THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Dust Bowl Masterpieces At Olympia
Paintings by American painters of the Great Depression 'dust bowl years' are coming to London thanks to millionaire Rex Sinquefield, who is loaning part of his collection to the Olympia International Art & Antiques Fair this summer (June 18th to 28th, www.olympia–art–antiques.com).
The great artists of the American Midwest include Thomas Hart Benton, Joe Jones, Grant Wood, John Rogers Cox, John Atherton, John Steuart Curry and George Joe Mess. It is the first time they will be shown in the UK. The paintings are from the great era of austerity, making them newly relevant for a contemporary audience.
Mr Sinquefield was born in St Louis and raised at the St Vincent Orphanage there. He became director and owner of Dimensional Fund Advisors, and after retiring in 2006 he returned to the Midwest and has since devoted time and energy to local philanthropic ventures.
The American: Where did your interest in art and collecting come from?
Rex Sinquefield: Though I didn't grow up with money, I did grow up appreciating the arts. My mother loved opera; she had it on the radio all the time.
As early as my late teens I found myself fascinated with paintings. Admittedly, I did not know much. My education focused primarily on business, both at Saint Louis University and the University of Chicago. As my career began to get traction – I was working at the American National Bank and Trust Company in Chicago – I began to buy lithographs through the mail. Inexpensive and mostly by French artists, they allowed me to get comfortable with art hanging on my walls.
In Chicago and on trips back to St. Louis, I became a frequent visitor to the museums in each city. I would wander and look and take in the special exhibitions. I did the same as my work took me to cities such as Paris and London. I distinctly remember making it a goal to visit as many art museums in Paris as I could; the number 25 sticks in my head. Some of those experiences made a tremendous impact. The Art Institute of Chicago's 'Claude Monet: 1840–1926' exhibition in 1995 captivated me. And one of the best exhibitions that I ever visited was 'Max Beckmann and Paris', organized by the Saint Louis Art Museum in 1998.
Experiences such as those make you want to collect, and by the late 1990s I had started to do so more seriously. All the while I was reading about art. Study is important. It makes you prepared.
Why do you specialize in artists from the Midwest and the dust bowl years?
Regionalism speaks to me: The beauty of the land I love; the determination for preservation of it and a lifestyle; the knowledge of its potential destruction. The artists fight for freedom. It's a very American value. There hasn't been a time before of since that a group of Midwest artists created a political movement through their art.
Place is important to me, and in particular, the state of Missouri. I grew up here in St. Louis; it is my home. All the years I lived in California, I remained attached to Missouri.
One of my goals is to focus my collection on artists who brought distinction to the region as well as their profession. That really started with Benton. This is one area of the collection where I have depth and breadth; the same is true with Joe Jones. I discovered his work a bit later. Between the two of them, the core of my collection settles on two artists who brought Missouri distinction during the Depression era.
Is Benton your favorite artist in your collection?
Yes, look at his expression in his self–portrait. He dares us to defy him. I have always loved Benton. There is a lyricism to the way that he painted that touches me. One of my favorite paintings is his 'Persephone' at the Nelson–Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. I have collected Benton in some depth, including paintings and lithographs and one drawing. His scenes of Midwestern farms and wheat fields are important, but I also have some still lives as well as his finished oil study he painted for the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. Place and history converge in that work, as it does in a more recent purchase, 'Flood Disaster'. I find this painting amazing and purchased it at auction after a private showing in New York. I knew it had to come back to Missouri. It is Brenton's interpretation of the devastating flood that struck the western half of the state in 1951. I also have in my collection his iconic self–portrait from 1924/25, the one that was on the cover of Time magazine when Benton was declared America’s regionalist.
You're bringing these wonderful paintings to to London for the first time. They are not well known to British people. Are you aiming to educate them?
I suppose so; I want to share my passion for my love of the Midwest and its values: Freedom, connection to land, independence, space to breathe....
There's no place like home.
What do artworks from a previous time of austerity have to say to today's audience?
I don't look just at the austerity, but at the universal message the art conveys: protection of home and value. I think art has the ability to tap into a collective memory that transcends location. This art is about struggle and hope.
Art is a matter of heart for me. I have a political work of Joe Jones, "Danger, Building Unsafe, Condemned, Keep Away" that shows a woman evicted from her apartment building during the early 1930s. Arms crossed defiantly, she is not what you would call a beauty, but there is something compelling in her determination. I don't really care what Jones's politics were at the time (very Leftist who became a Communist). What Jones did capture– authentically, I think– is the experience of working–class people struggling to make a living during a difficult period in my country's history.
Some works I own show the land of Missouri that really speak to the beauty of the fields that produced the wheat on which, ultimately, the recovery of the nation depended during that turbulent time. But it is also about the work ethic of the farmers; the resilience of American individualism; the drive to achieve success, economically, politically and culturally.
You were raised at the St Vincent Orphanage in St Louis. How did you become so successful?
I worked hard. The German nuns in the orphanage taught me discipline; watching my mother struggle to provide for her family, through separating her children and going to work everyday taught me to work hard. I was lucky that I was able to prove an idea that worked.
When you retired you could have chosen to live in New York, Paris, London, on the West Coast... or anywhere. Why did you move back to the Midwest?
I did live in Chicago and Los Angeles for 30 years. I couldn't wait to come home. Missouri is the most beautiful place in the world. I'm so happy to be back.
The interest in the American countryside and the beauty and the mystery of the land is the common thread that ties my collection together. When I step back, I see an affirmation of my belief in America, the American Dream. With hard work, anything is possible. The lyricism and beauty of the countryside I live in here in Missouri makes that evident every day, and these artists capture that spirit of possibility. It is a matter of the heart for me, and of home.