John Rogers Cox’s Somber Clouds

TERRE HAUTE, Indiana — I did not know about John Rogers Cox (1915–1990) until I juried the 79th Annual Wabash Valley Exhibition at the Swope Art Museum (Formerly the Sheldon Swope Art Gallery) in Terre Haute, Indiana. Encountering three of Cox’s memorable landscapes displayed in one of the museum’s galleries made me curious. Who was this American regionalist painter working in a Magic Realist style that shares something with Peter Blume, Grant Wood, and Ivan Albright, as well as German artists associated with the New Objectivity movement? Has he been largely forgotten because none of his paintings were as politically charged as Blume’s “Eternal City” (1934–37) or visually extreme as Albright’s “Into The World There Came a Soul Called Ida” (1929–30)? Has he been neglected because he was not prolific or because his work did not change very much once he attained his subject matter and style? Did the rise of the Abstract Expressionist brushstroke make it difficult to appreciate his attention to precise details? While these questions inevitably arise whenever I think about Cox’s paintings, they are soon overshadowed by the work itself. 

Cox was the first director of the Swope, which opened to the public on March 21, 1942. At the age of 26, he was the youngest museum director in the country. In his brief tenure at the museum (1942–43), he was tasked with establishing its collection. Making several trips to New York, he brought back 23 paintings, including works by Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Burchfield, Edward Hopper, and Grant Wood. LIFE magazine ran a double-page spread on Cox in 1948, highlighting “when he gave up banking for art” and illustrating two of his works, “Self Portrait” (n.d.) and “Wheat” (1946), which was awarded the 1946 Carnegie Popular Prize — an award he had previously won in 1944 — and was purchased by the National Bank of New York City.  

John Rogers Cox, “The Occupant” (1982), oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches; Swope Art Museum permanent collection, museum purchase, commissioned by the Museum for the Swope Art Museum’s 40th anniversary

In addition to being a museum director and artist, Cox was an influential teacher. In 1948, he moved to Chicago and began teaching figure drawing at the School of the Art Institute, where he was on the faculty until 1965. In an email from Jim Nutt, I learned that Robert Lostutter, who is known for his meticulous watercolors of human-avian hybrids and studied with Cox in 1958, thought highly of him. Lostutter told me by phone recently that Cox in 1958 did not let his students draw the figure until they demonstrated that they knew how to draw. Lostutter also said that he had kept a figure drawing from that class, and whenever he looked at it he thought fondly of Cox. 

Since the beginning of this century, Cox’s work has been included in a number of important group shows, including To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (March 11–September 4, 2011), curated by Alexander Nemerov. He has also been the subject of retrospectives at the Scope, first in 1982, on the 40th anniversary of the museum’s opening, and then in 2012, with Dual Visions: John Rogers Cox, Artist and Curator.

The eerily captivating “White Cloud” (1943), which was in the Smithsonian exhibition, is the first of Cox’s paintings that I saw at the Swope Art Museum. (According to the museum’s website, Cox added a few details in 1946.) The painting depicts two clouds that resemble mushroom caps, one nested beneath the other, floating above a barren field. The bright clouds stand in stark relief to the ominous gray and black sky, which takes up most of the composition.

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John Rogers Cox, “White Cloud” (1943, repainted in 1946), oil and acrylic on canvas, 37 x 45 1/2 inches; Swope Art Museum permanent collection, museum purchase

In the lower right of the barren field, composed of vertical rows of brown, rotted vegetables receding into the distance, Cox has depicted an abandoned plow. On the other side of the field are two bare, leafless trees and a gothic mansion rising from behind the horizon line. That diagonal pulls our attention across and into the pictorial space, culminating in an unwelcoming building with dark, curtainless windows, that seems out of place. A number of observers have described the clouds as a sign of hope, but they do not mention that the painting was made at the height of World War II, when collective anxiety was high. The luminous clouds — fluffy, empty shells — and the dark, foreboding sky seem to exist in different realities. This hardly appears to be a vision of hope. 

Born in the aftermath of World War I, Cox was a teenager during the Depression and a young adult during World War II. There is no path in the painting, no road to take. As viewers, we are both part of the scene and outside of it — an unsettling position that echoes our own choices in life. As beautifully controlled as the painting is, “White Cloud” also presents a ghastly vision of the world.

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