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Swamp

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  • Description
    Oil on wood panel, 20 x 30 in.
    Signed, dated, and inscribed (at lower right): JOHN ROGERS COX / N.O. 1969
    Painted in 1969

    RECORDED: John Rogers Cox, “John Rogers Cox,” typescript [1982], photocopy in Hirschl & Adler Galleries archives, New York, n.p. // John Rogers Cox Retrospective, exhib. cat. (Terre Haute, Indiana: Sheldon Swope Art Gallery, 1982), no. 20, pl. 14 illus.

    EXHIBITED: Sheldon Swope Art Gallery, Terre Haute, Indiana, May 14–June 13, 1982, John Rogers Cox Retrospective, no. 20

    EX COLL.: The artist; to Dr. and Mrs. Charles L. Kibby, the artist’s sister and brother-in-law, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, February 4, 1970; by gift to the artist’s daughter, August 15, 2010, until 2015; to her estate, until the present

    An important exponent of Magic Realism during the mid-twentieth century, John Rogers Cox is best known for his carefully rendered portrayals of the wheatfields of western Indiana. (For a recent discussion of his life and career, see Marianne Richter, Dual Visions: John Rogers Cox, Artist and Curator, exhib. cat. [Terre Haute, Indiana: Swope Art Museum, 2012].) Indeed, Cox’s style went beyond mere representation: his dream-like and highly idiosyncratic compositions have been described as a form of “realism stylized almost to the point of surrealism, meticulously executed, deep in perspective and oddly prophetic” (Jo Gibbs, “Brittanica Inaugurates a Rotating Annual,” Art Digest [October 1, 1946]). Recognized for his discerning eye and keen interest in the work of living American artists, Cox also played a seminal role in developing the permanent collection of the Sheldon Swope Art Museum (known today as the Swope Art Museum) in Terre Haute, Indiana, where, during his brief but influential tenure as director during the early 1940s, he brought national attention to that institution by assembling a first-rate collection of paintings by Regionalists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood.

    Born in Terre Haute in 1915, Cox was a son of Wilson Naylor Cox, then president of the Terre Haute National Bank. He made his first drawing while recuperating from a broken leg at the age of five, and went on to study art with the painter William T. Turman at State High, the model high school of Indiana State Teachers College. In 1933, Cox’s parents enrolled him at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he was supposed to study business. However, the independent-minded Cox later switched to a Bachelor of Fine Arts program given by the university in association with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Following his graduation in 1938, Cox went to New York City to work as a commercial artist. Unable to find a job, he returned to Terre Haute after his father’s death, initially working as a bank messenger and later, as a teller.

    A pivotal moment in Cox’s career occurred in 1941 when Turman, in his capacity as President of the Board of Managers of the recently established Sheldon Swope Art Gallery, invited him to become the director. Cox readily accepted and at the age of twenty-six he became the youngest museum director in the country. He was the perfect choice for the job: in addition to overseeing the remodeling of the new facility, Cox—who once said “I personally prefer contemporary American art to any other” (Peyton Boswell, “Comments: Fostering His Own,” Art Digest [September 1, 1941], p. 3)—created an important legacy by acquiring thirteen paintings by Benton, Wood, Charles Burchfield, Edward Hopper, and other major Regionalists for the permanent collection. This act constituted the largest single purchase of work by living American artists by an American museum and its significance was duly noted by members of the national art press, among them Peyton Boswell, Jr., the influential editor of Art Digest, who described Cox as a man of “excellent taste . . . [with] a good knowledge of art, definite opinions, and young enough to be alert to the changes taking place in American art” (quoted in Eileen Jensen, “Swope
    Art Gallery Has Had Five Men as Its Directors,” Terre Haute Tribune, April 25, 1972, p. 9).

    During the early 1940s, Cox began painting in his spare time, focusing primarily on carefully delineated views of local wheatfields; it was said that he “loved to wander around the big wheatfields of Indiana,”gathering inspiration for the forceful landscapes he would paint later, from memory, back in his home-studio (see “John Roger Cox: Bank Clerk Wins Fame Painting Wheat Fields,” Life, July 12, 1948). Certainly, for Cox, the fertile farmlands around Terre Haute were more than topographical emblems of his home state: to him, their stark beauty evoked and emotional response. As he put it: “A wheat field has a whispering sound and an awe-inspiring quality like drifting music and, like an ocean, it gives you a lonely feeling” (as quoted in ibid.). Cox expressed his affinity for the lush wheatfields of the rural Midwest in what has become his best known work, Gray and Gold (1942, The Cleveland Museum of Art), a powerful rendering of rippling meadowlands at harvest time. Employing a pictorial formula that would become a hallmark of his style, he devoted approximately half of the composition to a large expanse of sky replete with storm clouds, their billowing shapes forming a contrast with the perpendicular and horizontal lines of the planar landscape. This now-iconic painting established Cox’s reputation in the art world, and through subsequent reproduction in national publications, led to his
    identification as an artist associated with the “super-real school” (“John Rogers Cox’s Painting Stirs Art Discussion,” Terre Haute Sunday Tribune, 1944).

