The One That Got Away

Cincinnati helped save iconic Modernist mural, but wasn't able to keep it

One of the most famous and important paintings in Cincinnati is Joan Miro’s 1947 “Mural for the Terrace Plaza Hotel,” now at Cincinnati Art Museum. With its brilliant colors and abstracted yet mysteriously, organically symbolic forms, it has become a local — and national — icon of Modernism.

But as important as Miro’s mural — which measures 8-by-30 feet — is to Cincinnati, there is another Modernist one that was here briefly but got away. It is Stuart Davis’ “Swing Landscape.”

Still, it should be pointed out, Cincinnati played an important role in saving it when its owners, the New Deal-era federal Works Progress Administration, didn’t know what to do. (The WPA’s Federal Art Project employed artists, including Davis.)

While “Swing Landscape” is smaller than Miro’s mural, at 7-by-14 feet it is still quite large. It is a key piece by a giant of American Modernism whose work anticipated both Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. The Philadelphia-born Davis, who died in 1964 at age 71, was a champion of 20th-century European art and combined its influences with the American vernacular.

“Swing Landscape” encapsulates many of Davis’ influential ideas on art — splashily, colorfully abstract on first glance, it subtly reveals autobiographical imagery from his summers spent in Gloucester, Mass., on Cape Ann. And it also has a sense of swinging, angular movement that visually approximates his beloved Jazz.

The painting now occupies pride of place at Indiana University’s art museum, a handsome, suitably Modern building constructed on the Bloomington campus in 1982. It was actually the first work purchased for the museum, back in 1942, before there even was a building. A group called the Cincinnati Modern Art Society arranged the sale after it had been shown here in late 1941.

“We date the start of the museum to acquiring ‘Landscape,’” says Jenny McComas, curator of Western Art After 1800 for the museum. She says Henry Hope, who was director of the Fine Arts Department and eventually the museum director, wanted more art on campus. “Especially Modern art — there was not much in Indiana at the time. He heard ‘Swing Landscape’ was available.”

He heard about it through Peggy Frank, art director and co-founder (in 1939) of the Cincinnati Modern Art Society, which eventually evolved into the today’s Contemporary Arts Center.

The society’s archives, stored at University of Cincinnati, contain a 1941 statement by Frank about the group’s purpose: “There was a specific need for this society because little attention had been paid to the field of contemporary art by art organizations of this city in the past, with the result that the great mass of the Cincinnati public was almost totally ignorant of this vital phase of life today.”

Frank left the society in early 1942 to marry another important Modernist painter, Ralston Crawford, and move to Buffalo. But in the fall of 1941, at Cincinnati Art Museum, the CMAS held a show of paintings by Davis and another Modernist, Marsden Hartley. “Swing Landscape” had a stunning debut in Cincinnati.

“It took up the whole wall of a gallery,” Mrs. Crawford, now 92, says today, by phone from her home in Santa Fe.

After Cincinnati, the show went to Indiana University for just a bit more than a week in early December.

By showing “Swing Landscape” in Cincinnati, the society may have helped save it. The WPA had commissioned Davis to do one of 12 abstract murals for the under-construction, low-income Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn. But it was rejected for reasons still unclear today — in the book Stuart Davis, author Patricia Hills’ says he had a disagreement with his supervisor. It showed once at the WPA’s Federal Art Gallery in New York in 1938 and then went into storage.

Davis was friends with Ralston Crawford, to whom Frank was already engaged when she worked at the Museum of Modern Art in summer of 1941, while planning the Davis-Hartley Cincinnati show. So with Davis’ encouragement, she borrowed “Swing Landscape” from the WPA.

Correspondence at Indiana shows Frank made an attempt to have the society purchase the mural for the Cincinnati Art Museum, since it was essentially homeless. Davis wrote Frank in early December saying, “If it transpired, it would be a source of great satisfaction to me.”

And a letter to Frank from a WPA official in New York offered to “allocate the mural” for the cost of $1 per square foot – or $105. (In The New Deal for Artists, author Richard D. McKinzie notes that already by 1965, a Davis WPA mural would be worth $100,000 on the open market.)

However, just a few weeks later, she wrote to a WPA official in New York that “the Board of the (society) has decided not to take allocation of the Davis mural.” But she did contact Indiana, where Hope was interested and a sale was made. The society, which was safekeeping the mural, sent it to Indiana in early 1942.

Today she says, “I just don’t know that there was much of an effort. We didn’t have a building — we were lodged in Cincinnati Art Museum. I can’t remember why they didn’t take it, and (Indiana) wanted it.” (Cincinnati Art Museum did acquire Davis’ smaller, 1924 painting “Odol” in 1972.)

Indiana has been proud of the mural ever since. According to a 2007 catalogue raisonné of Davis’ work, it made its debut there as a backdrop for Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra in the school’s large Alumni Hall. Swinging, indeed.