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The Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890-1950

October 29, 2006 - January 28, 2007

 

A daring new look at the development of American Modernism is unveiled in The Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890-1950, which premieres at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, on October 29, 2006, where it will be installed in the Brown Foundation Galleries of the Rafael Moneo-designed Audrey Jones Beck Building. While the main storyline in American art has always emphasized the importance of urbanism -- especially machine-age technology -- this exhibition argues that the vast, rugged land of the American West also left an indelible mark on Modernism. For the first time in a major museum exhibition, the crucial role played by the western landscape in defining American Modernism will be explored in over 110 paintings, works on paper, and vintage photographs by artists including Ansel Adams, Thomas Hart Benton, Edward S. Curtis, Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, Dorothea Lange, John Marin, Thomas Moran, Georgia O´Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Frederic Remington, Clyfford Still, Paul Strand, Mark Tobey, John Twachtman, and Edward Weston, and will reveal the connections between the West, Modernism, and ideas about national meaning. The exhibition will remain on view in Houston through January 28, 2007, and then will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it will be on view from March 4 through June 7, 2007. (right: Raymond Jonson, American, Cliff Dwellings, No. 3, 1927, oil on canvas, Jonson Gallery Collection, University Art Museum, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, Bequest of Raymond Jonson)

"The Modern West takes a fresh look at the development of Modern art in America," said Peter C. Marzio, MFAH director. "From the mid 1870s through the 1940s, at the same time Modernism was taking hold in the capitals of Europe and the United States, American artists were turning not only to Europe but to the American West for inspiration. This exhibition asks us to consider the landscape of the West and its imprint on Modernism as we know it today."

As conceived by Emily Ballew Neff, curator of American painting and sculpture at the MFAH, The Modern West draws from geography, geology, ethnology, and environmental studies to address the shifting concepts of time, history, and landscape in relation to the work of pioneering American artists during the first half of the century. In the process, the West is integrated into the larger story of Modernism.

"For some, the modern West is an oxymoron," said Neff. "Most people believe that American Modernism sprang exclusively from the urban East. The mythic West-promoted in pulp fiction and Hollywood westerns-has obscured a key relationship: the kinship between Modernism as it developed in both the East and the West. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, so crucial to nascent modernism in American art, artists grappled with the idea that they could accurately define an authentic and modern American art. For many, the skyscraper and the machines of mass production became the emblems of modernity, but for others, the landscape itself -- vast spaces, angular geography, vivid colors, and the intense light that flattens form -- offered a geophysical example of modernist aesthetics. More than that, Euro-American artists rushed to the West to learn from and observe American Indian cultures. Pueblo cultures, in particular, represented for these artists a pre-industrial ideal that could be used to revitalize not only American art but American modern life in general."

The exhibition was inspired by the MFAH´s own collection of American art, specifically the Hogg Collection of Remington paintings, the Manfred Heiting Photography Collection, Ima Hogg´s collection of American Indian art, and the museum´s extensive collection of works by Jackson Pollock. The exhibition comprises selected artworks from the MFAH´s collection of American paintings and photographs, and loans from major American collections including the Amon Carter Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Georgia O´Keeffe Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Museum of Modern Art as well as distinguished private collections.

Rather than presenting an exhaustive survey, The Modern West highlights works by artists who shaped powerful visions of the West that perceptively defined the importance of land, place, and culture in American history and art. A wide range of artists, 74 in all, some household names and others less familiar, are represented by major works in the exhibition. The show is organized thematically and roughly chronologically, beginning with a Prologue titled Landmarking the West, and building toward an Epilogue called The Abstract West. Between the two, sections devoted to The End of the Frontier: Making the West Artistic, The Many Wests: Modern Regions, encompassing California, The Southwest, and The Dust Bowl Era-Plains and Other Places illuminate Neff´s proposition that the western landscape itself played a key role in Modern art in the United States.

In tandem with the exhibition, Neff has authored a comprehensive, beautifully illustrated, 320-page catalogue that is being published by Yale University Press in association with the MFAH. The catalogue also includes an essay titled "Out West" by the writer Barry Lopez, a National Book Award-winning author, who, in this essay, offers a lyrical meditation on the relationship between human culture and the physical landscape based on his own travels in the artists´ footsteps.

 

Prologue: Landmarking the West

The Prologue, Landmarking the West, traces how artists who took part in 19th- century mapping expeditions introduced the dramatic landscapes and vistas of the West to a broader American and European public.

