The Montana Modernists: Shifting Perceptions

11.10.2022 – 06.11.2023

exhibition sponsors

Charles M. Bair Family Trust
Linda Shelhamer & Stephen Haraden
Gordon McConnell and Betty Loos
Dr. Ralph & Sheryl Costanzo

Mildred Sandall Scott Galleries

November 10, 2022 – June 11, 2023

The Montana Modernists exhibition opening on November 10th follows the investigation of twentieth-century postwar Montana art in guest curator Dr. Michele Corriel’s new book Montana Modernists: Shifting Perspectives on Western Art. Examining the emergence of an avant-garde movement in the state, Dr. Corriel profiles the pioneers of this movement, Jessie Wilber, Frances Senska, Bill Stockton, Isabelle Johnson, Robert DeWeese, and Gennie DeWeese. Together, these artists implemented an aesthetic philosophy and a modern understanding of form, color, and abstraction that expanded the way Western art in Montana is defined. 

Drawing primarily from the extensive collection of the Yellowstone Art Museum, the exhibition explores the first-generation modernists in Montana through the themes of Place, Artistic Lineage, and Community—all crucial elements in the lives and works of these artists. As the nascent movement grew and took hold across the state, it not only affected artmaking but allowed Montanans access to new ways of viewing themselves, society, and nature, and a way of seeing that had lasting effects on the struggle for a broader, more authentic Montana narrative.  

This wave of postwar artists found the need to express themselves differently from the Western illustrative work permeating the state. Their experiences, their point of view, and the changing world they found themselves in required something more. As Robert DeWeese noted, “The art students in 1949 were a completely different lot. They’d been in the war worldwide, and they were hungry for all of it.” It is not a leap to suggest that so many veterans who had seen the world, the war, the dropping of the atomic bomb, the devastation of Europe, and the reckoning with fascism needed a new way to communicate. 

Isabelle Johnson and Bill Stockton were native-born Montana ranchers, and Wilber, Senska, and the DeWeeses came from elsewhere to teach at Montana State in Bozeman. They were all missionaries of modernism who developed an authentic, personal style of expression in response to the land and society of contemporary Montana. Showing the works of all six of these artists together in one place demonstrates what these artists did and how in their interactions with one another, in their teaching, and, most of all, in the works they left behind, they created an art movement that still resonates today.

Michele Corriel researched these artists for years before writing her book, and this show reflects her deep consideration for each of them. “This project, culminating in a show at the Yellowstone Art Museum, validates the last five years of my academic life. I am thrilled to work with the YAM and to fulfill my personal promise to these amazing artists. I hope to keep their work in the eyes of the public for years to come.”

Corriel is a well-published art writer and has covered the region for the last 15 years. Her Ph.D. in American Art helped to guide her work through the rich history of Montana and to bring light to the largely untold story of modernism in the state. Her book Montana Modernists, published by Washington State University Press, will be available at the opening and for sale in the YAM store.