'Radical' images of America's woes

'St. Louis Riverfront,' c. 1932, portrays the artist's hometown.

"St. Louis Riverfront," c. 1932, portrays the artist's hometown.

Don't know who the artist Joe Jones is?

"You're not alone," said Kevin Sharp, director of Dixon Gallery and Gardens, where the exhibition "Joe Jones: Radical Painter of the American Scene" opens Sunday for display through April 17.

'Threshing No. 1,' 1935, by Joe Jones. The American farmer was among subjects whose plight Jones sought to illuminate.

"Threshing No. 1," 1935, by Joe Jones. The American farmer was among subjects whose plight Jones sought to illuminate.

Jones was born in St. Louis in 1909. By the late 1930s, he was well known as an artist devoted to the plight of the American farmer and worker, turning out paintings and murals that depicted the depredations of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, as well as indictments of lynching, tenant farming and other social ills.

"Joe Jones was in the thick of it," said Sharp, who contributed an essay on the artist for the exhibition catalog. "He may not have a name as recognizable as Thomas Hart Benton or John Steuart Curry and other painters of the American scene, but he's certainly due for a reappraisal and a boost in reputation."

The exhibition was organized by the Saint Louis Museum of Art.

Jones had little formal training in art. His education stopped after the eighth grade, and the 14-year-old boy became apprenticed to his father, a house painter. By 1930, however, he had begun showing work in local and regional exhibitions, and in 1931 he had his first solo exhibition, in a dance studio. Soon after came commissions for murals, for radio station KMOX and for the wife of the president of the Rice-Stix Co. Not bad for an artist who was only 22.

The exhibition opens with a series of portraits, self-portraits, landscapes and cityscapes that reveal a young, talented but provincial artist struggling to understand, assimilate and master the prevailing modes of painting that dominated the late 1920s and early 1930s in Europe and America. Possibly Jones was more familiar with these styles from magazines than he was from encountering them in actuality.

While his technical touch is mature, he allows strains of Cezanne's Post-Impressionism, classic Cubism and Art Moderne to influence each piece, sometimes simultaneously. By the mid-'30s, he had settled on a looser, freer manner reminiscent of other American scene artists yet marked by refreshing individualism and a keen eye for detail.

Jones' success and his patronage in his hometown began to abate after he joined the American Communist Party in 1933, while staying in Provincetown, Mass., for the summer. To sound more like a man of the people -- which he indubitably was, with his stonemason grandfather and house-painter father -- he began signing his paintings "Joe Jones" instead of "Joseph Jones," and in keeping with the radical agenda that art should make something happen, he said, "I'm not interested in painting pretty pictures to match pink and blue walls. I want to paint things that knock holes in walls."

From this point, Jones' paintings go to the heart of the economic and social woes of the 1930s, and his subjects, executed in cinematic and sometimes brutal terms, include workers on strike, people evicted from their homes, farmhouses crumbling into eroded gullies, white men burning the homes of black sharecroppers, dust storms sweeping over drought-stricken wheat fields. At the same time, Jones created murals for schools and post offices throughout Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri that extol the virtues of labor, whether it occurs on farms, in factories or on the railroad.

The exhibition concludes, on that optimistic note, with two fairly large paintings, "Spring Plowing" and "Yellow Grain," both from 1942, an exercise in the seasonal inevitabilities of planting and harvest and a statement of a return to normality, though the country was now embroiled in a world war.

In 1944, Jones and his wife and children settled in Morristown, N.J., where he lived for the rest of his life. Jones joined the Army in April 1945 but was prevented from serving by a number of illnesses. His work was included in several mountings of the Whitney Biennial and Carnegie Annual exhibitions, but his efforts became more commercial, including commissions from Fortune magazine and a cover for Time, the latter on the theme "Travel: The Faraway Places."

The radical had been tamed, and his affiliation with the Communist Party was long over. As he wrote to a friend in 1957: "I don't see what is to be accomplished by me saying I hate the Communist Party while there are so many other things I hate at least as much." Jones died of a heart attack on April 9, 1963, at 54 years old.

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"Joe Jones: Radical Painter of the American Scene"

At Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 4339 Park, through April 17. The museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for students and seniors, $3 for children ages 6-16; children under 6 are admitted free. Call 761-5250, or visit dixon.org.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, Andrew Walker, former assistant director for curatorial affairs at the Saint Louis Museum of Art, will deliver the exhibition's opening lecture, which is free with regular admission.

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