America In Flux: The Way We Were

Dixon Gallery and Gardens' board member John Horseman collects twentieth-century regional American art. We should be very glad he does.

Clyde Singer (1908 -1999) Barn Dance, 1938, Oil on canvas

John Horseman, a visionary collector of overlooked American painters, can’t remember how old he was the first time he darkened the door of an art museum. 

A definite late-bloomer, he’s the founder and principal of the John Horseman Group, a financial-services firm based in St. Louis, who also now serves on the board of directors for The Dixon Gallery and Gardens. Horseman thinks that first visit may well have come when he was in his 30s, or perhaps even in his 40s. 

“My kids weren’t completely raised, but they were beyond the age when I was going to be able to coach them in Little League,” the long-time hedge fund manager says. Horseman had no great plans to acquire an extensive collection, and even less of an inkling that art would fill the hole in his daily life when Little League baseball became a thing of his past.

A particular part of America’s past came to life in the museums and galleries Horseman visited, and it wasn’t long before he was building a remarkable collection of American regional art from the period between the two World Wars. Depression-era art spoke to him very directly; it may have even changed the way he thought about what he does for a living.  

Clarence Holbrook Carter (1904 - 2000), Down the River, 1937, Oil on canvas

August Biehle (1885 - 1979), Cleveland West Side, Hillside Houses, ca. 1914 - 1917, Oil on board

James Harold Noecker (1912 - 2002), The Genius?, ca. 1942 - 43, Oil on canvas

Memphians should be very glad that John Horseman and his wife, Susan, discovered regional American art. This month, for the second time in four years, The Dixon Gallery and Gardens will highlight some of those discoveries. “Modern Dialect: American Paintings from the John and Susan Horseman Collection,” an exhibition curated by the Dixon, will open for a two-month stay in Memphis on May 6th, and then travel to five other museums in the region over the next 14 months . 

“My family liked art,” Horseman says, admitting that he didn’t know very much about it in the early days. “We had framed prints on the walls in our house. But you go to museums and see these amazing oil paintings; it makes you want to put some real art on the wall.”

Horseman’s modesty about his collecting efforts speaks volumes about his enthusiasm for the works he now happily shares with the public. “I hadn’t really thought of myself as a collector until [Dixon executive director] Kevin Sharp told me we had a collection worthy of doing a show,” Horseman says. “My wife and I were truly taken aback, because we had never thought about it in those terms.”

In 2008, The Dixon Gallery and Gardens opened a striking exhibition called “Regional Dialect: American Scene Painting from the John and Susan Horseman Collection,” with 57 extraordinary works by painters that Sharp has described as “inlander artists” from Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and other locations not immediately recognizable as world fine-art capitals. “Regional Dialect” subsequently toured a handful of smaller museums, thereby placing the Horsemans, Kevin Sharp, and the Dixon near the epicenter of a contemporary resurgence of interest in American regional painting of the 1930s and 1940s.

“The market began to realize the expanding commercial possibilities of a lot of these American paintings,” says Sharp. “They represent a real bargain, because there are fewer and fewer works available by blue-chip artists. If you want to buy a de Kooning, Pollack, or Warhol, and you’re not a collector of means — like a Warren Buffett or a Bill Gates — well, you might get a sketch.”

How did beautiful and imaginative works like those on display in “Modern Dialect” ever fall through the cracks in the first place? Sharp says there’s no easy answer to that question, but offers one nonetheless. “Painting is subject to the whims of fashion,” he says. “Just like clothing or automobile design.”

