Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "The Iconography of the Church in Modernist American Art"

the iconography of the church in modernist american art
by douglas Messerli
I am no art historian, so I will not pretend to speak of how European art depicted churches. I would imagine, however, given their many grand cathedrals that art history might record that their primary images concerned these very marvelous constructions. Certainly we can see that continuation, for example, in German-American artist Lyonel Feininger. Although Feininger grew up in New York City, he moved to Berlin in 1888, and painted and drew many works depicting the grand religious constructions of the city and elsewhere, returning to the US with the rise of the Nazis.

     Early American modernists also sought out the grand churches and cathedrals of the age. The photographer Edward Steichen (1879-1973) photographed the beautiful Trinity Church, New York of 1904. Artist John La Farge (1835-1910) created stunningly large stained-glass windows for various larger churches, including Trinity Church, Boston; Judson Memorial Church in New York; First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia; Trinity Episcopal Church in Buffalo, New York; All Saints Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York; and elsewhere. His son, Christopher Grant La Farge, moreover, built several churches including the remarkable, if yet unfinished, Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York. And, although churches were seldom his subject, Italian born American artist Joseph Stella represented his many futurist-like renditions of The Brooklyn Bridge as if it was also a kind of cathedral, albeit a highly industrial one that stood, as in Hart Crane’s long poem, for an entirely transformative age.

     For the most part, however, American artists populated their art with visions of a different kind a church: small, often clapboard buildings painted and white or gray. At one time or another nearly every American artist of the early modernist realist period has depicted just such images, transforming the church through their work, into a sort of American icon, as important as all the industrial sites and New England landscapes and Midwest granaries they also painted.
     Outsider artist Grandma Moses (1860-1961), as well as more establishment art figures such Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Charles Demuth (1883-1935), Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986), Stuart Davis (1892-1964), Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), and Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) painted small American churches again and again. Below, for example, are photographs of some of their works:
Grandma Moses                                    Marsden Hartley                   Edward Hopper
Charles Demuth                     Georgia O’Keefe               Stuart Davis            

    Yet it was the Southern photographers who perfectly captured the strangeness of that iconic image, the isolated churches, built in the most rudimentary style and with the simplest of materials. These churches, far from the more standard New England and Midwestern temples of worship, were notably created by primitive architects with little means but great inspiration. Beginning with Walker Evans (1903-1975) and William Eggleston (b. 1939), that tradition has continued in the numerous church photographs and, later, sculptures of William Christenberry (b. 1936).
Paul Strand                                Walker Evans                        William Christenberry
     Eggleston and black artists such as Jacob Lawrence, meanwhile, took us inside those little churches, revealing the fervor of the worshipers.
Strand and O’Keefe, furthermore, visited ancient church constructions of the American Southwest, revealing completely different images of what a church might look like.
Paul Strand, St. Francis Church. Ranco de Taos, 1931
Georgia O’Keffe, Ranchos Church, New Mexico
      The great outsider artist James Hampton even created a new view of what belief might imagine as a kind of holy sacristy and, simultaneously, a throne to the glory of God.
    As the century progressed, however, the American church not only lost its grandeur, but began itself to be seen as a kind of nostalgic treasure, a thing of the past, that needed, or, at least, was perceived to be a special thing of the past, a totem now lost. We can see this already in the photographs of Walker Evans along with the accompanying writings of James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men of 1941. As I have previously quoted Agee (see My Year 2006). Spotting a small church in Alabama, the writer excitedly proclaims:

                    It was a good enough church from the moment the curve opened and
                    we saw it that I slowed a little and we kept our eyes on it. But as we
                     came even with it the light so held it that it shocked us with its
                     goodness and straight through the body so that at the same instant we
                     said Jesus. I put on the brakes and backed the car slowly, watching
                     the light on the building, until we were at the same apex, and we
                     sat still for a couple of minutes at least before getting out, studying in
                     arrest what had hit us so hard as we slowed past is perpendicular.

      As early as 1931 in The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, Grant Wood had already satirized the truly iconic North Church which he depicted from an odd bird’s eye view, almost as if it were a cartoon of the Longfellow poem.
      In the 1970s photographer William Christenberry began recreating some of his photographed churches as small models surrounded by real red Alabama dirt. Other such models followed. I began this essay after seeing a picture of artist Ira Joel Haber’s 1970 work  Three Churches in a Box.
     What increasingly has become apparent to me was that the simple community icons of the 1930s and 1940s have gradually been diminished into little treasures,
something that needs to be saved and protected from a society that no longer truly values their worth—or, possibly, even contained and kept out of touch from their larger American identity. These churches, although still icons, are of a past age that in today’s world are, or, will soon be, lost and forgotten, falling into disrepair or, more likely, are simply being destroyed by a culture that no longer perceives their significance.
       Of course, some local churches have not only survived, but grown. The Presbyterian church in Marion, Iowa which I attended as a child now, so I have been told, has a congregation so large that it offers two Sunday morning services, but grand Methodist Church just across the street is now being sold and will possibly be destroyed. New grand cathedrals, such as Orange County’s Crystal Cathedral have been erected—although that church has also lost its original television-based congregation. It still exists—I saw the Philip Johnson-designed building only the other day from my hotel window in Orange, California—but has been now taken over by The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange. Yet, it is clear the white or gray clapboard constructions which so identified religious faith in the mid-20th century are apparently something of the past. As more and more Americans abandon their faiths, it may someday be difficult to comprehend all those little trapezoidal or pyramidal steeples.

Los Angeles, June 28, 2016


  1. I had a wonderful art teacher named Messerli at Marion Junior High about 1960. Interesting observation you make about the prospect of unintelligible steeples that might one day cause future observers to wonder why and what it all once meant.

    1. That must have been Roger Messerly (spelled with a y). He later became a school principal. My father was Marion superintendent of schools, and my young brother, David, late taught there for years and was a coach. My nephew not teaches there. And in 1960 I was beginning high school. In 1964 I left for Norway.

    2. David, that church is now a large antique shop. You must have known Nikki Lindquist, the daughter of the minister. She now lives in Sweden. And don't remember your brother, although I think I would have remembered him just for his name. Yes, it was a nice town in which to grow up, but I couldn't wait to leave it. I live now (and have for many years) in Los Angeles, and lived Washington, DC for years before that. My father truly admired Roger and spoke of him very highly always.

  2. Well, then it was Roger who once put a finger on my chest and said, "you're the only 'A' student I have who's making C's --- pick up your game!" My older brother, Stephen Foster, was about your age at Marion High. Marion was a nice place to grow up -- we attended the First Christian Church one block off the town square park.

  3. I guess I don't recall the Lindquists. I went to school with a Lundquist girl, I think. Herbert Cole was our minister, a delightful, low key Don Draper-handsome kinda guy with a perpetual 3 o'clock beard; always natty in a navy suit, white shirt and quiet neck tie. My brother was assistant organist to a small bald-headed man who played the big concert organ at the Iowa Theatre in C.R. across from the Roosevelt Hotel. I went see Godzilla at the Iowa.