Art in Missouri: undocumented and underappreciated

Feb 22, 2013

A painting by Thomas Hart Benton, one of Missouri's most famous painters.
Credit Thomas Hawk / Flickr

Missouri artists might be suffering from an identity crisis -- but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Artists in Missouri lack an identifiable, common thread. It's hard to find that thing that makes them "Missourian."

“Most of the good artists here saw themselves as part of the national scene" said Melissa Williams who owns Melissa Williams Fine Art in Columbia. "Maybe that's why people don't have a concept of Missouri painters, because they didn't have a concept of themselves,”

According to Williams, Missouri art is often overlooked in the history books because it doesn’t have a set of traits that identify it as a group.

Missouri art has a “secret history,” she said. It's one that rarely recorded unless the likes of Thomas Hart Benton or George Caleb Bingham are involved. The need for publications about Missouri’s more obscure artists is paramount, she said, but there seems to be a lack of resources to fund them.

On Monday's episode of Intersection, Williams and her peers in the art world broke down the problem of Missouri's place in the landscape of American painting.

Joan Stack on Missouri's unique position in the national art scene

I think Missouri is a microcosm of the nation, but rarely recognized as such, so we find all kinds of things going on here that surprise people. Missouri is neither northern or southern, eastern or western. Sometimes we consider ourselves Midwest, sometimes we're grouped with the southerners. It’s really difficult to categorize Missouri and Missourians. -- Joan Stack, curator of art collections, State Historical Society of Missouri

Stack on Missouri's connections to Pollock

The great Missouri painter Thomas Hart Benton was the teacher of Jackson Pollock...Although Pollock didn't speak a lot about Benton as an influence, the movement, the energy of Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings is clearly reflected in what Pollock is doing... Benton is always talking about the formal qualities, about the importance of rhythm, about the importance of shape and line and the composition all working together to create a certain energy. Movement was very important to Benton and that's something that really appears in Pollock’s work...He'll often have some strong currents in his work that are very Benton-esque. -- Joan Stack

Is there a ‘Missouri’ way to make art?

You do a bit of a disservice to pigeonhole Missouri artists as using a ‘Missouri’ theme... Certainly there are some I can think of... but there are people who are doing complete abstractions that you wouldn't be able to take a literal Missouri thread out of... We have incredible artists who are living and producing in Missouri, and they're producing everything from ‘A’ to ‘Z.’ And that's what we need to celebrate. It's not just the nods to Missouri. -- Jennifer Perlow, owner, PS Gallery.

On Columbia’s art community

When I started the gallery several years ago, there was a lack, certainly locally, of a cohesive arts community. One of the things that I have tried to work with other people within the arts community to do is establish a sense of self within the arts community. To provide an opportunity for people currently working in the arts to stay here and show here and be celebrated here. To give the public the opportunity to be vested in the arts community... and I think we've had some success in doing that. -- Jennifer Perlow

Watch or listen to the full Intersection show here.