    Cox remained in his position at the Sheldon Swope Art Gallery until 1943, when he resigned after he and Turman began to disagree over acquisition policies. He then joined the U.S. Army and went on to serve in the 22nd Medical Battalion. Following his discharge in 1945, Cox became a full-time artist, exhibiting his work at venues such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, where he was the recipient of the annual Popular Prize in 1946. In 1948—the year in which he was the subject of an article in Life magazine (see “John Rogers Cox: Bank Clerk Wins Fame Painting Wheatfields”)—Cox left Indiana and moved to Chicago, where he taught figure drawing and painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago until 1965. During the 1950s, he attracted attention for his unidealized depictions of nude women. Cox relocated from Chicago to Galena, Illinois, in 1965. However, his time there was brief. In 1967, a year after the birth of his daughter, Sophia, he moved with his family to New Orleans—a locale he felt was “an interesting place” that would “give him new ideas for his work” (information courtesy of the artist’s daughter, January 26, 2015). Both a flourishing cultural center and a popular tourist destination, New Orleans offered an array of colorful motifs for artists, ranging from cobblestone streets, old cemeteries, and jazz clubs to historic mansions and Creole cottages. Although Cox resided in the bustling French Quarter, the oils he executed during this period reflect his attraction to the Louisiana countryside, which he would visitregularly, seeking out and taking Polaroids of steamy bayous replete with lush trees and Spanish moss, as well as abandoned oil wells and farmhouses with rusting machinery. (When asked how he selected his subjects, Cox said it came about by “getting in the car and looking around the immediate areas.” See “John Rogers Cox, typescript of an interview conducted by Robert D. Kinsman, April 12, 1982, p. 1, photocopy in Hirschl & Adler Galleries Archives. Information relative to Cox’s use of Polaroids courtesy of the artist’s daughter, January 28, 2015). These images––as well as his ongoing reliance on memory and experience––inspired canvases as Swamp, a work that well exemplifies Cox’s painstaking technique and his innate skill in synthesizing elements of reality and the imagination.

    Swamp also demonstrates the introspective nature of Cox’s late period. Concerned about the changes wrought on nature by garbage, strip mining, oil spills, and landfills, Cox turned his attention to landscapes that, in contrast to the Edenic setting in Gray and Gold, were no longer pure and untainted. (For Cox’s late work, see Robert D. Kinsman, “John Rogers Cox: Romantic Realist” in John Rogers Cox Retrospective, exhib. cat. [Terre Haute, Indiana: Sheldon Swope Art Gallery, 1982].) Indeed, with its abandoned machinery and decaying trees desecrating the beauty of a local bayou, Swamp can be viewed as a late-twentieth-century allusion to the ravaging of nature by an industrialized society (a theme that has since been taken up by contemporary photographers of the industrial landscape, such as Edward Burtynsky and Richard Misrach). The otherworldly aspect of the painting is amplified by Cox’s non-naturalistic palette, his use of a vivid shade of red-orange invoking a sense of eeriness and perhaps alluding to his own outrage at man’s indifference to the ecology in his quest to provide material goods. As was his long practice, Cox gives equal measure to both the landscape and sky, filling the latter with
    an array of low-level stratus clouds that form a protective canopy over a fiery orb that casts an eerie glow across the setting below. By means of color, and by rendering every element of the composition with his characteristic precision and finesse, Cox succeeds in giving us a highly subjective interpretation of the natural environment. To be sure, although Cox often denied the presence of symbolism in his work, Swamp is an apt reflection of his belief that “good painting offers a mysterious pleasure that one cannot quite put his finger on because the painter, through honesty and hard work, has actually painted his own personality in a familiar subject” (“John Rogers Cox Writes About Himself and His Work,” American Artist 15 [October 1951], p. 67).

    According to his daughter, Cox was “a restless soul” who “didn’t like to stay in one place very long” (telephone interview with the artist’s daughter, January 28, 2015). For that reason (and wanting to escape the seasonal threats of hurricanes), Cox left the “Crescent City” and headed to Washington state, residing in Seattle and Chelan before settling in the city of Wenatchee in 1977. He remained there until the early 1980s, when he relocated permanently to Louisville, Kentucky, where he died in 1990
  • More Information
    Documentation: Signed
    Notes: Signed and dated (lower right): John Rogers Cox / N.O. 1969
    Period: 1950-1979
    Materials: Oil on wood panel
    Creation Date: 1969
    Styles / Movements: Post War
    Dealer Reference #: APG 8924.002
    Incollect Reference #: 552253
  • Dimensions
    W. 30 in; H. 20 in;
    W. 76.2 cm; H. 50.8 cm;
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