Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

No School, No Problem Utah: Red Rock painters in the early 20th century

Conrad Buff (1886-1975), Canyon Land, L2009.40.1, ca. 1935, oil on masonite, collection of Edenhurst Gallery, Palm Desert, Calif.

The Continuing Allure: Painters of Utah’s Red Rock brings to us a unique set of artists who, early in the 20th century, used their skill and visionary perspective to seal the magnificence of the land of southern Utah in paint. The range of artistic approaches in this exhibit, now at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, is astonishing. The visitor will find a dramatic sense of invention and innovation in color palettes and styles, various and pronounced moods, and compositional structures that lean from the fantastical to the starkly realistic, and from the very refined to the highly abstract. The limitless sublime qualities of nature in southern Utah imprints each piece in this exhibit, yet the works are able to stand out as unique creations, capturing in color and form the fleeting moments of the ephemeral land.

In the early 20th century, artists from the urban centers of the East were attracted to the Southwest, seeing in the region a chance to explore their modern version of painting in a remote and exotic setting. In places like Taos, New Mexico, these painters joined as collectives, pursuing their artistic ideology and devotion to the land as a group. Though Utah boasts some of the most spectacular landscapes of the southwest, UMFA curator Donna Poulton points out that no similar school or collective of formal aesthetic and philosophy based on the land developed in Utah. Utah’s redrock country was just too remote and inhospitable. The Taos area had been connected to the European world for centuries, first through the Spanish and then the Americans. But places like Zions Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and the Colorado Plateau had only been settled by Europeans in the late 19th century and remained sparsely populated and inaccessible in the early 20th century. As a result, only the few willing to brave the natural hindrances, were able to bring their aesthetic vision to the area. In contrast to New Mexico, no aesthetic movements emerged in Utah. But while the communal nature of the Southwest school in New Mexico tended toward homogeneous aesthetic visions, this exhibit shows that Utah’s situation results in a wonderfully heterogeneous collection of individual artistic voices.

 

William R. Leigh (1866-1955), Rainbow Bridge by Moonlight, L2009.37.1, ca. 1922, oil on canvas, courtesy of private collection

William R. Leigh’s nocturne, “Rainbow Bridge by Moonlight,” is a supreme example of an artist taking a close look at nature, here inspired by a spectacular natural formation. Done in 1922, the painting is the earliest in the collection and in it we see how Leigh appreciated the pictorial qualities of the arches that dot the landscape of the Colorado Plateau. Many have come to know Rainbow Bridge because of the relative accessibility provided by Lake Powell. But when Leigh painted the form he had to travel through rugged canyons, to the backside of Navajo Mountain. Leigh’s unique palette, suffused with greens, blues, mauves and a host of other nocturnal plein air effects, delights as much in capturing the sublime qualities of moonlight as it does in describing the unique shape of the arch. We feel ourselves in the desert, the cool air and calm colors of a lucid, starlit Utah sky turning a hot red rock into a romantic nocturne.

The Swiss-born California artist Conrad Buff congeals his imaginative powers and aesthetic ingenuity in the three paintings on exhibit. In the remote climes of Utah this early 20th-century artistic pioneer of the West, like those in New York and Paris, sought innovation in the primary elements of his work. “Canyon Land” and “Canyon Walls, Zion National Park” are freed from any aesthetic norms, any rigidity of a school other than the artist’s own imaginative intensity.

 

Harold (Buck) Weaver (1889-1961), Landscape–Cloud Patterns, L2009.42.1, 1935, oil on canvas, Collection of Diane and Sam Stewart

In Harold Weaver’s “Landscape-Cloud Patterns,” we may sense a borrowing, from Matisse, of Modernist color theory or catch a hint of Picasso’s analytical approach in the skyline, but the palette is decisively Weaver’s own, and the structural composition totally unique and one of the highlights of the show. Perhaps freedom from the rigors of a canon liberated these artists to paint what they saw, how they saw it, following no manifesto and with no aims at painterly ultimatums.

If any artist was to influence others in this period of dust bowl days it was the husband of Dorothea Lange and great inheritor of Utah subjects, Maynard Dixon. Dixon may be “prophet of the red rock” and grandfather to a host of contemporary redrock painters, but what an antithesis he is to the trite contemporary stereotypes of today! “Moonlight over Zion” owes a great deal to cubist theory. Dixon paints blocks of contrasting tone that together imply depth on a canvas, which is contrastingly flat. He uses no chiaroscuro for his subjects, yet manifestly implies distance. The painting feels earthy and natural despite its Modernist-influenced composition. Dixon’s signature abstractions seem to have influenced his contemporaries more than any other artist, if not because of working together then by some impromptu roadside diner encounter.

Plein air is the order de jour in this collection, as artists find hues within hues, tones within tones and all of the whimsy of that element to which the artist is always subservient: light. We can observe this in many paintings of the show, including Charles Muench’s contemporary masterpiece “Bryce Canyon Color.” The stalagmites of the paintings foreground sit in muted color, as if beneath a cool cloud of shadow, but as the viewer’s eyes move vertically up the canvas they encounter a burst of sun upon a tier of spires, revealing the intensity of their color and geographic splendor. The eye travels further through a sea of towers, and beyond to a plateau, a horizon of blues that extends into infinity. The painting is a monumental declaration of naturalistic effects that are ripe for aesthetic exploration.

The forms of southern Utah are solid, monumental masses, but they are also constantly in flux: changing with a shifting cloud, an approaching storm, the muted light of night or the bright glare of day. All of this did not go unnoticed by the early 20th-century artists who saw possibility in this land and created masterpieces. The show is an important one, as Utah artists may more clearly appreciate and understand their local heritage. The vastness of this subject matter remains to be further investigated. The artists of Continuing Allure show us that individual style gives room for limitless possibilities in describing the immense and ever changing natural dynamics.

Charles Muench (1966- ), Bryce Canyon Color, L2009.44.1, 2000, oil on canvas, collection of Paul and Susan Bingham

The Continuing Allure: Painters of Utah’s Red Rock is at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts through June 27.

Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. He is now a professional writer living in Salt Lake City.

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