November 15, 2006
"At last I shall give myself to the desert again — that I, in its golden dust may be blown from a barren peak broadcast over the sun-lands. If you should desire some news of me, go ask the little horned toad whose home is the dust; or seek it among the fragrant sage or question the mountain juniper — and they, by their silence will freely inform you."
This quote by Maynard Dixon in commemorating the death of a friend is yet one more example of how the legendary western artist brought a high level of simplicity and brilliance to the table whether manipulating landscape by prose — poem upon page or by brush upon canvas.
Dixon, long an almost mythological figure renown for the depth and honesty of his work, wound up creating a new language of expression in Western art. His modernist landscapes brought an excitement of vision, featuring, later, both post-impressionism and his own brand of cubism. The West would never be the same.
And southern Utah, most especially the Vermillion Cliffs and his beloved Mount Carmel, became a constant muse. True inspiration lay upon that land and the spirits there moved him and brought peace. It would become the source of some of his greatest work. And the man and the land and the sky would become one.
A new film produced by KUED-Channel 7, titled "Maynard Dixon: To The Desert Again," will premier Wednesday, Nov. 22 at 8 p.m. The narrator’s voice will no doubt be deep and resonant as he sets the stage: "One hundred years ago, a solitary figure roamed the desert seeking to capture the endless sky and towering mesas in paint and poetry. His vision of the West was matchless."
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The film is yet one more example as to the dynamic energy within an art that refuses to yield to time. Rather, it continues to confront, as it very well should, existing sensibilities and perceptions. As with Dylan, it’s not that Dixon is back, it’s that he has never left. There is a reverse-erosion to the work. Great art has a way of adding layers.
Once exposed to the vision of Maynard Dixon, one seldom sees canyons, mesas, cottonwoods, wagon ruts or sagebrush the same again. And then there are the cloudscapes. "Maynard Dixon clouds" has entered the lexicon as a stylized descriptive term. They are distinctive. They strike a chord. The phrase also serves to bind those who call upon it. It speaks of essence and mutual insight.
Dixon came of artistic age during the onset of "modernism" and, while he adopted and maintained the new aesthetic, his focus on all things Western remained unchanged. He then brought into play his advanced skills as an illustrator, and it wasn’t long before a quite distinctive style emerged.
It would take yet one more gift-bearing muse, however, before his work would achieve the full-blown effect it would come to have. Dorothea Lange had a new vision and she would share it with Dixon, whom she would marry a year after they met. A portrait photographer, she refined an almost minimalist simplicity in her black-and-white abstract images. For Dixon, it was nothing short of an epiphany.
Composition, not paint alone, set his vision free. Employing an architecture at once both powerful and simple and utilizing what became his trademark, coupling low horizons with marching clouds, a much more confident Maynard Dixon and his emerging modern style had arrived. His strongest messages ensued. Simplification ruled.
Images drenched in clarity, honesty and beauty became his logo. Non-essential elements were shown the door, resulting in one masterpiece after another. Bold batches of color corralled by clean restrained lines shaped the highly stylized and well-defined work. In his own way, he had come to embody a new Western view — one which dealt with both landscape and early inhabitants as fabric.
Locales such as Hubbell’s Trading Post, Canyon de Chelly, Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and the close-by Zion Canyon would get the Dixon treatment. Somehow, when hanging in a frame on a wall, there is the sense that one could fall into one of these images. It’s about perceiving depth-of-moment, cutting to the chase, getting down to the fundamental fiber.
As Dixon proclaimed once Charles Loomis had pointed him toward the southwest, "he had found his country." As evidenced by his art, the desert became his first love. In painting Western life for over 50 years, his work came to epitomize the fundamental core of deserts, mountains, canyons, and valleys.
As it often does with most who dare to gaze into its heart, the beauty and grandeur of the Western way can overwhelm. It’s the manner in which water moves as it seeks its own level. It’s the caress of the breeze as it rustles a wisp of essence or a leaf of Aspen. It’s the pull of long shadows at dawn or eventide. It’s about love and diversity and the ongoing beat of time.
"Navajoland" is a perfect example. The sun sets behind a massive mesa, casting shadows down its near side that bisect brilliant red hues born of light playing upon its foreground flank. The lower horizon contains three riders and a few trees playing in silhouette against the mesa as darkening clouds dominate the sky — each with a specific agenda.
If it were performed somewhat abstractly, you could step right into the painting and not cause too much commotion. You would have to bring a bit of transcendence and silence, however, lest you disturb the balance — which is much more implied than explicit.
Maynard Dixon dedicated his life and art to celebrate and honor the American West. He stood in awe and wonder beside streams running through meadows and alongside arroyos cutting through eroded sandstone. He would set up his easel and wait for light to bring glory and grace. He would know it when he saw it — but he would feel it well before that.
Next Wednesday we will be able to sense the wonder that KUED filmmakers brought to their work, their art. It will evolve from a labor of love, no doubt, as it celebrates and honors the raptures left for us by the artist Maynard Dixon as he returned to the desert again. Hopefully their spirit quest reveals similar depths.