Carl Redin (1892 - 1944), Cordova Church, New Mexico, 1934, Oil on canvas

Left: Helen Lundberg (1908 - 1999), Iris, ca. 1936, Oil on canvas 
Right: Charles Biederman (1906 - 2004), Abstraction, 1935, Oil on canvas

John Carlton Atherton (1900 - 1952), The Sleepers, 1945, Oil on canvas

Fashion may be fickle and unfair, but many over-looked Depression-era artists recently have been getting a second look. The Smithsonian Institution opened a hugely popular exhibition in Washington, “A New Deal for Artists,” in 2009. That same year, the Des Moines Art Center organized “After Many Springs: Regionalism, Modernism, and the Midwest.” And in 2010, the St. Louis Museum of Art organized “Joe Jones: Radical Painter of the American Scene,” a powerful showcase of work by a Missouri-born Depression-era artist whose illuminating work couldn’t always be separated from his calling as a social activist. (The Joe Jones exhibition, which came to the Dixon in 2011, also featured works from the John and Susan Horseman collection.)

“For me, collecting often comes back to a history of place, or of some particular historical event like the Depression,” Horseman says. “Obviously, there’s the aesthetic beauty of a piece of art, but the connection to history is what really draws my attention to a particular artist or a particular painting.

“Paintings are great historical teaching documents, and if you’ve got work from an artist who lived in an area, or maybe who came to an area and painted the local scene, you get a real sense for the history of the time.”

Salvador Dali once described modern art as “this grandiose tragedy.” Horseman, a great fan of surrealism, takes a contrary point of view. For him modern art is both practical and comforting. His day job the past few decades has focused largely upon predicting the future, by evaluating events in economic and political realms and making decisions that hopefully result in good investments for his clients. The paintings showcased in “Modern Dialect,” he says, are filled with cautionary tales, inspiration, and decidedly American dreams.

“New York isn’t the be-all and end-all, and everything else isn’t just a fly-over zone,” Horseman says. He hopes this is something that attendees who are serious about art will take away from viewing “Modern Dialect” at the Dixon. The works shown here fairly sparkle as brightly as anything the major art capitals of the world could conjure up.

“I have paintings of Cleveland in the 1920s when industry was booming and it was the third largest city in the United States,” Horseman says. “And then I have pictures from just a few years later, after the 1929 crash. The difference is remarkable. Like so many Rust Belt cities, Cleveland never fully recovered, but there is still a fighting spirit there.”

Horseman, who is especially fascinated by social-realist paintings from the Depression era, thinks you can see that fighting spirit in the art. “We never seem to learn,” he says.  “Greed, consequences, the fall, the misery. But we always get up again.”

Hazel Janicki Teyral (1918 - 1976), Theatre, 1945, Oil on masonite

Left: Velleja "Wally" Strautin (1898 - 1989). Abstract, ca. 1930, Oil on canvas. Right: Robert Gilbert (1907 - 1988), Industrial Composition,
1932, Oil on canvas

In addition to social realism, scene painting, and abstraction, “Modern Dialect” also showcases noteworthy regional examples of American surrealism. “It’s an area in American art where a lot of good scholarship is just starting to come to the fore,” Horseman says excitedly. “We didn’t collect it because we thought it would become important, but because we like that kind of art that’s always been neglected as a bastard stepchild to European surrealism.” 

Talking to John Horseman about art is like talking to a fanboy about comic books, or talking to a record-shop owner about vintage vinyl. He gets excited, not only about the pictures, painters, and their place in history, but also about the thrill of the hunt.

“If anything, ‘Modern Dialect’ is the stronger show of the two,” Kevin Sharp says. This follow-up to “Regional Dialect’ reflects America’s rise during the teens and 1920s, its fall during the Depression, and its transformation into a global leader following WWII. It shows American artists responding to European trends while blazing trails of their own.

“I think I’ve learned more about American art from John Horseman than I did from any of my art teachers,” the Dixon director adds. Although Horseman lives in St. Louis, Sharp encouraged him to become a board member at the Dixon because he thought the museum might benefit from an outsider’s perspective, especially if that outsider was a collector with Horseman’s enthusiasm and sensitivity. 

And for Horseman, Memphis was also a good fit. “I love barbecue and look forward to trying new places when I go to Memphis,” he says, considering other kinds of regionalism and cultural exchange. “And I think the board likes to see me, because I always bring Ted Drew’s ice cream when I come down.” 

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