Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

Minnesota's female modernists; playwright Tom Poole dies

Once in a while, I'll hear somebody say they don't like modern art. Actually, it's more than once in a while. Pretty much anytime the subject of art comes up in various online forums, at least one brave soul will attempt to distinguish the excellence of their tastes by opining disdain for modern art.

I have not always been civil in my response. I try to be now. But it's hard to hold your tongue when you want to communicate that they couldn't possibly know enough about modern art to hate all of it. After all, we're talking about a loose affiliation of movements that created art from between the 1860s and the 1970s throughout the world. You throw out modern art, you're tossing aside everything from the gloriously curved and decadent art nouveau to the unmanipulated photographic representation of the world that was called straight photography to American modernists like Georgia O'Keeffe, who painted flowers. Flowers!

Some people don't like abstraction, but modernism includes photorealists like Chuck Close. And some people don't like that sort of representation, but modernism includes the pop art and op art that helped define both the fine arts and the commercial arts of the '60s. To say "I don't like modern art" is to throw out the work of a century of artists. It's not even like when somebody says "I don't like hip-hop" — also a foolish comment, as hip-hop is enormously diverse, but does fit into a recognizable genre. Modern art encompasses many genres. Too many to get around to hating all of it.

Pioneer Modernists: Minnesota's First Generation of Women Artists
Courtesy of Afton Press
Pioneer Modernists: Minnesota's First Generation of Women Artists

As an example of this, there is a wonderful book called "Pioneer Modernists: Minnesota's First Generation of Women Artists." The book is by Julie L'Enfant, a professor of art history at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, and published by Afton Press. It's a big book — hardbound and heavy, just right for a coffee table, and filled with reproductions of paintings, illustrations and sculptures by eight artists. As you might guess from the title, these artists have three things in common: They have Minnesota roots, they are women, and there is something decidedly modernist about their art.

The book is also a display of the extraordinary diversity that an be found under the rubric "modern." Not only are these artists quite different from each other, all of them created an impressively diverse body of work. The artists are as follows: There is Wanda Gag, born in New Ulm, who is perhaps best known for a book she authored and illustrated for children called "Million of Cats"; There is Hastings-born Clara Mairs, who moved to Paris just in time to be part of the Lost Generation; There is Alice Hugy, born in Switzerland, trained in St. Paul, whose paintings had a shimmering expressionism to them, but whose pen and ink drawings had exceptional clarity of line; There is Elsa Laubach Jemne, a St. Paul Central High graduate who began painting very keen fashion images and went on to paint Native Americans, eventually becoming adopted into the Blackfeet Indian Tribe.

Further: There is Frances Cranmer Greenman, who hailed from South Dakota during its actual pioneer days, and specialized in portraiture that often had bold colors and patterns and sometimes verged on the satiric; there is Evelyn Raymond, who offered sculpture classes on West 38th Street in Minneapolis and whose own work incorporated both African folk art and bas-relief pieces that feel much like the sorts of murals of muscular working men and women that the WPA used to encourage. There is Jo Lutz Rollins, the first women professor in the art department of the University of Minnesota, who especially liked to paint watercolors of architecture, which often feel almost like sketches, with only the necessary lines and colors put in. And finally there is the impressively named Ada Augusta Wolf, who in 1914 won first prize in painting at the Minnesota State Fair and would continue to exhibit her work at the Fair every year after that.

Wolf is, as author L'Enfant points out, the "least-known" of the artists in the book, and she has only made one previous appearance in a scholarly piece about modern art. Wolfe mostly seemed to paint in oil, and she mostly seemed to favor scenes of Minnesota. Presumably she painted these en plein air — that is to say, with her actually setting up an easel outside in order to directly paint what she sees, which shows remarkable commitment on her part, as she painted more than a few winter scenes. Her work is made with muted colors, including mustards, deep greens, the orange of a smoldering ember. She often painted with a loose, almost jittery hand; one gets the sense that, were the paintings to move, they would vibrate continuously.

So here we have a small sampling of modern art, linked by gender and geography, and not only are no two artists in the book alike, but most of them produced work that was quite different from other work they had done. Modernism encourage experimentation, and so you could not count on an artist to be exactly like themselves from day to day, much less count on them to be like anybody else. This is why I feel that nobody can truly hate modern art. There's just too much of it, and it's too varied, for anybody's hate to be large enough to encompass. It's like hating the Scandinavia. Really? You hate all of Scandinavia? Have you tried the chocolate? Have you seen the fjords?

Let me shift to mentioning something quite unrelated, but I feel it must be noted. Last week, I wrote of playwright and actor Tom Poole, who was struck by a car and left comatose after attending a play. Yesterday, Poole died.

Expressions of shock and grief at once spread across the social media landscape. Peter Sagal, host of NPR's "Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me," wrote "Tom Poole: actor, writer, agent, bon vivant, father chess player, and beloved fixture in Twin Cities theater scene. RIP." The Twitter page of the collection of playwrights known as the Workhaus Collective said of Poole that he "was a great and vibrant man and will be missed." Actor, playwright, and producer Joseph Scrimshaw, who wrote about Poole for my column last week, noted that "My good friend, Tom Poole, once said to me: ‘I'd write a play about the Bataan Death March, but it'd be a comedy.' Goodbye, Tom, and thanks."

Finally, Rifftrax-member and playwright Bill Corbett, whom I interviewed last week, and who helped set up a donations page to help out Poole's family (which is still accepting donations), tweeted the following last night, just before signing off for the evening:

"Heartbreaking day. Tomorrow I'll try to be funny again, knowing that Tom had little patience with anything staying unfunny for too long."

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox