Before Now | Historical Artists | Visual Arts

Modernism Gains Ground: As One War Ends, Another Begins in Mid-Century Utah

William J. Parkinson, “Within the Ancient Underground Temple of Oude,” ca. 1945, oil on board, 24 x 30 in. (courtesy Springville Museum of Art)

Though they might be lazy or imprecise, we’ll use them, if only because they are the categories Utah’s mid-century art community used: the modernists and the conservatives — two camps, engaged after the conclusion of the Second World War in a battle for what little attention, prestige or money might be had in what was still a relatively small, isolated community in the Intermountain West. It was far too polite a community for anything like a brawl, but some name-calling, a few snubs, a boycott, even, were within the realm of possibility. 

The debate about modernism was not new to the post-war era. It had erupted a decade before. When the Federal Art Project established the Utah Art Center in Salt Lake City, and, under the direction of regional F.A.P. coordinator Donald Bear, Utah director Elzy Bird and Art Center director Don Goodall, began encouraging progressive aesthetics, lines were drawn up. The modernists, influenced by Cézanne and cubist pictorial form as well as by expressionist distortion, would operate, if unofficially, from the Art Center. Offended by the liberties the modernists took with perspective and a sense of accomplished drawing (not to mention the nudity) Alice Merrill Horne and Utah’s conservative painting tradition set up a block away at ZCMI’s Tiffin Room. When the war, the real war, in Europe and the Pacific, brought an end to the F.A.P. and the Utah Art Center, an uneasy peace settled in: for the moment, there were more important battles than aesthetic ones. Bird was sent to the South Pacific, Bear helped found the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and Goodall took a teaching position at the University of Texas, Austin, bringing Henry Rasmusen, one of the leading home-grown modernists, with him.

At the end of the war, however, a new generation of modernists emerged to reinvigorate the debate. These native-born artists were reinforced by artists arriving from outside the state thanks to the G.I. Bill, and in the half decade leading up to mid-century, morale among the modernists was high: because, at the state fair at least, the modernists were gaining ground.


Dating back to the territorial fair established in the first decade after Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley, the Utah State Fair was held annually in September. Principally a horticultural and livestock exposition and competition, since at least 1901 the fair had also included a fine art component. In the post-war years, up to 100,000 people would visit the fair over its 11-day run at the Fairpark grounds (built in 1902) on the west side of Salt Lake City. Contemporaries estimated that 90 percent of attendees would visit the indoor fine art exhibition, where they could see work by 200 or more Utah artists.  

Utah’s population at the time was just under 700,000 (less than the current population of Salt Lake County), overwhelming white (98%) and predominantly members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Large stretches of  what we now think of as the Wasatch Front’s urban core were sprinkled with farmland and orchards. Most Utahns did not attend college, and except for the Springville Museum of Art and the Art Barn in Salt Lake City, there were few opportunities to view fine art. So, the average visitor consuming cotton candy while admiring heifers and fruit stands was ill-prepared for the debates on aesthetics they might encounter in the state fair’s art pavilion. As Salt Lake Tribune art critic James Fitzpatrick put it in 1951: “Because of our natural insularity, we have not been exposed to the currents of art which have swirled about the western world for some 75 years now. Principles of modern art appear to baffle some, frighten others, and anger still others.” (Salt Lake Tribune, 23 Sep. 1951) 

But awards at the state fair were not a popularity contest, were not reliant on public opinion. They were, in the immediate post-war years, chosen by a panel of three local professionals, each of whom would have had their own relationship to the art trends of their time. At least two jurors were chosen from the state’s dominant art associations — the Associated Utah Artists, whose membership tended toward the conservative, and the Utah Artists Council, where the modernists found their home. The jurors awarded a number of cash prizes ($5-$50) in several categories, both professional and amateur. Foremost among these were the between one and three purchase prizes awarded each year. In addition to money (about $150), these awards came with bragging rights for the artists and inclusion in the state’s art collection for the work.

Gaylen C. Hansen, “Still Life with White Pitcher,” 1945, oil on panel, 15.5 x 19.5 in. (courtesy State of Utah Alice Merrill Horne Collection)

In September 1945, the first-place purchase award went to Gaylen Hansen, a young artist who had remained stateside during the war and who was recently returned from several months of study in New York City. To our eyes, “Still Life with White Pitcher,” may appear a relatively straightforward still life, but in the debates in Utah that pitted the naturalistic and beautiful against the expressive and formally inventive, the work was squarely in the modernist camp: the paint handling is rather textural, the drawing takes liberties with single point perspective, and the objects, rather than being arranged in a controlled, centralized manner, are spread, seemingly haphazardly, across the canvas, causing abrupt croppings.  

A second purchase award went to Bill Parkinson’s “Home Town.” If Hansen, born in 1921, represented the new generation of modernists, William J. Parkinson was the veteran. Born at the turn of the century, Parkinson had studied with A.B. Wright and during the Depression worked in a Regionalist style. Along with artists like George Dibble and Henry Rasmusen, he was part of the modernist vanguard that had collected around the Utah Art Center. In the 1940s he began an experimental period in which his picture plane was chopped up, rearranged and severely flattened. Compared to works like “Within the Ancient Underground Temple of Oude” and “Crucifixion,” from the same period, “Home Town” is relatively tame; but all three works represent a divergence from a naturalistic approach to composition, opting instead for formal and decorative inventions, placing Parkinson squarely in the modernist camp.

William J. Parkinson, “Home Town,” 1945, oil on board, 23 x 30 in. (courtesy State of Utah Alice Merrill Horne Collection)


William J. Parkinson, “Crucifixion,” ca. 1945, oil on board, 23.25 x 26 in. (courtesy Springville Museum of Art)

To speak in binaries, of two camps, is to oversimplify Utah’s art world. Alice Merrill Horne, the arch-conservative in this story, regularly exhibited works by Minerva Teichart, a student of Robert Henri who simplified her drawing, avoided modeling and flattened the picture plane; Fauve-inspired colorist Henri Moser also appeared in Horne’s sponsored exhibitions. But affinities and loyalties certainly developed in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and artists and their works were often labeled “modernist” or “conservative,” the appellation meant as a compliment or insult depending on the speaker. 

The jurors for the 1945 state fair were neither particularly modern nor particularly conservative. B.F. Larsen, chair of the BYU art department, was a relatively naturalistic painter at the time, though he remained liberal minded and in the next decade would experiment with abstract designs. LeConte Stewart had replaced J.T. Harwood as chair at the University of Utah art department and as Utah’s best-loved landscape painter, but he had also been honored with the first exhibition at the Utah Art Center and his Depression-era works depicted the gritty struggles of the period. Paul Smith, a Salt Lake City painter who had been active in the W.P.A. projects, was probably the most conservative of the three. Neither Hansen’s work nor Parkinson’s were their most daring from the period, but the judges’ selections gave a definite nod of approval to modernist experimentation. The traditional camp would have to be satisfied with a third prize, which went to a watercolor by Mary Kimball Johnson.

Florence Drake, “Still Life,” 1946, watercolor, 19 x 25 in. (courtesy State of Utah Alice Merrill Horne Collection)

The modernist gains were not a one-year anomaly. The next year, from among the 350 entries to the state fair, another modernist’s work was added to the state collection. A schoolteacher in Ogden, Florence Drake had spent several summers in California studying with Millard Sheets and other California Scene painters. Drake was interested in rhythm rather than careful drawing or detailed description, and elements in her still life are barely filled in, the better to allow the eye to flow across the composition. Drake was the lone modernist awarded that year, however. Other ribbons went to portraits by Alvin Gittins, then still a scholarship student at B.Y.U, and Howell Rosenbaum, recently returned from the war; and to a painting of the Manti National Forest by Alberta Jacobsen, an example of what some modernists would derisively refer to as “the aspen school.”

