BYU exhibit highlights Western art

Published: Saturday, Oct. 23 2010 3:00 p.m. MDT

Maynard Dixon's painting of Volcanic Cones will be on view during BYU Museum of Art exhibit featuring art of the American Southwest. The piece is from BYU's own collection.

BYU Museum of Art Collection

PROVO — Big. Bold. Sunbaked splendor as far as the eye can see.

The unique landscape of the American Southwest offers up a different kind of beauty: sweeping vistas, dramatic landforms and striking colors. It is not surprising that in the early part of the 20th century it attracted talented artists from not only the eastern United States but also Europe, who came to capture it in paint.

But, says Paul Anderson, curator of Southwest American Art at BYU's Museum of Art, once they got here, many of them also found this very different landscape to be intimidating. "It was nothing like the gentler green landscape and softer sunlight that their previous education and experience in France or New York or Boston had prepared them for."

Many felt like Hungarian-born, New York-trained artist Emil Bittram, who noted: "Whenever I tried to paint what was before me, I was frustrated by the grandeur of the scenery and the limitless space. Above all there was that strange, almost mystic, quality of light."

As a "Wide-Open Spaces: Capturing the Grandeur of the American Southwest" exhibition at the museum shows, however, these early 20th-century artists learned to adapt.

The show features 80 paintings, both from the Museum of Art's permanent collection, and from the Diane and Sam Stewart Art Collection, currently on loan to the museum.

The exhibition inaugurates a new gallery at the museum, which has been remodeled to create a space that will be devoted to Southwestern art for at least the next five years, Anderson said. "Wide-Open Spaces" will run through March of 2012, and will be followed by a show focused on the depiction of human figures by Southwest artists.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Southwest art in the past few years, Anderson said. "For a long time, it tended to be overlooked, as so many collectors and critics were fascinated with modernism. But in the past 20 to 30 years, Southwest art has become recognized as an important part of our great American art heritage. As those blinders have come off, it has become more appreciated and valued."

More and more people have found, he said, "that it still speaks to people in the way it did in the days when it was considered exotic art. There's still a certain romance and nostalgia to it."

Of course, he added, "it has always been special to us, because it's our part of the world, our homeland."

"Wide-Open Spaces" not only shows off some spectacular examples of the art, but the exhibition is also designed to help viewers understand the different ways different artists responded to the challenge of capturing this varied landscape. In general, they focus on six different techniques, Anderson says.

First, there's "The Endless Horizon." Many artists "broke the rules of traditional landscape painting to show the vastness and overwhelming scale of the Western landscape," Anderson said. "While traditional landscapes often include trees on both sides of the picture to contain the image and give a sense of completeness, Western landscapes generally dispense with these framing elements and emphasize unbroken horizontal lines to give a sense of incompleteness, implying that the sweeping Western landscape is too large to fit on the canvas."

You see this in works by Mable Frazer, for example, and some of Maynard Dixon's work, and others.

Next, there are the "Towering Mountains." Artists such as B.F. Larsen and Dixon are among those who "tried hard to make big look big," Anderson said; "They crowded the canvas and cropped the view; they showed landforms in shadow, and a single figure riding by, dwarfed by the mountains."

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