Visual Art 1-28-2010

Feeling Minnesota: “Art in an Outpost”

Andy Sturdevant offers his thoughts on what makes for a Minnesota tradition in the visual arts, arguing that the distinguishing characteristics of art made here are inextricably linked to an "outpost" ethos.


Andy Sturdevant’s essay exploring a Minnesota tradition in visual art is part of a series of topical articles, “Feeling Minnesota,” jointly published by and Minnesota Playlist, a site with “information and inspiration for Minnesota’s performing arts.”


“We are led to suspect that perhaps Minnesota, despite all the troubles of the day, is finding herself the possessor of a genuine tradition.”

— American Magazine of Art, 1934

 ONE IS SUPPOSED TO BEGIN AN ESSAY LIKE THIS with an authoritative pull quote, like the one above, right? I love that critical plural, the first-person collective “we;” you just don’t see that much anymore. “We are led to suspect….We find her the possessor of a genuine tradition.”

Here are some more credentials to assure you I’ve pulled my quote from a reliable source: the American Magazine of Art was published monthly by the American Federation of Arts, under the direction of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. (Cover price in 1934: $2.50. That was a lot of money during the Depression.) The magazine also had offices in Washington and Chicago. Back East! Imagine all those scrambling, tweed-suited arts journalists in 1934, in the basement of the Met, scrutinizing lantern slides, and examining telegrams from St. Paul for signs of a genuine art tradition. In my imagination, they all look like John Turturro in Barton Fink.

And what is that genuine tradition they found? When we talk about a “Minnesota style,” it may be more helpful to defer to the long-dead experts at the American Magazine of Art, and think instead in terms of a “Minnesota tradition.” The word “style,” after all, is a formal term. Categorically, I think we can agree that there is no formal Minnesota style that unites all visual artists working in the state, and thank god — such uniformity would be terribly boring.

Incidentally, questioning the “genuineness” of a given tradition is beside the point. That’s the exciting thing about traditions; enough time passes, and they all become genuine.

Aside from its ring of authority, our American Federation of Art pull quote is a useful starting point, because reading it immediately makes most actual Minnesota artists bristle with self-consciousness. Or, it makes me bristle with self-consciousness, anyway. No one wants to be seen as provincial. Gee, thanks, New York. Glad you could take the time to legitimize our art-making practices. You bunch of jerks. Then again, a little insecurity just makes you work harder.

See, here’s the thing about making art in Minnesota (or, more to the point, in the Twin Cities). This region is an outpost in the art world. It’s clean and it’s well-read and it’s a great place to live, but it’s still an outpost. It’s not New York; it’s not even Chicago. And when you are an artist that has chosen to live and work in an outpost, it’s because you’re either somehow trapped by circumstances, or (more likely) you’ve made a conscious decision to do so. Artists choose to live here not because they want to get rich or successful or famous or to hang out with art stars, but because they have something here — some understanding of the place, or some attachment or obligation to it — that they feel compelled to honor in their own work.

For example, the work to which the American Magazine of Art was specifically referring — by artists like Adolf Dehn and Sydney Fossum —  was deeply rooted in the physical landscape of Minnesota and the characteristics of the people that lived here at the time. There is a clarity to the work of those two half-forgotten artists that makes you believe they had something at stake in understanding the relationships between the landscape and the people, something that suggested they were tied inextricably to the larger Minnesotan themes and ideas in the work they created. There’s inevitably some aesthetic distance between the Minnesota artist and his or her native terrain, but it’s not a particularly chilly or formal remove. I see similar reflections of that relationship, today, in the work of artists like Chris Larson, Alec Soth or Tom Arndt.


We see before us a still-recognizable mythical archetype of the Minnesota artist: independent, socially engaged, unsullied by crass commercial considerations and unbothered by the repressive, frozen disapproval of the humorless Lutheran majority.


Four years later, in 1938, a WPA writer said of the Minnesota artists of the period: “[They] were through with mere prettiness. Shocked comment and sharp criticism did not deter them. True, they made few sales, but they were used to that, and they were thoroughly enjoying themselves as they plunged into a succession of lively experiments…[these] artists have been unsparing with their social comments.”

And in that observation we see before us a still-recognizable mythical archetype of the Minnesota artist: independent, socially engaged, unsullied by crass commercial considerations and unbothered by the repressive, frozen disapproval of the humorless Lutheran majority. You can probably think of a dozen well-known Minnesota artists to whom this description would apply (you could probably come up with a dozen more who’d happily apply it to themselves).