If the conservatives were winning back ground at the state fair, things were looking much better for the modernists at the Utah Art Institute’s annual exhibition. The annual didn’t attract the same numbers of the public as the state fair, but it was the state’s longest-running and most prestigious exhibition. The jurors for 1946 were Roman Andrus, a young member of BYU’s faculty, Florence Drake, freshly laureled at the state fair, and Henri Rasmusen, visiting from his position at the University of Texas and himself a controversial winner of previous purchase prizes. The most important awards they selected went to two modernists from the Utah State Agricultural College (USAC) in Logan (now Utah State University and one of the strongholds of modernism in the post-war period): Jessie Larson’s “The Young Dancer” is a loose, causal portrait of a young girl fresh from her routines and “Lake Bonneville” was a majestic work by Everett Thorpe, an accomplished draftsman and painter of broad range who would be a vocal proponent of modernism in the debates that would follow. Gaylen Hansen picked up an award in the youth (under 25) category and Gertrude Teutsch, a Jewish refugee who would direct the Art Barn School of Art for several years, received an honorable mention.

Jessie C. Larsen, “The Young Dancer,” 1946, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 in. (courtesy State of Utah Alice Merrill Horne Collection)

Whatever encouragement these gains provided the modernist camp would have been dampened by the plans for the coming year’s Centennial exhibit. Celebrating a century since the arrival of the Mormon pioneers and running for several months, the Centennial Exposition would replace the state fair. The state art component of the Exposition was decidedly a look back, with memorial exhibitions for artists like J.T. Harwood, Edwin Evans, J.B. Fairbanks and Mahonri Young. And Florence Ware, president of the Associated Utah Artists and chairman for the Centennial’s fine art exhibitions, announced the plans for two juried exhibitions for contemporary Utah artists: a competition of floral paintings, a genre long favored by Alice Merrill Horne, and an architectural competition featuring paintings of homes of Utah pioneers. The message was pretty clear: traditional concepts of beauty and a connection to the state’s history, rather than any national or international aesthetic trends, would be the focus as Utah celebrated the 100 years since Mormon pioneers entered the valley.

But these attempts at looking back could do little in face of “the million dollar exhibition.”


Officially titled 100 Years of American Painting, the exhibit was advertised in local papers as “the million dollar exhibition,” the most expensive collection of art ever to be exhibited in Utah. It was managed locally by Gail Martin, president of the Utah Art Institute and longtime art critic for the Deseret News, where he had been the defender of the older generation of modernists. Herman More, curator of the Whitney Museum in New York, selected more than 125 pieces from his museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the exhibit. Henry Rasmusen returned from Texas to hang the show. 

Hung in several adjoining partitions of a large open exhibition space — so that thirty or more works could be taken in at one time — and supplied with rows of chairs for long contemplation, the exhibition was a feast for art lovers. It featured fine examples by artists from the 19th-century, including Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, Albert Pinkham Ryder and George Inness. The majority of the exhibition, however, came from the Whitney and represented all the trends in American painting over the past several decades, including works collected within the past year. Everything that had been unleashed in the United States since the Armory show of 1913 was on display: gritty social realism, formalist designs, Surrealism, Expressionism, the most recent trends in abstract painting.

(A selection of works that appeared in 100 Years of American Painting. Click a thumbnail to view the work at the Whitney Museum of Art’s website)


The impact of the exhibition can not be overstated. For sheer scale, range and quality, the state had never seen anything like it and its impact on the local community lasted for years. Because of the large crowds attending the Exposition (more than 600,000), 100 Years of American Painting confronted the general public with aesthetic issues that, if present in the state in the past, had largely remained confined to Utah’s artists. Modernism could no longer be ignored, nor easily dismissed. What was one to think? Were these the scrawls of the incompetent and the deranged? Cons from hucksters? Propaganda from the dangerous “reds?” (to name some of the most common dismissals of modern art) Why, then, were they being collected by prestigious institutions like the Whitney and the Met? The public needed help sorting things out. They needed the art critic, and so the theatre of battle shifted from the state’s exhibition spaces to the pages of its newspapers.



