High Museum’s ‘Cross Country’ is a sweeping view of America

Seeing the 200 paintings and photographs in the new show "Cross Country," which opens Feb. 12 at the High Museum of Art, one is left with the resolute impression that it's a big country.

The show puts together trained artists and self-taught artists, scenes of Southwestern deserts and Northeastern factories, in a sweeping attempt to show how American artists turned toward their own native land, and found their inspiration at home in the first half of the 20th century.

These creators demonstrate that great art doesn’t have to come from New York or Chicago — or, especially, Europe — but can happen anywhere in the country, and, when it does, it emerges with a local accent, hence the subtitle, “The Power of Place in American Art, 1915-1950.”

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"We're trying to unpack these stories that tell about art in the beginning of the 20th century, and complicate them a little," said Stephanie Heydt, Margaret and Terry Stent Curator of American Art.

The simple story is that modernism began in the city. The complicated story is that it began in many places and in many flavors, she said.

The High organized the show in collaboration with the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pa., where a more compact version was staged over the past four months.

The Brandywine show focused more narrowly on the interplay of rural and urban influences in the growth of American modernism, while the High’s show casts a broader net, also examining the unique influence of five regions and the interplay between trained and untrained artists.

“This gives us an opportunity to layer Grandma Moses and Georgia O’Keeffe,” said Heydt, walking past an enormous mural of a rosy-colored Southwestern desert from Maynard Dixon.

The show fills the cavernous Cousins Special Exhibitions Gallery, and in fact, goes beyond. Only one of Atlanta artist Hale Woodruff's Talladega murals is included in the "Cross Country" show, but five more are also on display in the Anne Cox Chambers wing, telling the story of the black experience in the New World, from the Amistad Massacre to the enrolling of former slaves in the Alabama college, one of the first open to African-Americans.

Three curatorial departments — photography, American art, and self-taught art — collaborated on the show, which includes 70 works from the High’s permanent collection.

Some of the highlights:

  • "Red Butte With Mountain Men" by Maynard Dixon: An 8-by-17-foot mural of a magnificent carnelian scene from the Southwest, majestic and motionless, this work dominates the view to the left as you enter the Cousins gallery.

  • "Opening Day at Talladega College" by Hale Woodruff: This mammoth color-bomb is one of six Hale Woodruff murals on display at the High in connection with this show, and anchors the view to the right as you walk into "Cross Country." At 20 feet wide, this one is the biggest of the six. This is the first time all six have been on display at the High since the museum helped restore the 1938 murals and sent them on a national tour in 2012.
  • The Wyeths: The show offers some large-scale N.C. Wyeth paintings, including the psychedelic "In a Dream I Meet General Washington," in which the artist speaks with the famous Founding Father, who is seated on a white horse while a river of Revolutionary War soldiers flows by.

The N.C. Wyeths are a revelation for anyone who has admired his illustrations, but the real treat is seeing his paintings next to those of his son, Andrew Wyeth. Andrew Wyeth’s “Black Hunter” and “The Stone Fence” move us away from flights of fancy and closer to unsettling reality, grounded with a powerful technique.

  • Grant Wood: "Appraisal," in which a city lady bargains with a country woman for a chicken, is full of sly humor. The buyer is decked out in fine clothes, but the glamour of her beaded purse can't compete with the rich herringbone of the chicken's feathers.

The artists in this show recognize that their own country (and their own backyards) are worthy subjects. Wood spent time in Paris before returning to his native Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to paint his most famous work, “American Gothic.” A quote from Wood, reproduced in large letters on the gallery wall, sums up his revelation: “I spent 20 years wandering around the world hunting ‘arty’ subjects to paint. I came back … and the first thing I noticed was the cross-stitched embroidery of my mother’s kitchen apron.”

A case in point: Self-taught master Grandma Moses from Hoosick Falls, N.Y., “ends up becoming one of the best-known artists of the 1950s,” said Heydt, “as well-known as Jackson Pollock.”

The time period also changed attitudes about who can qualify as an artist, said Heydt, bringing recognition to women, to African-Americans, to untrained artists, and to people, like Wood, from out in the sticks.

The travels of trained artists brought them in contact with folk artists who influenced their styles, so that Jacob Lawrence began to experiment with the flattened perspective and simplification of form seen in artists such as Horace Pippin.

Is the story of “Cross Country” one narrative or several? “We don’t pretend to know the answer,” said Heydt. “You could do 30 versions of this show and each one would be different.”


“Cross Country: The Power of Place in American Art, 1915-1950”

Through May 7. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $14.50 age 6 and up; free: 5 and under. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E. 404-733-4400, www.high.org.