Think of the work of Frank Gaard, or the glory days of the 1980s: Fort Mango, Rifle Sport, No Name. Think of the Hardland/Heartland collective today, or the explosively colorful, anarchic paintings of Tynan Kerr and Andrew Mazerol. The safe, dry, Keillor-ish culture of mainstream Minnesota — whether it’s as truly repressive as it’s made out to be or not — can make a wonderful foil. What is that creative lineage if not a succession of lively experiments performed collectively in spite of commercial considerations or cultural conservatism?

The persistent prominence of that particular characteristic of the “Minnesota tradition” is partially physical in nature. The loss of the cities’ industrial base in the middle of the last century was the art community’s gain — it resulted in plentiful, inexpensive real estate. For decades, downtown areas were blighted and home to huge swaths of large, vacant, disused industrial spaces. A few dollars per square foot could get you as much raw space as you wanted, no questions asked, and it’s easy to get a lot of your friends together to make rent. Those spaces aren’t always easy to heat, and their use leads to the sorts of crazy, late-winter openings you may have been to, marked by gallery-goers running around in polar fleece, huddling for warmth around the barrels burning outside. But such space for art has, for a long time, been both abundant and accessible. That is still true today. In the state’s urban core, there are a surprising number of standalone spaces, nonprofit and quasi-illegal alike, that regularly accommodate new work. In fact, “raw space” is something of a Twin Cities cliché. Can you think of anything more splendidly and purely Minnesotan than Matthew Bakkom’s omnibus show last year in the abandoned but beloved Shinder’s space on Hennepin Avenue?

Of course, if you’re talking about a Minnesota tradition of visual art, you have to talk about money. Writing in 1984, critic Eleanor Heartney noted that in the 1970s, while “other art communities were bewailing the brain drain of their creative youths” to swinging metropolises like New York and Chicago, a few foundations in Minnesota were laying the framework for “a network of artists’ fellowships that is unsurpassed in nation.” The Jerome, Bush and McKnight Foundations all began operating in their current incarnations around that time. Suddenly, there was money up for grabs for the region’s artists, opportunities for financial support that had been previously unimaginable. Even now, those philanthropic funding streams are within reach of a great many Minnesota artists, provided they stick around long enough and keep working away.

And we mustn’t neglect to mention the weather here. Of course. The process of making art is only partially collaborative; much of the artist’s practice is a solitary pursuit. Minnesota is a lonely place in the winter. Half the year, the place is swallowed up by a northern climate’s cheapest metaphor, snow; and, in the cold months, the landscape drains of all life. And in the spring, you have a new beginning, once again. And again, and again, and again. But for much of the year, it’s just you and the studio — you get work done. I know artists that disappear entirely between November and March. Minnesota’s summer months are for collaborative, social work —  it’s light out until 9 pm, giving plenty of time to run around between openings and drink on patios with their other artist friends. Here, the artist’s work is closely aligned with those natural cycles. It’s not for everyone, of course.

The aforementioned art critic, Eleanor Heartney —  a native of Iowa who also lived here — sums up our region’s tradition, and more succinctly than I could: the art scene here, she says, is comprised of “a peculiar blend of Scandinavian modesty, social conscience and an absolute belief in the power of collective action.” Those are all clichés, I know. But when I asked a few other critics and artists to throw out some ideas for what constituted a “Minnesota style,” almost everything I got back —  whether respondents were offering complaints or compliments, being ironic or sincere —  largely consisted of some variation on those three ideas. Before you scoff at such a seemingly reductionist conclusion, consider that such clichés, in fact, become traditions. Or vice versa.

In the end, I’m not sure if all of this constitutes a definitive, Minnesota style, but it unquestionably adds up to a tradition, a framework for understanding the way art is created in this part of the country. To be sure, thinking about weather and real estate and civic personality and grant money doesn’t encompass the totality of meaning in the beautiful, moving work you often see in Minnesota’s raw spaces and fellowship shows. But it does explain, at least in part, something significant about where the work comes from, the circumstances in which it was made, and what the artist sees when looking out the studio window to take in all that is going on in and around our little outpost.


About the author: Andy Sturdevant is a writer, curator, and artist living in South Minneapolis.