For the art critic, the debate couldn’t have come at a better time: the two major papers in the state were waging their own battle — over circulation. In 1947, the Salt Lake Tribune’s readership was more than double that of the LDS Church-owned Deseret News. Over the next four years the two papers engaged in aggressive promotions to best their competitors. 100 Years of American Painting had been sponsored by the Deseret News as one such effort. In May 1948, the Deseret News even abandoned its long-standing Sabbath-day observance and began publishing a Sunday edition. Over the next decade, the papers would  be transformed, especially the Sunday supplements which became the playgrounds of Madison Avenue, and would swell in size — all of which benefited the discourse on modern art.

Merwin Fairbanks, a young journalist who had been bouncing around the pages of the Deseret News began writing for the paper’s arts section in 1947. He found his voice in the art controversies of the postwar years. It was a balanced, fair, open-minded voice. Fairbanks was reluctant to assume the role of advocate or detractor so in the wake of the Centennial Exposition he chose to be referee: as 1948 rolled around, he invited experts from the community to use the pages of the Deseret News’ art section to debate the merits of modern art.

First up was Alice Merrill Horne, the grand dame of Utah arts, its patron saint. At eighty years old (she would die before the year ended), Horne had earned a well-deserved sense of stewardship over the development of Utah art. She had been instrumental in establishing the Utah Art Institute, the nation’s first state-sponsored arts council, and had served for years as leader and patron of the Utah Art Colony. Fifty years before, she had waged her own battle for a version of modernism, largely influenced by Impressionism, but by 1948 time had turned the state’s artistic progressives into conservatives. Art, Horne contended in the pages of the News, was the cultural yardstick of a community (and she, it was obvious, wanted to protect the community). “Modern art,” Horne wrote, “does not foster a thorough knowledge of the profession. When artists’ painting are grotesque or vulgar he is not bringing beauty before the public.” Commenting on a work she had seen at the Utah Art Center a decade before and apparently could not get out of her mind, Horne complained, “A woman in labor is not a fit subject to paint.”  Summing up her aesthetic position, she wrote, “When art ceases to be beautiful it ceases to be art.” (DN Jan 10, 1948)

Horne was followed a week later by Mae Huntington, an English teacher at Springville High School and secretary for the Board of Trustees of the Springville High School Association. Since 1922, the high school had held its Spring Salon, a juried exhibition which had become, thanks in large part to the efforts of Huntington, a national exhibition of some note. It was decidedly conservative and, up until 1989, representational. “Painting is a representative art, not a denial of natural law as many of our so-called modernists present it,” wrote Huntington, who was 57. In art, she looked to find “soul-satisfying refreshment.” (Deseret News, 17 Jan. 1948, p. 31) She also thought jazz was noise.

At 80, George Wesley Browning was one of the state’s oldest living artists. His watercolors and oils of Utah’s mountainous splendors epitomized Horne’s injunction that art be “beautiful.” “Force, brutality and an unbalanced radical tendency are totalitarian characteristics,” Browning wrote to the News audience on Jan. 24. “Coincidentally, they are also outstanding characteristics in the art of today.” (Deseret News, 24 Jan. 1948, p. 29) Browning’s criticism of modernism, though true, of say, the 1920s, when Futurism was associated with Mussolini’s fascism and abstraction with the Russian Revolution, was becoming outdated in the 1940s: Hitler had rejected modern art as degenerate and modernism was becoming the symbol of western freedom as opposed to the restrictions of state-sponsored Soviet Realism.

