CEDAR RAPIDS — Grant Wood’s 125th birthday celebration is ending where it began, at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. But the final candle on his cake will never blow out. A new permanent first-floor gallery will showcase his works for years to come, and his former gallery now houses a retrospective for his lifelong friend and colleague, Marvin Cone.  

Both were born in 1891: Wood on Feb. 13 in rural Anamosa and Cone on Oct. 21 in Cedar Rapids. Wood’s family moved to Cedar Rapids after his father died in 1901.

They became lifelong friends in 1906 while students at Cedar Rapids Washington High School; served in World War I; studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; traveled to Europe together in 1920, where they honed their skills in the Impressionist style; came back to Cedar Rapids to build their careers; became art educators; helped establish the Stone City Art Colony in the summers of 1932 and 1933; and painted Eastern Iowa landscapes through a stylized lens that became known as the Regionalist movement.

Cone outlived his friend by nearly 23 years, but never eclipsed Wood’s fame.

“He just never had that ‘American Gothic’ moment,” said Kate Kunau, the Museum of Art’s associate curator, who designed the new exhibitions. “I think he’s an exceptional artist and certainly as talented as Grant Wood, but he just never had that iconic piece. ‘American Gothic’ catapulted Grant Wood into a different artistic stratosphere. Marvin created amazing work throughout his life, but he just never had that piece like that.”

With the yearlong celebration of their 125th birthdays drawing to a close, the timing was right to bump up their profile at the museum which houses the world’s largest collection of work by both artists — about 300 pieces by Wood and 700 by Cone. The arrays are virtually endless for the two galleries.

“They are Iowa’s two most famous artist sons, and we happen to have great holdings in both of them,” said Sean Ulmer, the museum’s executive director. “It makes perfect sense to us to dedicate galleries to each of them, to make a larger gallery to Grant Wood than he has had in the past, and to use Grant Wood’s old gallery as a spot for Marvin Cone’s work — which is only an introduction to both of these artists, because their careers are much deeper than we are able to show in a single gallery.”

CENTER GALLERY

When visitors step through the double doors into the first floor galleries, the first thing they will see is the massive “Near Great Bend, Kansas” by Thomas Agran of Iowa City. This geometric oil painting from 2008-09 evokes a modern take on a Wood landscape, with a pixilated aerial view dotted with round shapes in vibrant greens and earth tones.

It sits among other Midwestern scenes by area artists greatly influenced by Wood and Cone, including “Boy with Salamander” by Conger Metcalf, who studied with Wood and Cone; a piece from the Corn Series by Dena Tollefson of Cedar Rapids; and a barn by Grant William Thye, who is based in Chicago and Grundy Center.

GRANT WOOD GALLERY

The star of the Wood gallery is “Woman with Plants,” 1929, which in recent years was on loan in exchange for Charles Willson Peale’s George Washington portrait from the Brooklyn Museum and Thomas Easkins’ “The Concert Singer” from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“She saw the world,” Kunau said.

Another star is “Overmantel Decoration,” 1930, which now hangs at eye level, letting viewers see much more of the detail work close-up, “in all its antebellum glory,” Kunau said. More hidden details are awaiting discovery in “Portrait of john B. Turner, Pioneer,” 1928-30, from the light oval shading from an earlier frame to the two Grant Wood signatures from its rectangular beginnings and later oval treatment.

Closer inspection reveals other little gems throughout the 18 works in the gallery, like the crying faces carved atop “The Mourner’s Bench,” 1921-22, which resembles a church pew but was really the place for students to think about their transgressions before seeing the principal. Wood’s original door at his 5 Turner Alley studio also is on display, with the pointer fixed at “Having a party.”

All of the little details, the bits of humor and the slices of life keep people asking for more of Wood’s work on display.

“A, he was an incredible artist, and B, his work is just timeless,” Kunau said. “I think the themes that he emphasized are still themes that we recognize in the Midwest as things that are important to us. He looks at landscape and family and how people live in the ‘built’ environment. And I think those are things that endure no matter what century you’re in.”

People come from all 50 states and a dozen foreign countries each year just to see the Wood pieces, Ulmer added, and were disappointed that just a few pieces were on display.

“We wanted a larger gallery for him, to tell a more complete story of his life and his career for both our out-of-town visitors who are making a pilgrimage specifically to see his work,” Ulmer said, “but also for our local visitors who will be able to see more and different works by him, and when they bring their out-of-town guests, they will be able to see a greater picture of who Grant Wood was.”

MARVIN CONE GALLERY

The Cone gallery takes viewers on a chronological trip through his artistry in 14 works, from years to styles, beginning in 1917. Included are one of many portraits he painted of his wife, Winifred; a piece from his carnival and circus paintings; “Riverbend Nov. 5.” 1938, which shows many similarities to Wood’s rolling landscapes; and other examples from his fascination with barns, clouds and doors.

An entire wall shows his progression from recognizable doors to geometric abstraction in the same shape and color scheme, leading to the final short wall with two other lesser-known abstractions.

Kunau was pleased to get “a good representation of kind of every different genre that he worked in during his career, because it was varied.”

GET OUT!

WHAT: “Grant Wood: From Farm Boy to American Icon” and “Marvin Cone: An American Vision”
WHERE: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE
WHEN: Ongoing permanent exhibits, first-floor galleries
HOURS: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; closed Mondays, Christmas, New Year’s Day and other major holidays
ADMISSION: $7 adults, $6 ages 62 and older and college students, $3 ages 6 to 18, free under age 6 and museum members
DETAILS: (319) 366-7503 or Crma.org

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com