Simpler, Brighter, Stronger: Early Modernism And Southwest American Art

Born in Germany and trained in Munich, William Ritschel had experience as a sailor and sketched seascapes before emigrating to California. There he applied his brilliant Impressionist style to energetic views along the Pacific Coast, such as “Marine at Monterey.” This vigorously brushed, animated scene of crashing waves against solid rocks is as well done as similar views by more heralded New England artists. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, gift of A. Merlin Steed and Alice W. Steed Collection.

 PROVO, UTAH — There has always been something special about art of the American Southwest. Much of this has to do with the awed response of newcomer artists from outside when they encounter the region’s striking topographical formations, sweeping desert vistas, brilliantly clear sunlight, unusual flora, fauna and animals, and Native Americans co-existing with the land.

For many early Twentieth Century artists of the Southwest, most of whom came from elsewhere, the academic realism of the period seemed inadequate to convey the emotional intensity and vivid beauty of these unfamiliar landscapes. To invigorate and adapt their art to these new sights, artists simplified landscapes, heightened and intensified their palette colors and strengthened the dynamic forms and rhythmic lines of their compositions. By exaggerating essential qualities of the rugged terrain, Southwest painters infused their work with passion, vibrant life, effulgent colors and aesthetic power.

Their artwork is beautifully showcased in “Simpler, Brighter, Stronger: Early Modernism and Southwest Art,” on view at the Brigham Young University (BYU) Museum of Art through July 26. Organized by the museum’s curator Paul Anderson, it features a selection of early Twentieth Century paintings, 1910–1960, that reflect the inspiration artists drew from early European Modernism, and seeks to categorize them according to the three qualities in the exhibition title.

Most are drawn from the rich holdings of the BYU Museum, one of the finest university art museums in the United States, and some from private collectors Diane and Sam Stewart.

In the show’s title, BYU organizers spelled out the three major characteristics of works in the exhibition: Simpler: One approach to conveying the grandeur of Southwestern landscape was to simplify views by eliminating nonessential details and transforming large natural forms into bold geometric patterns. In creating works that captured the majestic, timeless qualities of the Southwest, American artists were influenced by the bold colors and careful geometry of Paul Cezanne’s French landscapes.

What the organizers call the “signature piece of the exhibition…[that] unmistakably exemplifies all three characteristics of the exhibition’s title” is Conrad Buff’s memorable “Canyon Walls: Zion National Park, Utah.” An immigrant from Switzerland, Buff (1886–1975) pursued a career as a painter after settling in Los Angeles. In “Canyon Walls,” Buff composed a boldly brushed, dramatic view from the rim of Zion Canyon, capturing the brilliant colors of the red rock cliffs in light and shadow while rendering the vegetation below in delicate strokes of black, green and deep red. The painting conveys the timeless power and majesty of the rugged terrain in simple, bright and strong terms.

Buff’s vigorous, colorful style is also displayed in “Desert Landscape,” a sun-filled, tranquil desert scene enlivened with bright, bold colors, perhaps influenced by French Fauvists, notably Andre Derain. Another standout is his glorious “Desert Clouds,” focused on glowing cumulus clouds lit by vivid sunset hues hovering over a flat desert landscape punctuated in the distance by tiny plateaus and rock formations. Several other works demonstrate Buff’s late career use of a Modernist style — angular and almost abstract — well-suited to depicting the majesty and play of light on Southwestern bluffs and mesas.

Little known in the East, Buff is the sleeper-star of the exhibition. The quality and appeal of his vivid art will come as a rewarding revelation to many viewers, whetting their appetite for more of his strong and compelling work.

The outstanding painter in this exhibition and in BYU’s permanent collection is Maynard Dixon (1875–1946). A distinctive Modernist interpreter of the American West, Dixon was a self-taught painter who was for a time married to famed Great Depression photographer Dorothea Lange and lived in California before moving to southern Utah.

He approached his landscape and figurative subjects with an honesty that rejected popular, romanticized versions of Western themes. Captivated by the harsh, barren desert landscapes of the region, Dixon created art that reflected his appreciation for the power of nature in rock formations, vast spaces and canyons. Dixon’s gift for capturing the grandeur and ambience of Southwestern landscapes was grounded in his ability to eliminate details and hone in on the often spectacular effects of light on topography.

Observed during Dixon’s wide-ranging travels around the West, “Colorado Desert” and “Autumn Evening” reflect his predilection for panoramic, strategically illuminated compositions of landscapes in Colorado and Wyoming, respectively. “Dry Gulf” offers a carefully shadowed, closeup view of jagged desert mountains, painted with vigor and geometric precision like Cezanne, while the warm dry colors of the terrain and structures in “Old Homestead” suggest an oasis in an arid land. This happy scene was painted soon after the artist married fellow painter Edith Hamlin and he had sold 85 works to BYU.

Today, Dixon’s artistic legacy is perpetuated by the Thunderbird Foundation, a nonprofit organization run by art dealers Susan and Paul Bingham that maintains Dixon’s 1939 log home, studio, property and gallery with paintings and reproductions of his work in Mount Carmel, Utah. On the National Register of Historic Places and open to visitors, the property has become a must-see destination for visitors interested in viewing and often painting the beautiful surrounding area, highlighted by Zion National Park and affectionately known as “Maynard Dixon Country.”