Browning’s letter was followed the next week by another artist, Lee Greene Richards, who as a portrait and landscape painter had become one of the most well-respected artists in the state. At 70, his own work was characterized by reduction of detail and enhancement of color, but was principally tied to nature. “An artist must keep in tune with nature and go to nature for his inspiration,” he wrote. The artist’s pursuit was a search for the true and beautiful, in his eyes, but he also expressed a sense of ambivalence about restricting artistic tastes: “If you like the naturalistic then buy it. But, of course, if your taste runs to the abstract, then buy it and try to live with it.” (Deseret News, 31 Jan. 1948, p. 29)

From Richards’ position in the middle of the road, the paper turned its column space over to the modernist advocates, beginning with Alice Dick. A graduate of Vassar who would pursue a career in social work, Dick had, since 1946, been chairman of the art committee for the Junior League of Salt Lake City, a charitable organization responsible for curating the exhibitions at Salt Lake City’s Art Barn. As chairman she had curated several important shows, including one in 1946 that featured the works of Picasso, Degas, Derain and Matisse. At 36, she was the youngest participant in the debate. While she conceded in her article that art’s ideal might be beauty, she also contended that “the artist is always a part of civilization which is in itself in constant flux, constant discord and constant germination.” From the Great Depression through World War II, civilization had gone through great upheavals and the artist was still trying to make sense of it. “Frequently [the artist] can not unify the divergent elements of his experience but can only reflect them … As civilization grows comprehensible, art will be comprehensible.” (Deseret News, 14 Feb. 1948, p. 35)

“Modern art is that art which ten, twenty, or fifty years hence becomes conservative art,” Maud Hardman wrote on Feb. 21, in a possible reference to the aging artists and patrons who had begun the debate. In addition to beauty, art, Hardman contended, could be about freedom and individuality, science, mechanization. In a slightly schoolmarmish tone, reflecting her role as art supervisor for the Salt Lake City schools, she wrote, ”Appreciation and enjoyment of modern art, like eating olives or wearing new fashions, has to be learned through repeated contacts and experience as well as by an underrating of the reasons why art changes and grows.” (Deseret News, 21 Feb. 1948, p.35) Hardman, who was 52 and had been involved with the Utah Art Institute for several years, returned to the News’ art page two weeks later for a second installment that was an astute outline of the formal aesthetic concerns of the modernists.

With Hardman’s two-part response, the series of articles begun at the start of the year officially concluded, though letters to the editor and additional guest columnists would continue to appear throughout the year. F.C. Golfing and Marion L. Nielsen, humanities professors from USAC, wrote to say that though some of the modern artists were good and some bad, “They are invariably honest.” They were working in different modes and with different talents and should be respected within those spheres, the pair argued. But, they felt, the public was not up to it. ”The blame for the remarkable callousness with regard to modern art which strikes any observer form out of the state, must, therefore, attach to our critics, who address the layman through newspaper and magazine articles.” Art criticism, they lamented, was low. “All experiment is being discouraged: the academic ideal extolled.” (Deseret News, 13 Mar. 1948, p. 33)

This direct critique of his own work was graciously included by Fairbanks before he wrapped up the series. He was feeling pretty successful. On Mar. 20, he wrote that the previous year had been a chance to view an unprecedented amount and variety of art and he was glad “the controversy between modern art, which use include the abstract and the undefinable, and all other forms of art that reflect the culture of a civilization, has not excited Utah artists to a verbal battle.” The debate in the pages of the Deseret News “was done honestly and thoughtfully,” Fairbanks felt, “but we did not have any bickering between the modernist and opposing forces. Evidently Utah artists are willing to let their work represent them.” (Deseret News, 20 Mar. 1948) 

He spoke too soon …

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.

3 replies »

  1. Shawn Rossiter captures an essential quality that helps make Utah arts and artists perhaps the leading regional art community today: when he points out that locals preferred to let their works speak for themselves—i.e. stand side by side—rather than engage in a brawl over which was better, he shows how members of this community support each other rather than engage in destructive squabbles. That’s only part of the story, which I hope we will have more to say about, and more to hear as well.
    Starting, of course, with that tantalizing ‘he spoke too soon . . . ‘

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