Editor's note: The Utah Museum of Fine Arts provided source material to Resource Library Magazine for the following article. In addition, the article by Mary Francey is reprinted with permission of Utah Museum of Fine Arts. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact the Utah Museum of Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:


Space, Silence, Spirit: Maynard Dixon's West


From January 16 through March 14, 2004, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) will host an exhibition surveying the career of Maynard Dixon (1875-1946), a painter of the American West with a distinctive modernist vision. Space, Silence, Spirit: Maynard Dixon's West will include over 40 paintings, drawings and etchings spanning all periods of the artist's 50-year career.

The exhibition will include related photographs by Dorothea Lange, Dixon's wife from 1920 to 1935, who is known for her photographs of migrant workers during the drought and economic depression of the 1930s.  Also included will be a watercolor and pen & ink postcard by Charles M. Russell, which the artist sent to Dixon in 1917, and an oil painting by Edith Hamlin.     

Most of the works in the exhibition come from the private collection of Mr. and Mrs. A.P. Hays, residents of Scottsdale, Arizona.  Additional works featured are from the UMFA permanent collection, and several are on loan from the Bingham Family Trust and Williams Fine Art.


Maynard Dixon 

Dixon's creed, according to Mr. Hays, "was simple: Find the truth in the West's spirit, its vastness, solitude, and power; interpret the land's relevance to people and its dominance over their very spirit and lives; and, finally, with enormous clarity, simplicity, and honesty, portray the culture of the Native Peoples and their special metaphysical harmony with the land, their gods, and lives."   

The earliest Western artists, attracted by the opportunity to document untouched panoramic vistas and record the character of a region succumbing to "progress" came from Europe or Eastern America.  Maynard Dixon, however, was born into a ranching family in Fresno, California.  Being a native of the West likely shaped Dixon's search to paint the reality of his landscape and human subjects with an honesty that was in contrast with popular romanticized versions of western themes.  

Dixon demonstrated artistic talent at a young age and received a few years of formal artistic training before realizing he preferred to be out among the canyons and mountains rather than in the classroom.  Despite the brevity of his formal training, Dixon found work as an illustrator for many San Francisco newspapers and for books by authors such as Jack London, John Muir, O. Henry, and Clarence Mulford, who was known for his books about Hopalong Cassidy. 

A visit to Arizona and New Mexico in 1900 whetted Dixon's appetite for roaming the West. He then joined another emerging Western artist, Edward Borein, on a trip through several Western states. Back in California, Dixon continued to illustrate Western books and magazines, though by the 1910s he was growing tired of portraying the West in the immensely popular yet unrealistic fashion of the day. 

The Panama Pacific International Exposition-the 1915 World's Fair held in San Francisco-exposed the West Coast art community to Impressionism and various modernist movements such as Fauvism. Dixon began experimenting with Impressionism and Postimpressionism while continuing to pursue a career in commercial design, particularly posters. 

In 1919, Dixon met Dorothea Lange (1895-1968), then a portrait photographer who had moved west to San Francisco and who would become Dixon's wife in 1920. Rigorous composition was a key element in Lange's photography, and following his marriage to Lange, Dixon used composition as a primary means of conveying his artistic message, with a modernist emphasis on the simplified, abstract elements of painting. For the rest of his career, Dixon remained greatly interested in modernism, though he dismissed the pretentious notion that modernism was the only legitimate style for his time.   

During the Great Depression Dixon and Lange both focused their art on social and political issues. In this period, Lange produced works such as Migrant Mother, 1936, a photograph that depicts a poor Oklahoma woman surrounded by her children, later to become one of the most iconic images of the 20th century.   

Dixon moved to mount Carmel, Utah, from San Francisco in 1939, five years after divorcing Dorothea Lange, and two years after marrying prominent muralist Edith Hamlin. That region had inspired some of Dixon's greatest paintings during his travels, and Dixon relished the quiet of the area. The couple spent winter months in Tucson, Arizona, where Dixon died in 1946. In his final years, Dixon continued creating works that merged modernism with Western subjects. 

