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Commentary: Seeing St. Louis in the work of Joe Jones

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 23, 2010 - If local history were a required subject at St. Louis area high schools, the name of artist Joe Jones would be as common as that of a beer baron or a shortstop. Since the subject is not required, the name has local resonance in strange inverse proportion to local significance. That is a shame because not only did the talented painter start his career here, but for many years in the middle years of the last century, Jones showed this city -- and the world -- images of a St. Louis with rich texture, sublime geometry, powerful architecture and simmering discontent.

St. Louisans can see those images, and those of other ripe 20th-century American scenes, in the final weeks of the St. Louis Art Museum's exhibition "Joe Jones: Painter of the American Scene," which ends Jan. 2. The show is the local capstone for chief curator Andrew Walker, who is departing for Fort Worth to head the Amon Carter Museum. Under Walker's direction, the exhibit starts by immersing the visitor into Jones' St. Louis. Fittingly, the first work of Jones that confronts the viewer is the magisterial "Riverfront" (1936), a mural originally installed in the 905 Liquor Store downtown. Across from that work is a map showing locations of Jones' residences and studios.

"Riverfront" places the viewer somewhere on the East St. Louis riverfront, or perhaps on the river behind the sternwheeler aimed straight for the St. Louis levee. At right, the powerful Eads Bridge forms a vector leading to the mighty city, where many of the city's architectural landmarks are painted with attentive accuracy. There is the Old Cathedral's spire, the dome of the Old Courthouse (where Jones taught art for the St. Louis Art League until evicted for his politics) and the pyramid atop the Civil Courts Building, reduced to its geometric essence. In front of the Civil Courts is the prosaic back side of the Pierce Building at 4th and Chestnut, now absorbed into the Hyatt Hotel. The wide, low Merchant's Exchange (now lost) and skinny, tall Rialto Building are visible in the foreground, along with many lesser-known riverfront warehouses and flats. The background shows the mighty Southwestern Bell and Railway Exchange buildings amid a more abstracted landscape that suggests the city goes on forever.

Yet all is not well. Smoke dominates the view even more than the architectural forms. Much of the city is invisible behind the pall of the smoke that the future mayor Raymond Tucker would fight as civil engineer, and the levee seems less busy than tired and arching. Furthermore, as Walker pointed out to me, the smoke trails of the steamships in the Mississippi River are blowing in two different directions -- physically impossible but socially suggestive of things not being well in the Depression-era metropolis.

This mural was one of eight that Jones painted for the downtown 905 Liquor Store at the behest of owner Morris Multin. Multin and Jones arranged for J.B. Turnbull to paint over 30 others for the store's other St. Louis locations. The scenes of these murals are evocative of St. Louis and Missouri social reality -- its glory and despair. That dichotomy is appropriate for the walls of a liquor store, where one's visit is as likely to lead to joy as melancholy. The choice of the painting as the starting point of the show underscores Jones' connection not only to everyday people but to everyday places.

The exhibit also includes Jones' earlier painting "St. Louis Riverfront" (1932), a far less detailed view devoid of people. That painting has two vivid smoke clouds billowing from steamboats tilted in motion heading in different, but perhaps colliding, directions. Again, the city's buildings and the Eads Bridge are as prominent as the "action" of the steamboats. The built environment serves as a backdrop for social action throughout Jones' work.

One of the most powerful of Jones' paintings joining architecture and society is "Condemned" (1936), a close view of a resident of a St. Louis slum, whose arms are folded and whose brow is knit. Behind the woman is a brick wall with a tattered sign presumably reading "DANGER: BUILDING IS UNSAFE / CONDEMNED / STAY AWAY." This painting came amid some of the first wide land clearance in St. Louis' history.

Chestnut Valley, an African-American enclave on Chestnut and Market streets west of 12th Street (now Tucker Boulevard), had been partially cleared for Memorial and Aloe plazas, the Municipal Auditorium, the Soldiers' Memorial and other civic buildings. Funding for riverfront clearance for the Jefferson National Expansion was authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt in December 1935. Also, the city had just cleared many near north side blocks to create North Florissant Avenue, which joined to 12th Street and Gravois Avenue on the south to form the city's first north-south expressway. Given the painting's date, it may well have been inspired by clearance on the near north side.

To Jones, the riverfront becomes the perfect site to depict struggle. Since Jones lived on a house boat in 1933 and 1934, he may have had a perfect vantage point to observe, or he may have simply had time to imagine the great American struggles of labor and class unfolding on the picturesque, but distressed industrial wharf. Whatever the case, the works pull together the sometimes overwhelming scale of the urban landscape and the human scale of social observation.

