Before Now | Historical Artists | Visual Arts

Gail Martin, Cinema Arts and the Modern Adventure

“Scorched Earth” (oil on masonite, 27 x 20 in.) is representative of the harsh work Henry Rasmusen was creating in the 1930s when he was championed by Gail Martin (courtesy State of Utah Alice Merrill Horne Collection)

Gail Martin had one of the better retorts to the modern art skeptics of his day: “Strange is it not, that the man who demands the latest models in motor cars, who would not be found dead in a 1929 Ford, that the women, who wears only the latest modes in dress, who would not appear in public in an old hat, see red when a painter goes ‘modern’!” Why, Martin wondered, were the fashionistas so opposed to new fashions in art? He called it a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde attitude on the part of “many normal and highly intelligent people.”

Martin was defending the 1940 purchase prize winner at the annual juried show of the Utah State Institute of Fine Arts, of which he was chairman. Martin was also the arts and music editor of the Deseret News, and so had plenty of column length for his harrangue. “The twentieth-century gallant, who appeared in the sweeping picture hat, wig, satin knee-breeches, and ruffled shirt, would be laughed to scorn by the modern woman. The statesman, who orated in the language of Daniel Webster, the business man, who employed the flowery verbiage of the Victorian age, the person, who used flowing Spencerian hand-writing, all belong to the past. Why therefore condemn the artist and the sculptor to the use of bygone styles?”

“How Hard the Furrow” by Henry Rasmusen, whereabouts currently unknown

Henry Rasmusen, the prize winner, was one of the most active Utah artists working in a modern style in the 1930s. He had gained some national attention, participated in the W.P.A. sponsored murals at the Utah State Capitol, and was a driving force, both as teacher and curator, at the W.P.A.’s Utah Art Center in Salt Lake City. “How Hard the Furrow”  is a harsh painting. The palette is earth-toned, the scene is infused with misery, and the drawing and design is far from the naturalism favored by Utah’s art audience at the time. Martin said the “picture had its faults, but they were not the faults of complacency. Mr. Rasmusen was not afraid to adventure. He placed the need of painting a significant picture above the need of being pleasant. Not many will forget the two gaunt, toll-worn figures, who looked out upon a world — their own world — in ruins. Yet was there not something moving, something exalting in the feeling of an eternal bond united the man and his wife … For all its fault, there was in this painting a tremendous impact and uplift.” (Deseret News, 23 Mar 1940, p. 22)

Martin had been influential in the city’s art scene for a decade before he wielded his pen in defense of Rasmusen and an art of adventure. A native of Chicago, he had come west at the beginning of his career as a school teacher in Nevada. When he married Minnie Miller, an Ogden girl, he began working for the Deseret News. A musician himself, he served as the art and music editor for the paper during the 1930s and into the ‘40s. He served as secretary and then chairman of the Utah Institute of Fine Arts (subsequently known as the Utah Arts Council and now part of the Utah Division of Arts & Museums), was a charter member and president of the Salt Lake Civic Music Association, and was instrumental in the creation of the Utah Symphony. Throughout his career, he was a supporter of young talent like Rasmusen. In the early ‘30s, along with University of Utah English professor Louis Zucker, Martin helped a young and struggling Theodore Ward, who would become an influential and groundbreaking Black playwright.

A decade after the controversy surrounding Rasmussen’s painting (by which time the artist had left for a more congenial atmosphere at the University of Texas), Martin had left the News, but he was still active in the art community of his adopted home. As a new decade approached, Salt Lake City was bursting with young artists, experimenting with new modes of expression, by no means complacent. But there were relatively few places to show the art. 

When a new theater opened in downtown Salt Lake City in October, 1949, Martin saw an opportunity. At 264 East 100 South, Cinema Arts was one of several cinemas in the downtown area and distinguished itself as a home to “art house” films. Its patrons would be the right clientele for Martin’s project and its lobby would provide a captive audience.

Doyle M. Strong, “Harvesting,” 1949, oil on canvas, 22 x 29 in.

For the inaugural exhibit, Martin arranged to have selections from the recent Utah State Institute annual exhibit. Nine years after Rasmussen’s win, the fight for new styles was still on. The modernists swept most of the awards at the state fair, where they had a sympathetic juror in Santa Barbara Museum of Art director Donald Bear, but at the Institute exhibit, juried by Dean Fausett, Charles Pittenger and Everett Thorpe, the top prizes went to more conservative works, like Doyle Strong’s “Harvesting” and Pete Lafon’s “Portrait of Barbara.” Thorpe, the modernist among the jurors, did manage to get honorable mentions for Florence Drake, Henry Rasmusen and Max Weaver, and one can imagine these were hung at Cinema Arts.

Following this survey, of sorts, for Utah art, Martin scheduled a series of one-person shows, allowing the cinema audience to see an artist’s work in the type of context it far too often lacked at the large, statewide exhibitions. 

First out of the gate was Arnold Mesches, a social realist who the previous years had been fired from his job at the Art Barn for his political activities (Mesches had been on an FBI watch list since participating in a strike in Hollywood in 1945). He had remained in Utah to finish a mural at the Newhouse Hotel in Salt Lake City and would return to Los Angeles later that summer. Mesches was followed by Gerald Campbell, one of his G.I. students at the Art Barn. He too would relocate that year to Los Angeles, where he would become embroiled in the red scare controversies that emerged in the McCarthy years.

Over the next several months, Cinema Arts showed a dozen or so artists coming out of the Art Barn, including Carol Richardson, Jean Huling, Ralph Schofiled, John Mizuno, Earl Rhodes, Ralph Carson and Arlen Marks. This survey of young talent was followed with some more established artists, like University of Utah professor Mabel Frazer and Howard and Rose Salisbury, but the gallery remained, for the most part, dedicated to the young talent coming of age in the post-war years. Anthony Ivins, M.E. Swensen, Gilbert Hall, Roger Bailey, Gertrude Teutsch and Marilyn Duncan all showed there over the next two years.

Martin died rather suddenly, at the age of 62, in April 1952. The Contemporary Gallery, an artist-run outfit established earlier that year, stepped in to the curatorial breach with an exhibit at Cinema Arts of two of their young artists, Gloria Cortella and Lee Deffebach. Then, for several months the Cinema Arts gallery remained quiet until Ronald Crosby, Billy Chestnut and Ed Maryon filled out exhibition calendar. They were the last artists to show.

Martin was no longer around to give curatorial direction to the exhibition space and his encouragement of an art of adventure was surely missed in the exciting years that followed, but what he accomplished with the Cinema Arts gallery set an example to the young generation modernists, who experimented with several exhibition venues to convince a doubtful public that new styles of art should be embraced.


“Playground,” by Warren B. Wilson, purchase prize winner at the 1952 Utah State Institute of Fine Arts exhibition, was inscribed with a plaque honoring the work of Gail Martin. The work is currently part of Springville Museum of Art’s exhibition Mixed Reviews: Utah Art at Mid-Century (courtesy State of Utah Alice Merrill Horne Collection).

This article is part of Before Now, Artists of Utah’s program to explore the history of Utah’s art world. If you would like to support these efforts, please make a contribution to Artists of Utah.

To view some of the art in this article, visit Springville Museum of Art’s Mixed Reviews: Utah Art at Mid-Century, Aug. 24, 2022 – May 13, 2023.

1 reply »

  1. Come for the eloquently-written history, stay for the art. Anyone pining to see something new and different may be surprised to find it here, dated fifty years ago. I’m hoping this material will be collected in a handy, permanent form.

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