Opening the exhibition is Thomas Moran´s depiction of the fabled Mountain of the Holy Cross, 1875, oil on canvas, approximately seven by five feet, that vividly interprets the drama and majesty of this site in the Rocky Mountains. In Neff´s words, the painting "perfectly sums up 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." This one painting expresses the multiple challenges of the western landscape-the relationship between dramatic forms and illusory space-and hints at new ideas about form and space that would come to dominate Modernism.

This section also includes a selection of 19th-century photographs, with three by the survey photographer Timothy O´Sullivan, whose work was included in the Museum of Modern Art´s first photography exhibition, in 1937. This occurred after the photographer Ansel Adams brought the survey photographers to the attention of the curator, Beaumont Newhall. The photographs in the exhibition by Carleton E. Watkins, John Hillers, and Eadweard Muybridge, along with O´Sullivan, which were created in the graphic manner needed for survey photography, were among those reinterpreted in the 1930s as the predecessors of early abstraction.

The Prologue also includes Plains Indian ledger drawings from the 1870s. Bear´s Heart, a Cheyenne warrior incarcerated at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, in Troops Amassed Against a Cheyenne Village (1876-77), created a spare, abstract drawing that underscores the disruption that occurs to a culture that is stripped from a centuries-long sense of place.

 

The End of the Frontier: Making the West Artistic

The U.S. Bureau of the Census determined in 1890 that the western frontier was closed. It was at this time and in this generation that a romanticized view of a West defined by memory and nostalgia took a powerful hold on the country´s imagination.

More or less concurrently, artists working at the turn of the 20th century found ways to interpret the West through their own artistic vocabularies. As Neff states, "By externalizing their very personal reactions to the western landscape[i]ntertwining such trends as Impressionism, Tonalism, and Pictorialism,these artists shaped the West into an escape from modern urban life." This search for a spiritual refuge parallels the trends in France, where painters were leaving Paris for less industrial and more so-called "primitive"environs, searching for an authenticity of experience thought to be lost in modern city life.

Central to this section are Frederic Remington´s Fight for the Waterhole (c. 1903) and The Scout: Friends or Foe? (1902-05), where the artist successfully exploits something previously avoided by earlier American artists: the seemingly empty, and flat spaces of the desert and the Plains, and two of John H. Twachtman´s meditative paintings (c. 1895) of Yellowstone´s Emerald Pool. Also shown here are photographs by Edward Steichen (The Black Canyon, c. 1906), and Laura Gilpin (The Prairie, 1917) and paintings by Henry F. Farny (Morning of a New Day, 1906), N.C. Wyeth (Moving Camp, 1908), Arthur Wesley Dow (The Grand Canyon, c. 1911-12), and Georgia O´Keeffe (Evening Star series, 1917).

 

The Many Wests: Modern Regions

The section called The Many Wests: Modern Regions looks at how the concept of a monolithic West as a psychic and symbolic space evolved into distinct regions with identifiable local characteristics in the early decades of the 20th century. Those regions, California, the Southwest, and the Plains in the Dustbowl era, are represented with some 60-plus paintings and photographs created over a 40-year span, from 1905 through 1945.

 

California

Neff introduces the California section with a painting by the New York-based Modernist, Arthur B. Davies, titled Pacific Parnassus, Mount Tamalpais (c. 1905) in which the painter presents the coastal beauty of California as a new-found Arcadia, a model for "classical modern" that would repeat throughout the work of numerous painters and photographers, including Anne W. Brigman, represented in the exhibition with The Lone Pine, 1909. Tonalism and Pictorialism are represented by mural-sized paintings by Gottardo Piazzoni, The Land and The Sea (1915); View from Skyline Boulevard, San Francisco (1915) by the influential artist and founder of what became known as the California Decorative Style, Arthur F. Mathews; and photographer William E. Dassonville´s Mount Tamalpais, Marin County (c. 1905). The developing trends in the early decades of California are illustrated by such works as Clayton S. Price´s muscular Coastline (c. 1924) and Stanton Mcdonald-Wright´s Cañon Synchromy (Orange) (1919), which expresses the color theories that established Mcdonald-Wright as the founder of the first American abstract movement in art.

