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Marvin Cone:

American Master getting his due through massive exhibition

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Diana Nollen  ::   UPDATED: 21 January 2014 | 3:36 pm   ::  

The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art is letting the world in on a little secret about a huge, hidden talent: Cedar Rapids native Marvin Cone (1891 to 1965) is an American Master.

Plenty of local circles know that, from the four decades he taught at Coe College to the tales of his collaboration with Grant Wood at their Stone City Art Colony in the summers of 1932 and '33.

Cone exhibited his works all across the country, but he was content to come back to his hometown, where he could focus on his family, his students and his art, says Sean Ulmer, curator of the first major Cone solo exhibition at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art since 1980. And this one is huge.

So huge that Cone's grandchildren and great-grandchildren are coming from Canada and Germany to see the exhibition and participate in related programming at the museum and during Coe's homecoming.

Related: Reflections from Marvin Cone's grandson

From Sept. 29 to Jan. 20, museum visitors can step into Cone's world and examine his artistic path, from a childhood drawing made at age 7 right up through the end of his days in the 1960s. The museum holds more than 500 of his works -- one of the institution's largest collections by a single artist.

"This is a massive show that really does tribute to Marvin Cone's work and legacy," Ulmer says.

The details


Seven of the eight first-floor galleries have been cleared to display more than 200 of Cone's drawings, paintings, illustrations and some of his home studio furnishings, including his easel. A very detailed, methodical worker, he even carried a pocket notepad during World War I so he could sketch scenes during his service as a translator in France. Some of those drawings will be on display, too.

The exhibition won't be laid out chronologically, however. It will be arranged by themes, so visitors can see how Cone explored a subject through various styles, often moving from realistic to abstract images of landscapes, clouds, a circus, architecture, doors and stairs.

The other adjacent gallery holds iconic Grant Wood works so visitors can compare and contrast the two friends' styles, and so tourists coming to the museum specifically to see Grant Wood pieces will not be disappointed, Ulmer says.



"Marvin Cone was one of Iowa's most important artists," Ulmer says, "but he was not nearly as famous as his good friend, Grant Wood. He is somewhat well-known in the Eastern Iowa area, but beyond that, most people don't know the name.

"When people see his work, they are struck by it. We know this, because whenever a museum puts up one of his pieces, if they're fortunate enough to have one, we start getting calls," Ulmer says, "because when people do research on Cone, it's going to lead them to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, which has the largest collection of Cones anywhere."

Even Ulmer, 49, who studied art history in college in Ohio and North Carolina, hadn't heard of Cone before coming to Cedar Rapids.

"When I applied for the position here, naturally, I did some research. Of course you know Grant Wood," Ulmer says. "One of the things that really drew me to this museum and this collection was Marvin Cone.

"He was a discovery for me. He's not taught in most art history classes at all. He's not in the big art history textbooks. But when you see his work, for most people, they're mesmerized by it. They are extremely well-crafted paintings that are very successful compositionally. There's something very subtle about them that really engages you as a viewer."

Even more viewers will be able to engage with Cone's work through an online project more than a year in the making.

Timed with the Sept. 29 exhibition opening, the museum will launch a link on its website, crma.org, where visitors can see an extensive gallery showcasing all of Cone's works in the museum's collection, each one digitally photographed and tagged for easy searching by various topics. Viewers can zoom in on the images and practically see the texture of the canvas, Ulmer says. Essays commissioned for the exhibition, archival material and future scholarly submissions also will be housed there, to enhance research.

"Since placing Marvin Cone in the bigger picture of American art is a process that would occur over time, we see our website as a way of doing that -- of continuing to post essays that we commission or that just happen by various scholars who want to share that information with people onto our website, where it can reach a global audience," Ulmer says.

Where to place Cone in context of American art is an elusive and ongoing process.

"Early on, scholarship tended to want to call him a Regionalist, because that's what they wanted to do with all the Midwestern artists of that period. And there are works that feel a little Regionalist, but Regionalism has always been a very tricky term," Ulmer says. "It's meant different things to different people. There's not a consensus on whether it's defined by style, or by subject or what."

Whereas Wood's paintings have a certain character that link it to Regionalism, Ulmer says Cone doesn't go there.



"More broadly, American Scene is probably a better term than Regionalism in general," Ulmer says. "Most people now, when they think of Regionalism, land comfortably on subject matter. There was an extolling of local subject matter as legitimate subject matter for art making. That links Benton and Curry and Wood, even though their styles are vastly different. They were all working about the same time in different places -- Kansas, Missouri and Iowa. They all believed that representing the local landscape was just as legitimate as representing landscapes of Europe or New York.

"You do see that in Marvin Cone, too. He celebrates the Iowa landscape, the local architecture, but like most artists, he was interested in far more than that. When he traveled, he made drawings of what he saw, and used them later. The one thing about Cone that he constantly came back to, was that he was not interested in representing something that a camera could capture. He was trying to represent something beyond that. Something that came from the artist's imagination," Ulmer says.

"So the landscapes that you'll see are inspired by things he saw in the real landscape but are not topographical depictions of something you could go and take a picture of."

The public has so much to see and learn about this Grant Wood contemporary and friend, who preferred to live a quiet life. The exhibition and website will start that process, Ulmer says.

Even Ulmer, who has been immersed in Cone's world since 2005, learned a thing or two.

"This exhibition gave me the opportunity to really get to know his work in a way I'd never really had the chance to do before," Ulmer says, "to see his work up close and personal, to think about how certain works led to the works, to think about the conversations between works and to think about where he fits in the bigger picture of American art.

"It's just been a wonderful experience for me to look at the totality of his work. It's been actually a great challenge for me to select the pieces for the show, because that meant other work couldn't be out.

"This large-scale exhibition is just the first chapter in the story of what we do with Marvin Cone here (at the museum). In the future, there will be other shows on Marvin's work that are more tightly focused on a particular theme or current in his work. And hopefully we'll be able to bring in other work by other American artists to show the relationship of Cone's work to their work. ...

"On the one hand, this is a celebration of Cone's work and at the same time, it just begins that discourse of where Cone fits in that bigger picture of American art."

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