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Annie Proulx's essay "John Hull's Junkyard"     Interview with Robert Birmelin     Today's American Scene    
Today's American Scene
Mindy Neustifer Besaw
Curator, Whitney Western Art Museum
Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming

“For the public, (the American Scene) indicated a desire to enjoy an art in which their own likenesses and lives were mirrored…art easily accessible to the ordinary person, capable of moving him nostalgically, politically, and esthetically, by means of commonly recognizable images presented in easily understood styles,” Matthew Baigell, The American Scene: American Painting of the 1920’s (New York, Praeger, 1974), 18

Spectators fill the bleachers, people and dogs lounge on the grass, the burnt-orange of the track circles a football field, and tiny players uniformed in red or purple run the next play. John Hull’s Historic Ash Park depicts a football game, but the subject focuses more on the fans, the setting, the community, and even the viewer, who is placed on the bleachers among the other observers. For many of us, this is reminiscent of the neighborhood field where our brother/nephew/son/neighbor practices and plays. We come here to watch, but probably more to socialize. These small moments, more than a crowded university football game with 80,000 attendees, reflect our likeness and our lives. Hull’s latest series of sports-themed paintings conveys today’s “American Scene.”

In December 1933, as part of many programs initiated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to promote recovery and regulate the economy during the Great Depression, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAO) was formed. The PWAP employed artists at hourly wages to create murals, sculptures and paintings to embellish public buildings across the country. In six months, the output equaled more than15,000 works of art. There were few restrictions on subject matter or style placed on the artists participating in the program, just an encouragement to capture the “American Scene.” The regional and recognizable paintings focused on themes that were fundamental to the nation, and reminded viewers of quintessential American values of hard work, community, and optimism. In the 1930’s, amidst bleak realities of economic and agricultural depression, artists found the American Scene in work and home, small towns and the city; on street corners or on the farm; in industry, or during leisure time.

Although 80 years have passed and the country has undergone vast changes, economic and otherwise, the American Scene continues to resonate. But what constitutes the American Scene today? In the hands of many representational artists climactic action is memorialized in paint or bronze – homeruns, touchdowns with seconds remaining on the clock, the cowboy conquering the snarling bull. The heroic figures are typically isolated and silhouetted against a blurry background. While these dramatic moments are exciting, they are brief and fleeting. In the best of circumstances at the rodeo, for example, each bull ride only lasts eight seconds and most of the rodeo is about preparations, recovery, and waiting. Additionally, only a very small portion of the American public has ever successfully ridden a bull or thrown a winning touchdown. Hull’s paintings, in contrast, focus on the periphery activities and quiet moments that relate to the way most of us experience a community sports event – socializing with friends and neighbors, mingling near the chutes and watching participants prepare for competition. In Under Western Skies, for example, the action (if there is action) takes place just outside the left edge of the painting and it is not the focus. Hull places the viewer in the bleachers as part of the community, listening to the conversation in the front row and watching the people. For Wyoming residents especially, Hull’s paintings evoke recognition of the familiar because this could be our town. This is the American Scene today – paintings that feel local, validate our experiences, and relate to ordinary people.

There are other aspects of Hull’s paintings that help make them accessible. Hull seems to tell a story in paint, although the narrative is open to interpretation. He provides a slice or a snapshot, albeit one that was taken in the moment just after people were looking at the camera and now they have turned away and started going about their business. We are invited to fill in the gaps before and after the specific moment. The foreground figure in Palomino, for example, turns away from the viewer. This lack of recognition of the viewer does not dissuade us from entering the scene, but instead becomes more welcoming because we follow his gaze to other people.

Hull’s paintings may inspire notions of nostalgia and a longing for a bygone era (perhaps a childhood of playing sports), but they are set in the present. His rodeo scenes represent life in the American West today, not romanticized idealizations of the Old West. In Ropers, for example, riders wearing baseball caps nearly outnumber those sporting cowboy hats, a man talks on his cell phone in the foreground, and RVs cluster just beyond the fence. These modern-day elements make the paintings approachable and affirm our shared experience. We can recognize ourselves in these people, rather than struggling to relate to the cowboys of the Old West.

The medium and formal elements are equally as important as the subjects in Hull’s paintings. Despite the snapshot quality, Hull does not rely on photography as a motivator. Hull combines photographic references with his drawings made while observing the sporting event to compose the people and setting into arrangements of color and shapes. There is a rhythm to the vertical lines created by the telephone pole, flag pole, and stands in Palomino, that is further echoed in the evenly spaced cowboys against the fence. White shapes move the viewer’s eye from the cowboy hat in the foreground, to the white horse in the middle, back to the fence and stands, and even to the dabs of white clouds in the blue sky. Soft shapes balance the hard lines, and while colors reflect nature, they are also carefully controlled. The hand of the artist is visible in brush strokes on the surface. “I don’t want to lose the material aspect of the paint, or disguise it,” said Hull in a recent interview, “After all, if I am making paintings, they should, at least to some extent be about paint.”

Hull’s sports-themed series celebrate our shared experiences – specifically the support camaraderie, and community of local sporting events. The Americanness of the paintings may be evoked by the sports – baseball, football, and rodeo are rooted in our country – but it is not just the subject of the sport that makes Hull’s paintings about the American Scene. Just as the Depression-era painting Baseball at Night (1934) by Morris Kantor was less about the simple leisure activity and more about electrification, infrastructure, and people united in a community in rural America, Hull’s particular treatment of baseball (or rodeo, etc) supersedes the subject of the sport to make it about life, relatable to a broad audience. In Autograph, for example, the baseball game has not yet begun. Players warm up and stretch on the field, others sit around casually and chat, while one obliges for an autograph. The stands are completely empty, and the figures are motionless. Rather than getting caught up in the height of the action, the underdog’s home run, or the last inning of a tie ballgame, Hull helps us see the quiet moments and other elements of the baseball game – what Hull calls the “small moments of life.” The creative act is nourished on the rural environment in which he lives. “I don’t have a choice,” Hull reflected. “These are the paintings I can make, because they’re about what I know.”