Many art authorities consider Dixon the West's greatest landscape artist, though, as is true for many great artists, his painting was grossly underestimated during his lifetime.  According to Mr. Hays "[e]ven in Santa Fe and Taos (where Dixon lived for a short time), he was considered to have too modern a painting style and too unpredictable a life to become a major artist."  The passing of time, however, has altered greatly the demand for his work.  According to Hays, Hollywood celebrities such as Steve Martin, Gary Shandling, Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton are active players in the market for Dixon's paintings.   



In conjunction with this exhibition, Paul Bingham, local gallery owner and current owner of Dixon's Utah residence, will give a lecture entitled Maynard Dixon: Approach to Modernism in the Utah Museum of Fine Arts' Auditorium on January 28, 2004. 

The Third Saturday of every month, the UMFA invites children and their parents to participate in art projects related to current exhibitions.  The January Third Saturday activity entitled Painting Cloudscapes will lead children in exploring Maynard Dixon's famous paintings of big Western skies and landscapes. Children will use stretched artist canvases to paint their own "cloudscapes" inspired by Dixon's work.


Following is an article for the exhibition written by Mary Francey, UMFA's American art curator:




An exhibition of oil and watercolor paintings, and graphite drawings, by Layfayette Maynard Dixon will be on view from January 16 through March 14, 2004. From the collection of Mr. and Mrs. A. P. Hays of Paradise Valley, Arizona, the exhibition also includes some related photographs by Dorothea Lange, who is known for her Farm Security Administration sponsored photographs of migrant workers during the drought and economic depression of the 1930s, and was Dixon's second wife.

A native Californian and self-taught painter, Dixon approached his landscape and figurative subjects with an honesty that opposed popular, romanticized versions of western themes. American landscape artists who ventured beyond the Mississippi discovered a different nature from the composed, serene views of the gentle wooded slopes and languid rivers seen in the works of the Hudson River School painters. Some, like Albert Bierstadt, painted towering mountains, vibrant colors, and rushing cataracts, all in epic scale. Others documented the routes of government-sponsored expeditions and survey teams that were charged with mapping unexplored Western territories.

In contrast, Maynard Dixon was captivated by the aspect of the country's archaic past that he found in the harsh, barren desert landscape of the southwestern United States. He saw the power of nature in the rock formations, vast spaces, and canyons of Arizona and Utah. Although desert environments are hostile to human habitation, and support only drought resistant plant growth, they convey a version of the sublime that has nurtured civilization for centuries. Like Old Testament prophets who saw the Sinai desert as a place for spiritual exaltation, Dixon painted desert subjects as spiritual experiences. He captured the austerity and desolation of a nature in which few sounds disturb the tranquility and eternal quality of the pervasive silence.

Dixon populated his paintings with the indigenous people of the southwest whose culture represents the history of humankind. He recognized American Indians as heirs of ancient and complex societies that had fashioned beautiful and functional objects, designed religious and domestic architecture, and maintained written records that defined civilization by any standards. Furthermore, they had co-existed harmoniously with nature for centuries and were particularly skilled at adapting to the harsh desert conditions. Dixon pictures his Indian subjects in unsentimental terms that acknowledge the spiritual nature of their deep respect for the land.

Consistently modernist in his approach, Dixon did not describe the desert environment with conventional linear perspective; nor are his landscapes sentimentalized or romanticized. He placed gigantic rocks, shaped by relentless winds, against distant mountains, often under a cloudless sky, and closed the intervening distances with overlapping forms. A self-taught painter, he communicated his response to the harsh, desolate southwestern desert with a directness that acknowledges his respect for an indomitable nature.


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy this previous article:

Other internet resources for Maynard Dixon:

rev. 9/21/05

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