Anyone who has ever taken a disappointing snapshot of spectacular Western scenery can understand the dilemma of early 20th-century artists in the American Southwest. How can a two-dimensional image do justice to the unbounded vistas, imposing mountains, sheer red-rock cliffs, blinding rays of sunlight, and endlessly spreading desert of the Southwest?
Attracted by this dramatic scenery, artists from the Eastern United States and Europe faced the challenge of capturing an open, wild landscape entirely different from anything they had seen before. Of this experience, painter Emil Bisttram (1895-1976) wrote, “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."
Beginning Sept. 17, the BYU Museum of Art will present “Wide-Open Spaces: Capturing the Grandeur of the American Southwest,” an exhibition of 80 paintings by a variety of early 20th-century artists. This free exhibition explores the artistic innovations in color, composition and technique developed by these artists to capture the grandeur of the region. It will include works drawn from the Museum of Art’s permanent collection as well as the Diane and Sam Stewart Art Collection, currently on loan to the museum.
The exhibition will be on view until March 10, 2012 in the Robert W. & Amy T. Barker and Milton & Gloria Barlow galleries on the lower level of the museum, which have been remodeled to evoke a Southwestern ambiance.
Everyone is invited to celebrate the opening of “Wide-Open Spaces” on Thursday, Sept. 16, from 6 to 9 p.m. The celebration will feature Western music, live entertainment and light refreshments. Admission to the exhibition and the opening celebration is free.
“Many Western artists broke the rules of traditional landscape painting in order to show the vastness and overwhelming scale of the Western landscape,” said Paul Anderson, Museum of Art Curator of Southwest American Art. “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.”
The exhibition will explore a range of additional techniques developed by artists responding to the grand landscape of the Southwest. These techniques include emphasizing unbroken horizontal lines to evoke the sweep of the desert and the endless feel of the horizon; painting with a more intense color palette, brighter highlights and deeper shadows; simplifying the shapes of mountains and plains to transform the landscape into bold geometric patterns; focusing on more intimate, protected places and the details of nature; and including people in the landscape to emphasize its scale.
These methods produced works of art that allow viewers to develop a stronger appreciation for the unique beauty of the region.
“Southwest art can be stunning, moving and spiritually inspiring in its depiction of one of the last remaining great wilderness areas,” said Herman du Toit, Museum of Art Educator for the exhibition. “I’m hoping this exhibition will draw viewers closer to the Southwest landscape and help them attain a new, more authentic relationship with this region of which we are all a part.”
Anderson believes the BYU Museum of Art is an ideal setting for Southwest American art. He sees the proximity of the museum to this region and the richness of the museum’s collection of regional art as key reasons for the development of a strong Southwest art program as well the presentation of exhibitions like “Wide-Open Spaces.”
“Wide-Open Spaces” is the first in a series of exhibitions that will explore the art of the American Southwest over the next five years. An exhibition focused on the depiction of human figures by Southwest artists will follow “Wide-Open Spaces,” after it closes in March 2012.
More information will be available at moa.byu.edu.
Free docent-led tours of “Wide-Open Spaces: Capturing the Grandeur of the American Southwest” will be conducted during regular museum hours and must be scheduled at least one week in advance. Tours usually last about one hour. Call ext. 2-1140 to schedule a tour.
The Museum of Art is open Monday though Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday evening from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.; and Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. The museum is closed Sunday.