"Roustabouts" (1934) is one of Jones' most deftly stinging indictments of American race relations. The scene shows a group of roustabouts on a barge, with the view looking east toward East St. Louis in Illinois, a historically free state. All are African-American working men. Looming in the east is a tall smokestack (now gone) and the grain elevator tower that remains, but the more immediate imposing force is the white man in a suit and boater literally looking down at the workers.

Also forceful and solemn, "We Demand" (1934) shows the curvature of the elevated Terminal Railroad trestle on the riverfront merging with the curvature of a line of striking workers. A locomotive is approaching, bellowing smoke. Amid the charged motion of workers on strike and a moving train, the powerful Eads Bridge is unmoved in the background.

Jones' artistic view of the city was not limited to rendering it solely as a site of contestation. Many of his works are reflective, observational and even playful. All put the built environment on display, so that the urban landscape is a constant even if the chief subject is something else. The built environment is the central subject of "Tower Tops" (1931), a view across Central West End roofs and towers toward the dome of the great Cathedral Basilica; "Alley" (1932), which could have been painted today, with its familiar array of old garages and Laclede Christy Clay Co. (c. 1931), which displays without irony the three powerful, smoky stacks of the now-gone clay products company on South Kingshighway. Several landscapes may be set in Forest Park, although if so the views are difficult to determine.

Regular visitors will recognize Jones' "View of St. Louis" (1932), part of the permanent collection. This painting has a timely connection to current affairs, since it depicts the construction of the Illinois Terminal Railroad "tunnel" -- actually the old railroad cut under Tucker Boulevard, which was raised overhead on a viaduct. This year, that infrastructure was demolished and the cut filled with dirt. A new street is next. But when Jones visited, work was wrapping up on infrastructure that was part of en electric interurban railroad that connected St. Louis to Decatur, Peoria, Springfield and other places in central Illinois until closing in 1956.

This vivid scene is a tableau of a Depression-era city as good as any photograph in showing a landscape of modernity encroaching on the city's old neighborhoods. The skyline and the railroad seem to envelope the venerable gabled red-brick flats in the foreground. The distance shows clearly then-new tall buildings: the Civil Courts and Southwestern Bell buildings again, as well as the Globe-Democrat Building (then the Central Terminal), Mart Building, the Missouri Pacific Building, Biddle Market and, with a rooftop water tower that survived until very recently, the Fashion Square Building. If the city would have continued to grow wildly, the painting could have been a portent.

Two sketches in the exhibition also teach visitors about St. Louis' built heritage. The kinetic genius of Westmoreland Entrance (1931) comes in the strange birds-eye view of the arch and the northernmost of the tower-like shelters designed by the firm Eames & Young. The sweeps of the sidewalk and gutter curves from this angle give the scene a curvaceous, streamlined sensibility. The connection to the lines of We Demand is clear, as is a socialist's artistic eye that could look upon an elite setting without pretense or disdain.

Jones' Kennerly and Marcus (1932) looks at a more humble and common scene, that of a neighborhood street corner in the Ville area. Jones lived at this corner for awhile in 1931, and if this view is from his apartment, his building has passed into memory. However, the house across the street, its concrete steps and sloped lawn are largely unchanged. Here Jones captures the sloped lawn, a landscape detail common to St. Louis homes built in the early 20th century and found all on blocks over west of Grand Avenue.  Other paintings visit different slopes that are now turned into neighborhoods: wheat fields that composed the hardscrabble pastoral landscape of Depression-era St. Charles County.

The depth and range of Jones' work cannot be reduced to depiction of St. Louis' built environment in the early 1930s, but it also cannot be separated. Jones shows us a city with a newly minted modern skyline, dwindling ties to riverboat commerce, powerful railroad infrastructure, turmoil of clearance and displacement and poetic beauty in its refined landmarks. Jones shows us lost buildings as well as nearly-lost industrial elements of our built environment, like tall smokestacks and rooftop water towers. Like his contemporary American modernists, Jones depicted with conviction and concern the reality of his world. Jones shows us that in St. Louis both upheaval and poetry unfolded against the magnificent backdrop of the physical city. In the process, Joe Jones captured a period in St. Louis' architectural history imbued with the gravity -- and beauty -- of historical unrest.

Michael Allen has been involved in historic preservation in St. Louis for many years.;