 

The Southwest

The sections covering the Southwest include Ansel Adams´s memorable photograph Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico (1941), a selection representing the Taos Society of Artists, including Ernest L. Blumenschein´s Taos Valley (1933) and works that grapple with this "new" landscape including Raymond Jonson´s Cliff Dwellings, No. 3 (1927), and works by Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Laura Gilpin. A group of early 20th-century American Indian watercolors, celebrated at the time for their indigenous abstraction, are a reminder of the search for a true American identity and the belief at the time that the American Indian cultures harbored an innate Modernism.

The landscape near Taos, New Mexico, lured and inspired photographers Paul Strand, Edward Weston, and Eliot Porter, along with painter Georgia O´Keeffe. Strand´s Buttress, Ranchos de Taos Church, New Mexico (1930) and O´Keeffe´s Black Cross with Stars and Blue (1929), which capture the intersection of culture and landscape, are among those shown. In their works Black Place III (1944) and Black Place, New Mexico, September 1945, O´Keeffe and the photographer Eliot Porter interpret the remote gypsum hills in strikingly modernist compositions. (right: Georgia O´Keeffe, American, Black Cross with Stars and Blue, 1929, oil on canvas, Mr. and Mrs. Peter Coneway © The Georgia O´Keeffe Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

 

The Dust Bowl Era-Plains and Other Places

In and around the 1930s, a decade of political, economic, and climactic turmoil, an exhausted land and people are revealed in iconic images such as Maynard Dixon´s No Place to Go (1935), Dorothea Lange´s Six Lettuce Pickers (c. 1935) and Tractored Out, Childress County, Texas (1938), Arthur Rothstein´s Plow Covered by Sand, Cimarron Co., Oklahoma (1936), and Alexandre Hogue´s Crucified Land (1939).

Among other artists included in this section is Thomas Hart Benton, whose scene of Borger, Texas in Boomtown (1927-28), is one of the artist´s greatest Regionalist works. In Grant Wood´s Spring Turning (1936), the Iowa artist offers a subject particular to his region of the country and defines it in terms of Midwestern values. These painters were at the heart of a debate as to what constituted American and modern art, and whether it derived from the country´s various geographical regions or from the more Euro-centric New York artists.

 

Epilogue: The Abstract West

The final section of the exhibition examines the period following the devastation of the Dust owl era, a time when artists were considering new aesthetics-Surrealism and abstraction among them-and used the western landscape to develop a new visual language. The kinship of Surrealism and the West is evident in Vance Kirkland´s Timberline (1939) and Six Million Years Ago (1945), and in works by photographers Frederick Sommer, who lived and worked in Arizona, and Edward Weston.

The subject of abstraction and western sensibility is revealed in works by Clyfford Still, a key figure of the West Coast school of Abstract Expressionism. The painter Mark Tobey, who lived and worked in the Pacific Northwest, yet eschewed the label "Northwest painter," broadened his Western experience with Eastern philosophy, and embraced a sense of internationalism. Central to the section is Jackson Pollock, who was born in Wyoming, and whose memory of the western landscape and its imprinted symbols of American Indian art made a lasting mark on his own paintings, materializing most vividly in Night Mist (1945). Two visually related black-and-white films will play simultaneously in the section of the show. In Jackson Pollock (1950), Hans Namuth interviewed the artist and shows him painting his famous drip paintings. The Spirit of the Navajos, a silent film made by Maxine and Mary J. Tsosie in 1966, includes images of a Navajo Medicine Man presiding over a sand painting ceremony. These films help visitors understand the complex path that eventually led to Pollock´s breakthrough Abstract Expressionist masterpieces, represented in the exhibition by No. 13A Arabesque (1948

 

Catalogue

A richly illustrated catalogue published by Yale University Press accompanies The book will be available in the MFAH Shops.

 

Public Programs

A wide array of public and collaborative programs will be held throughout the run of the exhibition. For details, see www.mfah.org.

 

Organizer and Sponsorship

This exhibition is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Generous funding is provided by The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Stark Foundation, The Hamill Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, and Mr. Frank Hevrdejs. Additional support is provided by Wells Fargo, Mr. and Mrs. Robert L. Clarke; Mr. and Mrs. Peter R. Coneway; Mr. John R. Eckel, Jr.; Fulbright & Jaworski L.L. P.; Linn, Thurber, Arnold & Skrabanek; Lisa and Will Mathis; and Carla Knobloch. (Funding is correct as of September 7, 2006.)

The catalogue for this exhibition receives support from Palm Beach! America´s International Fine Art & Antique Fair.

rev. 10/23/06

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