In April 1940, Roger Medearis, then a 20-year-old student at the Kansas City Art Institute, wrote his parents that he had been invited to a surprise birthday party for Thomas Hart Benton, his teacher. "It was, to me, an overwhelming honor [to be invited], and I went, and wasn’t too much of a sore thumb, I hope, among a group which was not on the sober side. But the real fun began, for me, when they gathered around my litho[graph] of ‘Benton at Work,’ which he had in his dining room among his own works, and I became the topic of conversation."
Before the party, Benton had purchased the lithograph, and a half-century later Medearis would recreate it. In a way, the lithograph and its story encapsulate the narrative of “Roger Medearis: His Regionalism,” an exhibition that runs from June 16 through Sept. 17 in the Chandler Wing of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries. Drawing on the generous gifts made to The Huntington by Elizabeth Medearis, his widow, loans from private collections, and a painting borrowed from the Smithsonian, the exhibition features 36 works that demonstrate the breadth of his career.
When Medearis arrived at the Art Institute, Benton was already a national celebrity, having been on the cover of Time magazine in 1934. Along with Grant Wood and John Stuart Curry, Benton was a partisan of Regionalism, an American artistic movement that rejected European abstraction, took subjects from everyday rural life, and aspired to bring art to a wide audience through public art commissions and low-cost reproductions. For Medearis, this translated to painting what he knew: the farms of rural Missouri and Connecticut. But, with the end of World War II, its heyday had passed, and Medearis quit painting and joined the corporate world, realizing there was no market for Regionalist art.
After a hiatus as a businessman, Medearis returned to art in the early 1960s and continued working in a Regionalist vein, albeit with some changes. In the intervening years, he had moved to Los Angeles and started depicting both the outstanding natural scenery of the American West and California’s burgeoning counterculture of hippies, surfers, and Volkswagen vans. Though some work embraced his California home, Medearis also reflected on the artwork of his youth. He turned drawings from the 1930s and ’40s into prints and continued to depict rural farms. However, the striking differences between his early and later work demonstrate that Medearis did not simply mimic his master but developed a distinctive artistic language of his own.
“Roger Medearis: His Regionalism” is supported by the Susan and Stephen Chandler Exhibition Endowment and funds from Steve Martin for exhibitions of American Art.