The paintings are hazy, the show is crystal clear

Times Staff Writer

In 1985, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art co-organized a rare exhibition of the magical 19th century American landscape painter George Inness, it was a bittersweet affair. There hadn’t been a major Inness show in 40 years, and, except for the singular genius of Thomas Eakins, he was the equal of any painter to emerge following the Civil War -- and he bettered most.

The smartly chosen assembly of more than five dozen landscapes, ranging from scenes of the Italian countryside, done during a study trip, to the marshes of Massachusetts and the farms of New Jersey, where he lived, provided a breathtaking narrative of the artist’s evolution into one of our great poets in paint. But the show was also a bit nutty.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 21, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 21, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
George Inness -- Photo captions accompanying a review of George Inness’ artwork in Friday’s Calendar section mistakenly said there hadn’t been a major exhibition of his work in 40 years, and that five dozen of his landscapes were on view at the San Diego Museum of Art. Those details actually referred to a 1985 exhibition of 63 Inness landscapes at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, not the current show of 37 paintings in San Diego.

In trying to reassert the mostly forgotten significance of Inness, whose carefully ordered clouds of luminous color dissolve the settled landscape into tranquil atmospheric visions, the show tried to make him into something he was not. Specifically, he was cast as a precursor to the so-called “triumph of American painting” after World War II! A fuzzy Inness landscape painting was regarded as a kind of Rothko-with-cows.


At the San Diego Museum of Art, a long-awaited exhibition takes another, more compelling look. Deftly organized by the National Academy of Design, where it had its debut last fall, and with a superlative catalog by art historian Adrienne Baxter Bell, it makes its only other stop in California. Smaller than the earlier show -- 37 paintings versus 63 -- it is both concise and focused. And, for anyone who loves painting, it shouldn’t be missed.

Efforts to look up-to-the-minute are dispensed with. In the process, the painter emerges as what he was -- and “what he was” turns out to be critical to understanding who we are today.

Inness was a pivot on which American modernity turned. He was an artist for whom paint and canvas were a means by which to reconcile tumultuous upheavals that marked the emergence of a new world.

“George Inness and the Visionary Landscape” does not follow a strict chronology. Paintings are grouped in the galleries according to loose themes, like brushwork or the artist’s relationship to the Barbizon School in France.

The walls are painted deep maroon, which is suitably Victorian in feeling. The use of color to evoke inchoate sensory mood is central to Inness’ achievement, and the installation is unobtrusively excellent in helping that realization.

Inness was at the midpoint of his life when the brutal Civil War began. (He died at age 70, impoverished but revered by peers, in 1894.) The decades of his maturity saw astonishing stresses and strains that tore at the fabric of American life. There were the lacerations, physical and psychic, of the war; the social deceptions of the Reconstruction era; the tumultuous industrialization of an agrarian nation; the steady rise of cities; westward migrations in search of vanishing dreams; and more.

Many of the great transformations that defined the emerging modern identity of the United States would find reflection -- large or small, dramatic or modest -- in Inness’ art. The budding conflict between agrarian and industrial America, for example, finds an iconic image in “The Lackawanna Valley,” in which an Arcadian-style farm boy watches a railroad engine -- an iron horse -- chug across a verdant landscape dotted with the stumps of felled trees. This famous picture isn’t included, and its absence is the show’s one big disappointment.

But none of these tumultuous changes in American social life would be so profound as would another, even larger quandary, which roils the country to this day. As an artist, Inness began to grapple with the question of how to reconcile theology with science. The exhibition chronicles the moving emergence of a metaphysician in paint. His art is an acute affirmation of secularism, which does not mean an abandonment of profound spirituality.

For centuries theology had been the great organizing principle of Western society. It was purposefully woven into perceptions of the American landscape -- the New World transformed into the New Eden or New Jerusalem, as any number of writers and orators were prone to describe it. The God-crazy Hudson River School painters had made the “theological landscape” virtually synonymous with achievement in American art.

But, in the horrific wake of civil war and all the rest, how could that tradition continue with any conviction? Inness stumbled about in search of an answer.

He painted the monumental “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” in 1867. Frankly ludicrous, it’s of interest because it shows both the aspiration and the problem Inness wrestled with.

The picture is part of a trilogy whose other two canvases are lost. The show’s largest work, it recalls Thomas Cole’s delightfully bombastic religious epics. The painting depicts a tiny, white-robed pilgrim dwarfed within a bleak and forbidding mountain pass. He gazes up into the cloudy night sky at a glowing cross, which occupies the place of the moon -- nature’s equivalent to Jesus, as light reflected from the sun.

Look carefully, and in the space formed by the edge of a cliff and drifting clouds, an apparition of a face emerges. It’s like a Surrealist hallucination by Salvador Dali.

Inness’ hokey, immature narrative of faith and revelation was painted early in his study of Swedenborgianism. The mystical writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th century Swedish scientist and theologian, were to be the artist’s guide. What Inness merely illustrated in “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” would eventually be embodied in his greatest, most inventive paintings.

Take “Hazy Morning, Montclair,” painted a year before his death. A lone tree in a field is centered in the canvas, with the intersecting horizon line dividing the picture into quadrants. A farmhouse is silhouetted at the left, while a soft gray-green light infuses the early morning scene.

A careful mathematics orchestrates the composition. The bright upper-right quadrant balances the dark lower left. The emptiness of the lower right is countered by the pictorial fullness of the upper left. There’s a place for everything, and everything is in its place.

Just to the right of the tree stands a spectral figure. Inness made it not with brushwork, but by stopping his brushwork around it, to allow slightly darker under-paint to show through. The positive form is created by negative space.

The tree trunk adjacent to the suggestive figure is formed in the same way -- and the silhouette of the house, the leafy arbor above it, even the horizon line that separates earth from sky. In an Inness painting the material world arises from mists of painterly light, fusing forms with the substance of colored pigment. Swedenborgian theology asserts that nothing exists in isolation, and that the spirit is as substantial as any object.

Drawing into wet paint with the stick-end of the brush created much of the dormant foreground plant life in the snow-covered landscape “Winter Evening” (1887). Inness added form by subtraction. It’s there and not there.

Space is fabricated in “The Home of the Heron” (1893) through a seemingly simple, actually complex composition. Spindly trees of different heights are arrayed across a large field, almost like notes on a musical staff. They advance and recede, creating prism-like negative spaces between them. The transitional light of sunrise glows through these optical prisms, shifting in tone.

The effect is enchanting. Geometry, whether an overall grid or a system of triangulation, transports your eye from one side of an Inness painting to the other, gathering up everything in between. Space and time become projections of a viewer’s active perception.

One way to think about Inness’ sophisticated work is to put yourself in the shoes of that pilgrim in “The Valley of the Shadow of Death.” Rather than looking out at an immaterial glowing symbol, you gaze at a radiant physical object -- a painting -- and engage in humanist communion. A narrative is not described; it unfolds experientially.

Inness’ genius was to find a way to reconcile theology with science -- a feat that escapes many people today. His art, modern and American in the deepest sense, embodies spiritual commitment in the world without the limitations inevitably imposed by religious doctrine.


‘George Inness and the Visionary Landscape’

Where: San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park

When: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Mondays

Ends: April 18

Price: Adults, $8; students, seniors and military, $6; children 6 to 17, $3; 5 and younger, free

Contact: (619) 232-7931