Recently the Columbus Museum of Art acquired a number of new acquisitions including this important American Scene painting by Joe Jones, a fitting tribute to the American worker as we celebrate Labor Day weekend. Threshing No. 1 is, without a doubt, a paean to the rural, working-class laborer and his mythic connection to the natural cycles of the land, a theme at the heart of American Scene painting. The farmer stands thigh-deep amidst a glorious golden field of wheat. Wheat, pitchfork, and hand converge in the very center of the painting, the spray of sheathes balanced at this fulcrum with the enlarged left hand at the end of the fork. The towering stature of the laborer and the projection of his enlarged hand wielding the pitchfork constitute a dynamic presence that does, in its way, make the rhythmic, stylized figures of Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry, and Thomas Hart Benton seem anemic in comparison. The vigor of the composition also ties this work to the Social Realism of the era, which was not missed by a number of contemporary critics, including Archibald MacLeish, who noted that “If this picture here seems non-political to you, thank Jones’s insistence on objectivity and examine more thoughtfully the face of the farmer and his left fist in yours (a probably deliberate paraphrase of the communist salute) which bring the whole landscape into line.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that Joe Jones exploded on the national art scene in 1935, when, as a completely unknown, former-house-painter-turned-fine-artist from St. Louis, his solo exhibition at the ACA Galleries in New York City became the most talked about event of the season. The exhibition garnered headlines in the New York Times, Fortune, Time, Magazine of Art, Newsweek, and The New Yorker. Jones had become a Communist out of his response to the deprivation of the Great Depression, and the works in the exhibition—such as our own American Justice, 1933; Roustabouts, 1934, now in the Worcester Art Museum; and We Demand, 1934, in the Butler Institute of American Art—forcefully conveyed this intense social concern. In fact, Jones is noted, historically, for being one of the first artists to legitimize social realism within the art world elite, and for providing a much needed model to other artists who had been struggling to push the propaganda of social commentary graphics into the realm of fine art. As the New York Times noted, “In his case one never suspects that painting, as an art, has figured exclusively, for him, as a crude machine by means of which propaganda broadsides may be catapulted into the face of the public. On the contrary, a spectator is pretty sure to feel the artist’s intense concern for esthetic content.”
When the art world clamored to attend the opening of his second solo exhibition the next year at the Walker Galleries, they were again taken aback and left the galleries again animated—this time by canvas after canvas that unapologetically reveled in the lush wheat fields of Missouri. Jones was unanimously anointed “the Professor of Wheat,” and the vigor of his style was considered by critics a great improvement upon the increasingly stale productions of Regionalist exemplars Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood. The unanimous start of this second exhibition was Threshing No. 1, and, in fact, this specific painting was the work most associated with the artist through the remainder of his career. The strength of the art world’s adulation and confidence in Jones’s historic position was confirmed in 1937, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought Threshing No. 1 for $1,000 from the 28-year-old, making him one of the youngest artists, still, to enter the collection. The work was shown in their American galleries on a regular basis until around 1950, when the rise of abstraction effectively marginalized figurative, “populist” artists such as Jones.
The work is an incredibly significant addition to CMA’s collection on multiple fronts. Threshing No. 1 is a signature Regionalist farm scene that heroicizes the rural laborer. Jonas’s painting is one of those very rare works that rises to the top echelon of American Scene aspirations. As the art world continues the trend of the past decade in returning attention to the country’s figurative artistic tradition, artists such as Jones have received increasing critical acclaim. In this role, Threshing No. 1 will be a cornerstone in our American Scene collection. It offers a prominent counterpoint to other signature American Scene works in the CMA collection that celebrate the urban working-class, such as Bellows Snow Dumpers. Its evocation of the power of the natural environment is a partner to Arthur Dove’s Thunderstorm. Furthermore, in its inclusion of a rural environment—grain elevator, Missouri mule, and threshing equipment—it offers a compelling parallel to depictions of the urban environment, such as Precisionist works like Charles Demuth, Modern Conveniences, or Niles Spencer, Buildings in our Howald Collection, or Edward Hopper’s Morning Sun, and Reginald Marsh’s Hudson Bay Fur Company.
(Threshing No. 1, Joe Jones, 1935. Museum Purchase).
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Dominique Vasseur, Director of Curatorial Administration and Curator of European Art