Published: November 14, 2006
For many art lovers, references to the American West conjure up images of awesome scenery, settlers struggling to tame the land and friction between newcomers from the East and Native Americans. One thinks of epic landscapes by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran and romanticized depictions of the Old West by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell.
Modern art in this country, coming to the forefront at the turn of the Twentieth Century and particularly in the wake of the Armory Show of 1913, is invariably associated with the East and urbanism — crowded cities filled with skyscrapers, technological advances and immigrants. Little attention has been paid to the intersection of Modernism and the land west of the Mississippi.
Indeed, the traditional emphasis on the mythical West, reiterated in art, novels, tourist magazines and movies, has long obscured recognition of the significant role played by the vast, rugged, picturesque land of the American West in defining American Modernism.
For the first time in a major museum exhibition, this relationship is explored in a superbly conceived and brilliantly executed show, “Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890–1950.” It was organized by Emily Ballew Neff, curator of American painting and sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). “The entrenched belief that ‘modern West’ is an oxymoron,” says Neff, “planted the seed for this exhibition….”
It comprises more than 110 paintings, works on paper and vintage photographs by 74 artists, including such stars as Thomas Hart Benton, Stuart Davis, Maynard Dixon, Marsden Hartley, Raymond Jonson, John Marin, Moran, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Remington, John H. Twachtman and Grant Wood. Among the photographers featured are Ansel Adams, Laura Gilpin, Dorothea Lange, Timothy O’Sullivan, Paul Strand, Carleton E. Watkins and Edward Weston.
Rather than presenting an exhaustive survey, curator Neff made a focused selection of works by a wide variety of artists who depicted the West in Modernist terms. The show is organized thematically and roughly chronologically, starting with a prologue titled “Landmarking the West,” followed by “The End of the Frontier: Making the West Artistic,” “The Many Wests: Modern Regions” — “California,” “The Southwest” and “The Dust Bowl Era — Plains and Other Places” — and concluding with an epilogue, “The Abstract West.” Within this framework Neff carries out what MFAH director Peter C. Marzio calls “a rigorous effort to comprehend the major role that the American West played in the evolution of American Modernism.”
The exhibition begins in “Landmarking the West” with an examination of the manner in which painters and photographers who participated in Nineteenth Century survey expeditions introduced the dramatic landscapes and vistas of the West to eager American and European audiences. The show opens with Moran’s enormous and celebrated “Mountain of the Holy Cross,” 1875, an epic view of the Rocky Mountains peak with snow-filled crevices forming a cross. It is one of numerous Moran paintings that shaped America’s early understanding of the inspiring beauties of the untamed West.
“Holy Cross” sums up, says Neff, “what may be called a Christianized and nationalized sublime, in which the concept of awe-inspiring nature increasingly embodied nationalist, religious and moral beliefs over the course of the Nineteenth Century.” She also suggests that Moran’s handling of the relationship between dramatic forms and illusory space presaged the new ideas of Modernism.
Graphic images taken by survey photographers, including Watkins’s “Cape Horn, near Celilo,” 1867, and O’Sullivan’s “Historic Spanish Record of the Conquest, South Side of Inscription Rock, New Mexico,” 1873, were reinterpreted in the 1930s by the Museum of Modern Art and others as forerunners of early abstraction.
When the US Bureau of the Census and historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared in the early 1890s that the western frontier was closed, artists responded with nostalgic, romanticized views of the West based on memory and myth. In applying avant-garde styles to the western landscape, “these artists shaped the West into an escape from modern urban life,” observes Neff.
Among the key images in the section titled “The End of the Frontier: Making the West Artistic” are Remington’s depiction of a beleaguered group of gun-toting heroes defending an Arizona water source in “Fight for the Waterhole,” circa 1903, and “The Scout: Friend or Foe?” of 1902–1905, in which a lone Blackfoot scout on horseback views a stark scene Neff says was not previously depicted by American artists — the seemingly empty expanses of the desert and the plains.
Straying from his soft focus, meditative views of the Connecticut countryside, Twachtman created a nearly abstract canvas of the “Emerald Pool, Yellowstone,” circa 1895, that anticipated the Modernist art to follow. Neff says Twachtman’s “works are among the most provocative paintings of the American West at the time.”
Other early Twentieth Century paintings by Arthur Wesley Dow, Henry F. Farny, Augustus Vincent Tack and N.C. Wyeth include avant-garde touches in portrayals of the West.
The highlight of this section is O’Keeffe’s brilliantly hued, striking watercolor, “Evening Star No. 11,” 1917, one of three on view from a series created when she was 30 years old and teaching in Texas. With their broad bands of vivid color and wide washes of blue or green, the “Evening Star” series reflected O’Keeffe’s sense of freedom and infinity in Texas. They “are among the boldest artworks of her career and of American art of the period,” says Neff.
In the section on “The Many Wests: Modern Regions” more than 60 paintings and photographs suggest how artists used identifiable local characteristics to distinguish distinct regions, as opposed to a mythic, monolithic West. California, with its abundance of diverse natural beauty, was a particularly fecund area for artistic activity.
This is reflected in canvases including Swiss-born Gottardo Piazzoni’s huge, muted renderings of “The Land” and “The Sea,” both 1915, and the softly patterned manner of Arthur F. Matthews’s “View from Skyline Boulevard, San Francisco,” also painted in 1915 by the influential founder of the California Decorative Style. The state’s natural wonders — mountains, dunes, rivers and coastline — were dramatically recorded by photographers ranging from William Dassonville around 1905 to Adams in 1929.
