John Steuart Curry

Inventing the Middle West

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Regionalist painting had three major exponents: Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry. With these two artists Curry led the movement to create and celebrate what he felt was an indigenous and democratic American art — Regionalism — in a reaction against European modernist trends. While the works of Benton and Wood have received a great deal of scholarly and public attention, Curry’s work has historically been overlooked. John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West is the first comprehensive exhibition of Curry’s work in over 25 years. In this exhibition Patricia Junker, Associate Curator of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, reintroduces audiences to 45 of Curry’s finest paintings and drawings and evaluates Curry’s position in American art history.

Although Curry’s career spanned only two decades — from 1924, when he first exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York, to his death in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1946 — Curry produced paintings that stand today as American cultural icons. Through these two decades of dramatic social change, Curry appeared to struggle to find meaning in religious faith. He confronted challenges of modern life in subjects ranging from religious fanaticism to bigotry to environmental destruction to war, exposing the real danger posed by the self-righteous. His development came amidst sometimes bitter national and international debate on the appropriate language for a modern art, realism or abstraction.

Curry held fast to an art that took as its foundation the relation of humankind to nature and of men to women to one another. In doing so, his paintings inspired by the lives of people in rural Kansas gave form to issues that extended beyond America’s Middle West. At its best Curry’s art has the power to transcend region, and that, in the end, is what makes it such a revealing window onto a time and a place.

Despite Curry’s successes in the 1930s, his many memorable paintings now in museum collections, and a few notable efforts made in recent years to bring his work once again to public attention, he has never before received broad scholarly attention.

Other venues

  • Elvehjem Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin, March 7 through May 17, 1998
  • M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, June 13 through August 30, 1998
  • Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, October 11, 1998 through January 3, 1999


John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West was organized by the Elvehjem Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, with Patricia Junker, Associate Curator of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Major funding for John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West has been provided by the Henry Luce Foundation, Inc.; the National Endowment for the Humanities, dedicated to expanding American understanding of human experience and cultural heritage; and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, dedicated to the arts. Funding from the Ednah Root Foundation has made the exhibition possible at the Fine Arts Museums.

Currently on view