The exhibition’s second category is Brighter: Stunned by the dazzling sunlight and vibrant colors of the region, many Southwestern artists intensified their palettes to create high-keyed touches and deep shadows with warmer colors. Some experimented with the unusually brilliant hues employed by French Fauvists like Andre Derain and Henri Matisse.

A prime example is James Swinnerton (1875–1974), who started out as a comic strip artist in New York until in his twenties a severe case of tuberculosis exacerbated by heavy drinking prompted him to move to a California sanitarium to die. Rejuvenated by the dry desert air, he stopped drinking and began a five-decade career of painting the desert regions of the Southwest. His dramatic rendering of “Agatha’s Needle (El Capitan)” in southern Utah focuses on the silhouette of the majestic volcanic peak patterned in light and shadow, with bright sunlight in the foreground illuminating the arid soul and hardy vegetation.

Equally intriguing is the art of Utah high school art teacher Phillip Henry Barkdull (1888–1968), whose life-long struggles with ill health undermined what might have been a major artistic career. Nearly forgotten after his death, Barkdull’s work, epitomized by his vigorously brushed, scintillating depiction of vivid golds, oranges and reds radiating from the towering stone monolith in “Great White Throne,” was rediscovered in recent years, attracting wide appreciation.

Barkdull’s bright colors and strong brushstrokes reflect the influence of one of his teachers, Birger Sandzen (1871–1954), a Swedish émigré who taught for years at Bethany College in Kansas. In his flamboyant style, likely influenced by Vincent van Gogh, Sandzen applied bravura brushwork, thick paint and bright colors to distort forms in appealing ways, as in untitled (Tree in a Desert). The two gnarled pine trees bent by years of desert winds, outlined against reddish-blue mountains and a cloud-filled blue sky, give this picture a feeling of movement and a sense of aging trees struggling to survive in a harsh, windswept environment.

The most abstract painter on view, Russian-born Nicolai Fechin (1881–1955) trained at the Imperial Academy of Art in St Petersburg and gained international recognition before emigrating to the United States in 1923. Seeking relief from long bouts of lung disease, he found a spiritual home with a dry climate in Taos, N.M., where the Caucasus-like mountains and pueblo Indians in colorful costumes reminded him of Russian peasants and provided ample subjects for his art. A close look at “Indian Boy,” a jumble of slashing, energetic, colorful abstract brushstrokes applied by palette-knife reveals the head of the subject youngster emerging, his blurred arms and animated pose suggesting he may be engaging in a traditional dance.

The idiosyncratic house and studio that Fechin renovated in Taos, starting in 1927, filled with the artists’ wood carvings, handmade metal fixtures and artwork, is maintained today as the Fechin House Museum. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and the adjacent Fechin Inn touts itself as a reflection of Fechin and his art.

The exhibition’s third section is Stronger: Some regional artists infused their works with a sense of vibrant life and dramatic movement by emphasizing rhythmic lines and juxtaposing dynamic shapes and exaggerated hues. Drawing ideas from van Gogh’s emotional, swirling brushwork and Pablo Picasso’s fragmented Cubist images, these painters depicted what they felt more than what they saw.

One outstanding artist, who fits not only “stronger” but “simpler” and “brighter” categories as well, Walter Ufer (1876–1936) was raised in Kentucky, trained in Germany and moved to New Mexico when he was already a mature painter. The new environment prompted him to ditch the rich, somber palette of Munich for more Modernist canvases filled with bright blues, greens, purples and reds, and a sensuous enjoyment of the exciting Southwestern contrasts of sunlight and shadow.

A member of the Taos Society of Artists, Ufer is best known for crisp, sun-filled depictions of Taos Indians pursuing everyday tasks. “I paint the Indian as he is,” Ufer said, “not [as] a fantastic figure. He resents being regarded as a curiosity.” In “The Washer Woman” a Native American in black carries a bundle of laundry past aging adobe structures, whose rough walls reflect the glaring light of the midday sun.

Largely unheralded in the East, Harold Joe Waldrum (1934–2003), the youngest painter on view, is represented by unforgettable works. He moved from Texas to New Mexico in the 1970s and specialized in stark, carefully shadowed architectural structures, especially churches. “Churches interest me,” he said, “because they are the heart of a culture.” In his depiction of the famed Ranchos de Taos, Waldrum used graceful shadows and contours in a nearly abstract composition. Even more striking is “La Iglesia en Corrales” in which brilliant midday sun highlights the red walls and gray towers of the adobe church, punctuated with deep black shadows, all silhouetted against a clear blue sky.

A particularly appealing seascape, “Marine at Monterey” is by William Ritschel (1864–1949), who was born and trained in Germany, settled in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., in 1911 and spent the rest of his career painting its picturesque coastline. This typically strongly brushed, richly colored depiction of waves crashing on rocks forcefully evokes that area of the West.

Effectively illustrating Southwestern Modernism that reflects its title, “Simpler, Brighter, Stronger” makes a good case for renewed attention to this vivid body of work. By adapting their palettes and styles to capture the essential qualities of the region, Southwestern artists have made and continue to make unique contributions to American art.

The BYU Museum of Art is at 500 North Campus Drive. For information, moa.byu.edu or 801-422-8287.

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