Orange County Museum of Art


Newport Beach, CA



Canyons and Deserts: Picturing the Western Landscape

"Canyons and Deserts: Picturing the Western Landscape" explores artists' continuing fascination with the monumental grandeur of the American West. From the local canyons of Laguna and the Arroyo Seco to the vast panoramas of the Grand Canyon and painted desert, California artists have captured the power, beauty, and mystery of the Western landscape.

The exhibition, on view at the Orange County Museum of Art South Coast Plaza Gallery from January 9 through April 25, 1999, presents a selection of paintings, prints, and photographs by prominent California artists drawn primarily from the permanent collection. From the early twentieth-century painters William Wendt, Carl Oscar Borg, Fernand Lungren, and Conrad Buff to photographers Edward Weston, Philip Makanna, and Richard Misrach, each artist's work records a personal approach to the unique qualities of the West as subject.

Early twentieth-century painters, confronted by the imposing proportions, mesmerizing light, and timeless quality of the rugged Western terrain, felt themselves in the presence of the Divine. Other artists, reacting to the tremendous urban growth in Los Angeles, searched for the mythical West in the still largely uninhabited, wide-open spaces of the Southwest. In the 1920s, an era of financial and cultural boom, automobile travel provided opportunities to experience new desert environments, while the development of Palm Springs as a luxury resort afforded new patrons for artists. For more recent artists, the desert landscape has become the basis for formalist, abstract studies, or for meditations on human destruction of fragile ecosystems.

William Wendt and Carl Oscar Borg went on painting trips together along the Southern California Coast. While Wendt, the preeminent California landscapist of the period, often turned to the verdant and tranquil hills of the surrounding canyons, Borg was compelled by the intense quality of the desert light, to him a physical symbol of the Divine. The iconoclastic artist Conrad Buff's dramatic composition emphasizes the elemental strength of the barren landscape with simplified forms and architectonic sensibility. His use of brilliant, saturated colors in broad, flat planes and pointillist strokes creates abstract patterns that lend a Modernist quality to his canvases.

Photographers, whose medium is literally dependent on captured light, have been particularly responsive to the desert landscape as visual subject. In the 1930s Edward Weston, who was then living in Carmel, California, directed his camera to the undulating sand dunes with their rippling patterns of shadow and light. These sharply focused compositions, while based on the real landscape, are riveting, Modernist, abstract images. Contemporary photographers have brought new issues and sensibilities to the timeless Western terrain.

Richard Misrach has entitled his ongoing visual investigation of Western geography "Desert Cantos." In boldly documenting how human intervention has altered and often destroyed our physical environment, Misrach is both poet and activist. Devoid of actual human presence, the terrain's universality and timelessness command our attention in the images included in "Canyons and Deserts." These images take viewers in a journey of the imagination, a testament to the enduring bond between American artists and the Western landscape.

This exhibition is made possible by the generous support of Northern Trust Bank of California and Delta Air Lines.

From to bottom: Conrad Buff, Desert Scape (Earth 8~ Sky) Grand Canyon Series, c.1940, Oil on masonite, 35 3/4 X 53 inches, Collection Orange County Museum of Art, LAM/OCMA Art Collection Trust, Gift of the artist; Fernand Lungren, Bastions of the Painted Desert, c. 1910, Oil on canvas, 20 x 40 inches, Collection Orange County Museum of Art, LAM/OCMA Art Collection Trust, Promised gift of Nancy Dustin Wall Moure; Jack Wilkinson Smith, Mount Assiniboine, B.C., c. 1920, Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches, Collection Orange County Museum of Art, LAM/OCMA Art Collection Trust, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bradley; William Wendt, Landscape, 1912, Oil on canvas, 18 x 30 inches, Collection Orange County Museum of Art, LAM/OCMA Art Collection Trust, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Moure; Anna A. Hills, The Desert Trail, 1925, Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches, Courtesy of DeRus Fine Arts, Laguna Beach, California; Richard Misrach, Desert Fire #1 (Burning Palms), 1983, Cibachrome, ed. 1/3, 18 1/4 x 23 inches, Collection of Orange County Museum of Art, Museum purchase; Edward Weston, Dunes, Death Valley, 1938, Gelatin silver print, 7 5/8 x 9 5/8 inches, Collection of Orange County Museum of Art, Museum purchase with additional funds provided by Dr. James B. Pick

Editor's note For recent photos of Death Valley see Afterglow in the Desert: The Art of Fernand Lungren (1/12/01)

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 9/20/10

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