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Review: Marvin Cone exhibition is visual revelation

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Diana Nollen  ::   UPDATED: 21 January 2014 | 3:37 pm   ::  

"The greatest thing a human soul ever does in the world is to see something. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think. But thousands can think for one who can see." – John Ruskin

When the 19th century English art critic wrote those words he could not have anticipated how perfectly they suited the 20th century American artist Marvin Cone. The artist and educator’s power of vision is captured in “Marvin Cone: An American Master,” the new exhibition at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

Seven intimate rooms brim with landscapes, cloudscapes, architectural views, portraits of barns and circus people, mysterious interior stairways and elegant abstractions. Charles Moore designed these galleries for such an occasion in 1989, specifically creating the space to house the paintings of Grant Wood and Marvin Cone, and the latter’s works captures the warm light illuminating them, radiating his palette.

The exhibit moves thematically through Cone’s career, offering new perspective into this artist’s mind and practice, ultimately showcasing how his sights constantly changed to further challenge and invigorate. His early work reveals precocious talent through sketchbooks created throughout art school and World War I service years, while his prowess as an illustrator, a part of Cone’s biography often overlooked, shows the beginnings of a lifelong pursuit of simplified forms.

The details


Cone’s sensitivity to visual impact is evident in his landscape paintings, giving pause to all who linger in front of them. The wonderful jade tone favored by Cone in so many of his canvases appears in a number of these works, proving exquisitely vibrant in the river bend image “Hills of Iowa,” 1937. The clouds in “July Clouds,” 1931, remind one of the glorious Iowa skies we enjoy, while the barns such as “Otis Tuttle’s Barn,” 1945 ,are visual records of structures long lost.

Although Cone could have continued to paint the barns, landscapes and cloudscapes so desired by his public, he sought new imagery. Cone moved into explorations of simplified forms found in stairs, buildings and open doorways, often suggesting in his doors a mysterious narrative through the presence of a sole portrait or shadowed figure. “This was Doubtless He,” 1946, and “Uncle Ben,” 1951, evoke a menacing feeling, defying quick review.

From 1935 to 1945, Cone pursued circus imagery. “Side-Show” and “Waiting for the Parade,” both from 1935, offer almost comic renditions of visitors to the circus. The preparatory sketches for the paintings offer further insights into Cone’s working methods.

Related: American Master getting his due through massive exhibition

His final works in abstraction begin as recognizable, but evolve into barely suggested, and finally move to complete abstraction. In the back gallery, this evolution is effectively displayed as first depicted with shafts of light and shadow give way to color compositions. “Fisherman’s Dream,” 1957, and “Blue, Blue-Green, Yellow,” 1961, are two superb examples of Cone’s abstract explorations.

Curator Sean Ulmer carefully chose the entire exhibition from the museum’s more than 500-piece collection, and his choice to present Cone thematically rather than chronologically gives the visitor new insight into the artist’s diverse works and interests.

The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art is to be congratulated on this exhibition, as it is a true example of the stewardship required when museums accept in-depth collections of an artist’s art. Through this exhibition and its new digital library of Cone’s work, the Cone collection is now available to a public like never before.

“Marvin Cone: An American Master” is deserving of similar blockbuster attentions as paid to Grant Wood a few years ago if not only for the artist’s skill, but for all he can help us see.

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Pamela J. White, J.D., Ph.D., is the principal for White Cow Art Consulting, LLC. Her focus is public art, curatorial organization and artists’ rights. She is an adjunct professor of Museum Studies at Western Illinois University and of Law and Art at the University of Iowa. She was formerly Curator at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Curator and Interim Director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art, and the Director of the Pentacrest Museums at the UI. She has more than 20 years of experience in the art field and has curated more than 100 exhibitions.

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