Premiering at the Art Institute of Chicago in October 1930, Grant Wood’s American Gothic captivated the public’s imagination and catapulted Wood into the national spotlight overnight. The painting depicts a couple — modeled on Wood’s sister, Nan, and his Dentist — who stand in front of a Midwestern house. The house is notable for its lone “gothic” window, a typical feature of the then-popular Carpenter Gothic style of architecture, in which gothic elements are used in otherwise simple, modern wood structures.
Stephen Greene (September 19, 1917 – November 18, 1999) was an American artist known for his abstract paintings and, in the 1940s, his social realist figure paintings. Greene studied with Philip Guston with whom he remained friends until Guston’s death in 1980. During his career, Greene taught at Princeton University, where he was teacher to many well-known figures in the art world including Frank Stella and art critic / historian Michael Fried. In honor of this being Halloween, I wanted to find an appropriately-themed work of art, and I think that Greene’s painting, The Shadow (1950), suits perfectly.
Below is an excerpt from an in-depth interview with Greene conducted by Dorothy Seckler on June 8, 1968, found Here, in which he describes his state of mind at the time of painting The Shadow, and reveals his feelings about the painting:
“In Europe I just sort of went crazy. I didn’t sleep much. I wander around till 5 o’clock in the morning. I had worked very hard to become a painter and to show. I suddenly found myself in a foreign place. And I bought canvas there and it was the wrong canvas and the paint went through. Everything seemed to go wrong. I had sort of loss of nerve. And so when I got a little better, the doctor asked me if I would prefer to go home rather than staying there. Well then I came home. I had taken leave from my job. So I had no job. The Gallery gave me around $150 a month for 2 or 3 months: no, it was a little more than that. But in a very scary way. The Whitney bought The Burial just about that time. And the Gallery was so peculiar about giving me the money sometimes I’d have to call 4 or 5 times for the check. And I needed it. I didn’t live sensibly enough so I could live on $150 a month. So I finally said give me $100 a month. I tried to teach privately. And then I got a one-day job back at Parsons. And I think that psychologically I had undergone a very bad experience. And so suddenly from someone who had been known I became unknown. It was like everything I had sort of worked for for a long time was rather difficult. I was very depressed. And so I had to start off like an invalid almost. I’d put something in front and almost trace it, fill it in. I wasn’t sure whether I’d ever be able to paint. So I painted this picture. It’s called The Shadow.
It’s a setup. But it’s a very simple form easel with an actual skeleton on it, and a bone on the floor and then the shadow of the skeleton on the thing. And in retrospect I certainly am not very happy about it. You know, it’s very morbid and I think subject matter can be murderous because no painting is worth anything unless it’s formally exciting in some kind of very different way. So I think this is just some sort of – you see when anything gets so straightly autobiographical and not much else, no matter what anybody else might see, I just don’t like the picture. That is never with me, too. And I find it’s just a curio out of my existence.”
Photographed in the Whitey Museum of American Art in NYC.
Excerpted from a Textual Analysis by Frank D’Antonio:
James Rosenquist’s Volunteer is dated 1964, but, according to Rosenquist, [it was] finished shortly before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
I think one of the coolest things about this painting is the use of fragmented symbols to depict the American life in the mid 20th century. The washing machine in the upper right speaks to a viewer as a symbol of American technological progress. The man in the business suit speaks as a symbol of how the American professional was dressing during this time. The ice cream speaks of American’s desire for “gustatory pleasure” (James Rosenquist. Volunteer. 1964. Art Institute of Chicago).
I like this painting because of how it can be interpreted in many different ways. My interpretation is that the artist is being cynical in this piece, depicting things that Americans were concerned with in the era of the mid 1960s. It is interesting to see how Rosenquist interpreted American culture at the time, symbolizing technological advancements, personal appearance, and personal pleasure being the main concerns of Americans at the time, concerns that are still on the top of the list amongst Americans.
The puzzle pieces with a piece missing are also an important aspect of the work. I found no insight into why they exist on the work, so I formed my own opinions. I believe that the missing puzzle piece is the artist separating himself from the mold of American culture he illustrates in this piece. He wants to break the mold as an artist and not fit in to the stereotype that he has depicted in Volunteer.
Many of Rosenquist’s other works have an underlying cynical message to them. Some depicted war machines, most often airplanes, representing his dislike for the war and global tension happening at that time. From my research, the most cynical and interesting part of the picture is Rosenquist’s image of his own palm which stands out past all of the other images. According the Rosenquist, the palm cynically represents “the hand that volunteers”. I see this being cynical, but at the same time pretty spot on. In my opinion, the artist volunteers his time to all who will view his work and will use it to interpret messages about their life and what they view important in it.
Rosenquist is telling us that modern technology, flashy self appearance, and delicious self indulgence are not bad things in and of themselves, but when put upon a pedestal and made the most important things in our lives, we lose grasp on the true meaning of life. We need to separate ourselves from the mold of society, the mold that tells us that bigger is better, only the good looking make it in life, etc, etc. We need to start living as human beings who help each other no matter what.
Volunteer By James Rosenquist is a very interesting piece of modern art, one that challenges us to use the painting as a mirror, and reflect upon ourselves when we look at it. Seeing how we fit the mold he has characterized, and how we can ultimately break out if it.
— Frank D’Antonio
Photographed By Gail at the Museum of Modern Art in March of 2014 NYC while on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago.