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A Retrospective Of Works By The Late Maynard Dixon.

By Margaret Regan

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  THE FAMOUS WESTERN painter Maynard Dixon lived the last six years of his life in Tucson, on land he bought from the Ronstadts along Prince Road. He painted the golden light of autumn, the blue-beige Catalinas, and, this being the early 1940s, the still-empty desert stretching out before the mountains.

"Chollas and Shadow," one of the last oils he finished before his death in 1946, is a classic Tucson scene. The yellow-gilded chollas are thrust up against the blue mountain, which in turn lies against the turquoise-blue sky. But it's also classic Dixon: If the chollas are a little busy, the desert and the mountains have been reduced to their simplest forms. Alternating between shadow and light, the landscape heads toward the horizon in an austere series of angular planes and horizontal lines.

Dixon was a realist, but a pared-down one, and his mature work has almost none of the fussiness of popular cowboy art. He married the angular Western landscape with the spareness of modernism, translating its familiar forms into near-abstractions of shape and color. "Deserted Sheep Range," a 1935 oil on canvas, is an almost schematic rendering of a barren California wilderness. The foreground's curving hillocks in yellow ochre give way to an undulating band of burnt sienna; above this are rolling dunes bathed in light, beyond them the sky. In his hands, the West's familiar big skies, majestic clouds and infinite plains are still skies, clouds and plains, but they're also perfect starting points for experiments of color against color, shape against shape. As a result, Dixon's in the strange position of being admired both by the Western-art crowd and devotees of pure painting.

A new show at Tucson's Medicine Man Gallery, Mesas, Mountains & Man: The Western Vision of Maynard Dixon, provides an opportunity to explore this apparent contradiction. Gathering more than 100 oils and drawings from museums, private collectors and galleries, and more than a year in the making, the exhibition traces the whole of Dixon's career. Born in 1875 in California, the painter grew up in the San Joaquin Valley. His boyhood impressions of that flat, open country, he later said, were responsible for his passion for the horizontal line so crucial to his work.

As a young man, Dixon worked as an illustrator for Sunset magazine, and undertook assorted mural commissions, including the uncharacteristic "Oakland Technical High School Mural," included in the show. It's an oil whose thin color stains the linen cloth, and it's an atypically romantic depiction of a California hacendero on horseback. According to Mark Sublette, proprietor of Medicine Man, Dixon did a quartet of murals for the railroad station in downtown Tucson around 1907; three of them are now safely deposited at the Arizona Historical Society.

When he made the transition to painter, Dixon became an itinerant, roaming the West for months on end, making plein-air oil sketches and drawings, before returning to his studio in San Francisco. Although he made two forays into Montana, he favored the desert Southwest, where the bare bones of the land are so famously visible.

It took him a while to get to the masterful flatness of his late work. Influenced by European painters, he early on became an impressionist cowboy, painting such works as "The Palomino Mare" with all the broken brushstrokes, thick paint and glittery colors of a Monet. This 1914 work, depicting a wrangler going after a wild horse, is not a bad painting, but neither is it a good match between style and subject. It's still too decorative--one thinks of a French garden--and too far removed from the rigor Dixon was to find later.

Sublette, the show's curator, locates what he calls Dixon's post-impressionist style in the 1920s. Like a Cézanne, who rebelled against earlier artists' fleeting impressions of light and color, Dixon started aiming for solid structures. "Saguaros at Sunset," an Arizona painting from 1925, is still heavily painted, but it nonetheless conveys the sturdy cylindrical volume of the cacti. Dixon had long sketched Native Americans (he lived among the Hopi periodically in the 1920s), and in the '30s he tried his hand at social commentary. He was married at the time to Dorothea Lange, the photographer known for her Depression-era images of the down-and-out. "No Place to Go," a 1935 oil, has a homeless man leaning against a stylized fence on a curving bit of land. This painting marks one of the few times Dixon ever portrayed the Western landscape as closed-in; instead of his usual infinite horizons, this one has claustrophobic mountains shutting off escape.

After this brief side trip into unfamiliar social territory, Dixon devoted the rest of his life to the open land. In his last 10 years, he pared everything down, bringing his technique into harmony with the jagged earth he wanted to paint, purging distractions from his paintings. His brushstrokes went from rough to smooth, his shapes got broader and flatter, his lights lighter, his darks darker. True, there were still some conventional genre scenes, such as "Farmyard and Cottonwood" (1941), but for the most part Dixon held steady to the raw land, to a lonely West bereft of people.

The late Utah paintings, done in the early '40s, are perfect summations of his aesthetic. "Sunlit Cliffside," 1942, is a long view of towering rocks in the light, rose against blue; "November Morning," also 1942, is a composition in blues and beiges, almost incidentally shaped into cliffs and mountains. "Zion Canyon," 1940, takes the red rocks and makes them soar against the blue sky. These works are a pure pleasure for lovers of paint, and for voluptuaries of the West's once wide-open spaces.

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