Couple Shares Love of Regionalism in Exhibit of Feisty Depression-Era Talent Joe Jones

Works from Jim and Virginia Moffett Collection on view at Albrecht-Kemper Museum

When Jim and Virginia Moffett began buying pictures around 1990, they were advised by Henry Adams, then curator of American art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, to “stay within your region.” Adams believed that focusing on artists with local connections would enable the Moffetts to have a superior and more organized collection.

Now, a quarter-century after they began collecting, the Moffetts are concentrating on organizing various museum exhibitions to share their art with the public and provide wider exposure for some of the artists who may not be so well known on a national level.

One of those artists is Joe Jones (1909 – 1963), a Depression-era champion of struggling workers and onetime Communist. “The Restless Regionalist: The Art of Joe Jones,” opening June 9 at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art in Saint Joseph, features nearly four dozen works by Jones, drawn largely from the Moffetts’ collection. The exhibit includes paintings, works on paper and even a piece of Stonelain pottery created by the artist.

The Moffett collection focuses on American works of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s by artists from Missouri, Kansas and Colorado. One of the first works they purchased was the circa 1935 painting by Jones, “City Rooftops,” which remains a favorite of Virginia’s.

When the Moffetts saw an exhibit of Jones’ works at the St. Louis Art Museum several years ago, they realized that the artist was a talent deserving more attention. As the number of works they owned by Jones grew, they began to consider creating a one-man show. “The Restless Regionalist” is one of a dozen exhibits of works from their collection that the Moffetts have coordinated to date, including “Printmaking in Kansas City: The Moffett Collection,” recently shown at the Albrecht-Kemper.

“I’m not interested in painting pretty pictures to match pink and blue walls. I want to paint things that knock holes in walls.”
— Joe Jones

A Workers’ Champion

Joseph John Jones was born in St. Louis in 1909; his father was a house painter and the family’s financial situation was precarious. His troubled childhood included time spent in a detention center, running away from home as well as an arrest for vagrancy. Jones was never able to afford traditional art studies; he dropped out of school to work with his father. Jones’ artistry was essentially self-taught.

As a young man, Jones saw firsthand the effects of the Great Depression in St. Louis. Wages were cut for those who still managed to be employed; many businesses and individuals were forced to declare bankruptcy. At times, even his own family had to depend on government relief. His reputation as a regionalist was derived from his depictions of workers, including those who toiled on the Mississippi River wharves and field hands on nearby farms. But his subject matter grew more political, exposing poverty, racial injustice and social unrest. His sympathy for the unemployed extended to the art classes he taught to those out of work.

Jones’ first exhibition, held in a dance studio, caught the attention of the St. Louis Art Museum’s director and one of its board members. In 1933, ten patrons created a “Joe Jones Club,” which paid the young artist a modest amount every week, with each member receiving a painting in return. This support allowed him to spend time at the artist colony in Provincetown, Mass.

While Jones had been familiar with the basic tenets of Communism back home, he studied the writings of Karl Marx with a group in Provincetown, and in 1933 he joined the American Communist Party. He made this comment the same year: “I’m not interested in painting pretty pictures to match pink and blue walls. I want to paint things that knock holes in walls.”   Certainly, his dramatic depictions of lynching and hungry children challenged the notion that he was simply a recorder of everyday Midwestern life.

Soon after his trip to Massachusetts, he began to show some of his works in museums on the East Coast. He did spend a few more years in the Midwest, completing several mural commissions for a number of U.S. post offices and beginning a series of paintings about wheat farming. (A lithograph that relates to his painting, “Missouri Wheat Farmers,” is included in the exhibition.) Jones’ affiliation with the Communist party was not popular in St. Louis, and his enthusiastic discussions in art classes caused him to be dismissed from a teaching job. He moved permanently to the New York area in 1936.

Jones enlisted in 1943 with the U.S. Department of War’s combat artist program after attesting that he was “willing to swear that he never had any intention or obligation to disrupt the American Government.” He was posted to Fort Richardson, near Anchorage, Alaska. “Eskimo Women Fishing,” a transitional work from the same year, shows a marked change in the artist’s stylistic approach. There is a new-found delicacy and lightness in the picture; space is somewhat flattened and forms have been simplified. Jones developed a close friendship with the artist Henry Varnum Poor, and some give him the credit for the new direction in Jones’ work after 1943.

Poor’s portrait of his friend is one of the few non-Jones works included in the exhibition. At the end of the war, Jones felt less angry about the state of American society and not so compelled to make social commentary a central theme of his work. By the 1950s, he no longer considered himself a Communist.

His later subjects are often landscapes that feature a less somber palette; the solidly rendered forms of his early paintings have given way to a feeling of lightness and delicate lines. In a 1960 color screen print, “Head Lights and Tail Lights,” the artist reduced details to an absolute minimum; the work seems light-years away from the “City Rooftops” of 35 years earlier. The dispassionate subject matter of his late career would not have knocked holes in any walls.

Joe Jones was restless in many ways — not just politically in his embrace and subsequent disavowal of Marxist theory but also in his art. His early style and subject matter evolved and changed in an unpredictable fashion. Although some pigeonholed him as a regionalist, this exhibition proves that he is worth another look.

“The Restless Regionalist: The Art of Joe Jones” opens June 9 and continues through Sept. 10 at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, 2818 Frederick Ave., Saint Joseph. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for seniors, $1 for those under 18 and students, and free to children under 6 and members. For more information, 816.233.7003 or www.albrecht-kemper.org.

After it closes in St. Joseph, the exhibit will travel to the Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery in Lindsborg, Kan., where it will open Nov. 5.

Images: Collection of James and Virginia Moffett

About The Author: Nan Chisholm

Nan Chisholm is an art consultant and appraiser of 19th- and 20th-century paintings. After a long association with Sotheby’s, she founded her own business in 2003.  She has appeared as a fine art appraiser on Antiques Roadshow since its inception in 1995.  Based in New York, she grew up in Kansas City and visits frequently.

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