Treasures from the Vault: John Rogers Cox

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Looking out the window as we were driving to Minnesota in mid-August, I was struck by what is so characteristic of the Midwestern landscape: farm after farm; usually soybeans, corn, or wheat. Although so ordinary, there was something so captivating as the wind blew the rows of crops, forming rhythmic ripples in fields all neatly organized into geometric and organic shapes. I was seeing miles of corn, but I was reminded of John Rogers Cox’s wheat fields in the painting Summer.  

A painting of golden wheat fields gainst a dark sky and barren landscape. A single cloud floats above the golden fields and a dirt path bisects the two fields. In the bottom right corner sits a rusty tractor.
John Rogers Cox, American, 1915-1990. Summer. Oil on artist’s board, 1954. Gift of Joan and Bill McNagny, 2009.01. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Artist, educator, and museum professional, John Rogers Cox was born and grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana. In 1938 he received his B.F.A. from a joint program between the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.   

According to a Life Magazine article on the artist in the July 12, 1948 issue, Cox gave up his $1,200 annual salary as a bank teller to become the first director at his hometown’s Swope Art Museum (formerly Sheldon Swope Art Gallery). He was also the youngest museum director in the U.S. at age 26. During his tenure, from 1941 to 1943, Cox was able to amass a strong collection of American Scene paintings by then contemporary artists Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Burchfield, Edward Hopper, and Grant Wood, among others. While modernist abstract styles from Europe were forming a stronger influence, these artists focused instead on creating expressions of an innate American art.  

In 1948, Cox began teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the city became his home for the next 20 years. He actively exhibited, and was included in American Exhibition of Paintings 56th Annual at the Art Institute of Chicago, Contemporary American Painting at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1948-49, and the FWMoA’s painting, Summer (1954), was exhibited at the annual Hoosier Salon in 1955. 

Cox explored the wonders of the familiar which, for him, were cloud formations and wheat fields, taken from his memories of living in Terre Haute. The subject of Summer is wheat, a common sight observed along Indiana rural roads. Cox described the wheat field as a place that “has a whispering sound and an awe-inspiring quality like drifting music, and like an ocean, it gives you a lonely feeling.’”i 

Similarly, American farm life was central to the works of regionalist artists Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Wood’s lithograph, entitled Fertility, is aptly named as repeated, stylized corn stalks form rows that shoot off into the distance. Dated 1939, Wood’s image of plentitude didn’t realistically describe a country still experiencing the economic crisis and hardship of the Great Depression. 

A print of a farmstead, with a house shaded by a tree in the background, the barn and silo in the middle ground, and stalk of corn in ordered rows in the foreground. Completed in black-and-white.
Grant Wood, American, 1891-1942. Fertility. Lithograph on paper, 1939. Gift of the Betty N. Logan Estate, 1994.08. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. PD.

Despite the artist’s precision, Cox’s painting also takes on an abstract quality with its yellow, amoeba shaped fields. They are set on a hillside that recalls the undulating topography of Benton’s sunny harvest scene in Cradling Wheat (1938) at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

While the agrarian theme is in keeping with his regionalist contemporaries, Cox replaced their sense of reassuring abundance with an ominous undercurrent. Some historians have suggested symbolism in his works during the war years. What would be more patriotic than painting amber waves of grain?  

Cox’s most famous painting is Gray and Gold at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA). It won the second medal in the 1942 exhibition Artists for Victory: An Exhibition of Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Artists for Victory, Inc. teamed up with artists who helped do their part in supporting the war effort through their work. CMA Curator Mark Cole compares the gold farmland with the gray, menacing storm clouds as the threat that war and Fascism posed on democracy.ii 

Our post-war painting, Summer, shares the haunting quality of Gray and Gold. The dark sky features a single, peculiar cloud formation. The lush golden fields contrast with the bare trees all set in an unnaturally still environment. The abandoned farm equipment emphasizes the lack of human presence. This predilection for mystery and foreboding is reason for associating Cox with Magic Realist painters, a term originating in post-WWI Germany and used subsequently in the exhibition Americans 1943: Realists and Magic-Realists organized by the Museum of Modern Art. Director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. recognized this general trend towards a new objectivity in America. He defined it as “a term sometimes applied to the work of painters who by means of an exact realistic technique try to make plausible and convincing their improbable, dreamlike or fantastic visions.'”iii Artists, such as Ivan Albright, Peter Blume, Paul Cadmus, Philip Evergood, and George Tooker, probed psychological experiences, such as alienation and anxiety, in a highly exacting manner. 

Cox was not an extremely prolific painter, which has encouraged his enthusiasts to track down his works in museums. In addition to the Swope Art Museum and Cleveland Museum of Art, Cox’s work is in the collections of the Butler Institute of American Art, the Flint Institute of Art, the Norton Museum of Art, and the Saint Louis Art Museum.   

i “John Rogers Cox: Bank clerk wins fame painting wheat fields,” Life Magazine (12 July 1948), 87,  

ii Mark Cole, “Clouds of War,” Cleveland Museum of Art. 

iii Dorothy C. Miller and Alfred H. Barr Jr., eds., American Realists and Magic Realists (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1943), 5. 

Leave a Reply

error: Right click disabled for copyright protection.