be some elements continuing the more conservative traditions of representation, there are few restraints on personal expression. 
World art history and cultures from around the globe can serve as food for art making. There are no boundaries, except for what is personally acceptable, and those which the artist accepts as commercial necessity.
The balance tips one way or another as one finds a personal mode of expression that is acceptable to oneself and the marketplace. What restraints there may be nowadays come out of the day to day need to find bread for the body, balanced by the need to feed stimuli to the intellect and soul.  

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