Artist Maynard Dixon grips the imagination with his views of the West
May 1, 2017
When people think of "the West," a subset of specific images flash through the mind: wide open spaces, captivating and sometimes mystical desert landscapes, breathtaking mountaintop vistas, vast blue skies, solitary Native American figures, lonesome cowboys.
For those of us living in the West, the conjured pictures will be more personal. All we must do is peer out of our front door. But for those living in the East or middle of the country — and around the globe — the West grips the imagination in a kind of romantic spell, a charm cast in large part by the artists whose imagery has framed this vision.
One of the most successful spell-casters whose creations helped to visually define the American West was Maynard Dixon, who worked in the region during the first half of the 20th century. For more than five decades Dixon documented the landscapes and cultures of the American West with unparalleled passion and authenticity. Nevada especially appealed to the artist. He spent significant time exploring the state's desert and mountain landscapes during the 1920s and '30s.
"From Montana to Arizona, and from California to Utah, remote places beckoned Dixon with irresistible force throughout his life," writes Dixon scholar and author Donald J. Hagerty in the publication "Maynard Dixon: The Paltenghi Collections." "The West's secluded locations offered redemptive qualities for him, escape from personal travails, and sanctuary from the pressures of technological and industrial forces and the direct experiences that activated his art. Dixon encountered the West by horseback, buckboard, freight wagon and the automobile, although he decried what Henry Ford and the Model T had done to the West's isolated locations."
"Maynard Dixon: The Paltenghi Collections," recently published by the Nevada Museum of Art, Donald W. Reynolds Center for the Visual Arts, E. L. Wiegand Gallery and authored by Bruce C. Paltenghi, accompanies an exhibition by the same name. Drawn from the private collections of Bruce C. Paltenghi and his brother Dr. Richard Paltenghi, the exhibition and book offer an intimate look at Dixon's life and creative process, providing insight into the passionate way he traversed and interpreted the world. Inspired to begin collecting by their father, Richard E. Paltenghi, the Bay Area-based Paltenghi brothers have amassed a collection of over 70 artworks created between 1889 and 1944. Included in the selections on view at the Nevada Museum of Art are many never-before-seen drawings with subjects ranging from mountain and desert landscapes, to portraits and nude figure studies.
Also featured in the show are paintings and sketches of trees, a divergence from the horizontal desert views for which Dixon is best known. From where did he get his inspiration to create solitary wooded works? Ann M. Wolfe, Nevada Museum of Art Andrea and John C. Deane Family senior curator and deputy director, provides some insight.
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"Maynard Dixon visited Lake Tahoe in 1924 and 1932 as a guest of his major client, Anita Baldwin, who owned an expansive property on the southwest shore of Tahoe near Fallen Leaf Lake [now the Tallac Historic Site]. She had inherited the estate from her father, business tycoon Elias Jackson "Lucky" Baldwin. Dixon spent the entire summer of 1932 there with his second wife Dorothea Lange, and the young sons of their two artist friends Roi Partridge and Imogen Cunningham," Wolfe said.
Those of us living, working, or playing near Lake Tahoe understand first-hand the inspiration Dixon would have felt while sojourning through forests shouldering azure waters. Tahoe energizes those who come to spend a day, a year or a lifetime, generating spark for whatever creative pursuits one might engage in. For Dixon, the seclusion offered by the trees provided a welcome respite from his typical western jaunts. Evidence of this retreat can be seen in works like Fallen Leaf, 1932; Mountain Juniper, 1933; and Jeffrey Pine, 1932.
"Dixon's sketches from [his time in Tahoe] portray majestic trees, which he made while hiking above the Tahoe ridgeline," said Wolfe. "Although fascinated by vast stretches of empty desert plains and expansive deserts, he did not seem to be similarly captivated by the vastness of the lake's surface. Instead, Dixon's focus during his stay at Tahoe appears to be on solitary trees. As a traditional artist who also wanted to think of himself as a modernist, Dixon may have regarded conventional lake landscapes as too old-fashioned, whereas portrayals of singular trees might allow him entry into the modernist world."
Wolfe first examined Dixon's Tahoe-inspired works in 2015 as part of her endeavor to curate "TAHOE: A Visual History," the wildly popular museum-wide exhibition that drew more than 75,000 visitors to the Nevada Museum of Art. She met the Paltenghi brothers while doing research for that show, and the idea for "Maynard Dixon: The Paltenghi Collections" was born. Visitors to the TAHOE exhibition may remember the celebrated trees. In this current show, they will get to experience them once more, alongside intimate drawings and sketches and nude figure studies, as well as more conventional Dixon western paintings.
"Maynard Dixon: The Paltenghi Collections" will be on view through July 16, at the Nevada Museum of Art located at 160 West Liberty St. in downtown Reno. A 96-page hardcover companion book to the exhibition may be purchased from the museum shop for $40. More information on the exhibition can be found at NevadaArt.org.
Amanda Horn is the director of communications for the Nevada Museum of Art. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @tebohorn.