One of the richest veins of American Modernism is showcased in the section on “The Southwest,” where painters and photographers had a field day interpreting the sun-drenched, arid plains, snow-capped mountains, picturesque mesas and ancient cultures in avant-garde vocabularies, especially around Taos, N.M. Hartley, the most important and enduring of the early Modernists, captured the pulsating energy he sensed on visits to that area, in “Landscape Fantasy” and “New Mexico Recollections – Storm,” both 1923. That same year, avant-garde painter Stuart Davis responded to desert vistas with “New Mexico Landscape.”
Traveling to the region from his home in New Jersey, Marin found ample subjects for energetic evocations of the dramatic scenery, as exemplified by “Storm, Taos Mountain, New Mexico,” 1930, which Neff suggests may be among “the greatest watercolors of his career.” Members of the Taos Society of Artists, who between 1915 and 1917 put the area on the artistic map, are represented in the exhibition by Ernest L. Blumenschein and Victor Higgins.
Even before she famously relocated permanently to New Mexico, O’Keeffe found inspiration in the state’s expansive scenery and the intersection of nature and religion, as reflected in “Black Cross with Stars and Blue,” 1929. “Red Hills and Bones,” 1941, beautifully records an area around her Ghost Ranch house. O’Keeffe and photographer Porter (“Black Place, New Mexico,” 1945) discovered special stimulation for Modernist works in the state’s remote gypsum hills. Likewise, O’Keeffe, Strand and other artists created Modernist interpretations of the picturesque Ranchos de Taos.
Jonson, who introduced abstraction to New Mexico and taught for years at the University of New Mexico, set an influential example with works such as “Cliff Dwellings, No. 3,” 1927. Dixon, who traveled extensively in the region, created panoramic landscapes and images of noble Native Americans, as in his riveting “Earth Knower,” 1931–1935, a highlight of the show.
In addition to Porter and Strand, other photographers who turned out memorable images of the Southwest included Gilpin, Weston and Adams, the latter most notably in his iconic “Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico,” 1941.
The economic and ecological disaster featured in “The Dust Bowl Era — Plains and Other Places” prompted artists to depict an exhausted land and people in unforgettable images, such as photographs by Lange, “Freedom of Religion: Three Denominations (Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist Churches) on the Great Plains, Near Winner, South Dakota,” 1938 and “Tractored Out, Childress County, Texas,” 1938, and by Weston, “‘Hot Coffee,’ Mohave Desert,” 1937.
Benton’s Regionalist canvas, “Boomtown,” 1927–1928, shows bustling Borger, Texas, prospering yet violent after the discovery of oil nearby. Fellow American Scene painter Wood’s “Spring Turning,” 1936, reflected the continuing importance and promise of agriculture in Iowa.
Paintings by Alexander Hogue, notably the aptly titled “Erosions No. 2, Mother Earth Laid Bare,” 1938, and “Crucified Land,” 1939, vividly conveyed the devastation of the Dust Bowl era. “Hogue expressed, in most dramatic terms,” says Neff, “how land and humankind had failed one another during the Depression, changing the landscape in the eyes of artists coming of age in the late 1930s and 1940s.”
The final section of the show, “The Abstract West,” explores how artists, especially after World War II, used western landscape to create a new visual language that included Surrealism and abstraction. Works by Morris Grave and Mark Tobey in the Pacific Northwest, Vance Kirkland in Denver and peripatetic westerner Clyfford Still reflect the diversity of aesthetic approaches to the region.
Whether depicting the western landscape or its dramatic coastline, photographers after 1940 also employed new aesthetic approaches. Examples include Adams’s “Surf Sequence,” 1940, Weston’s “Oil [tar] on Rocks, Point Lobo,” 1942, and Gilpin’s “White Sands,” 1945.
A key figure in this section is Pollock, a native of Wyoming, whose memories of the West and his exposure to Native American art influenced such early works as “Night Mist,” circa 1944–1945. One of his pioneering Abstract Expressionist works, “Number 13A: Arabesque” of 1948 documents his drip painting technique. That technique, observes Neff, was “inextricable from his New York cultural climate and his western experience.” It reflects the artist’s “lifelong engagement with American Indian art and his appropriation of some aspects of Navajo sand painting,” she adds. The complex path that led to Pollock’s late masterpieces, which were crucial to the shift of the center of the art world from Paris to New York, in some ways sums up the trajectory of Modernism’s expression in western landscapes.
This examination of a previously neglected area of American art history, featuring well-selected works documenting the significant role the American West played in the evolution of Modernism, bolstered by an excellent catalog, is a signal contribution to art scholarship and learning. Kudos to Neff for a fascinating and rewarding tour of largely unexplored territory.
The 315-page catalog, lavishly illustrated and with commentary by Neff, was published by Yale University Press and it sells for $65 (hardcover) and $40 (softcover).
“Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890–1950” is on view at the MFAH through January 28. It then travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (March 4–June 7). The MFAH has organized a large and tantalizing array of public programs that should appeal to all ages and interests.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Audrey Jones Beck Building is at 5601 Main Street. For information, 713-639-7300 or www.mfah.org.
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