Exhibition puts the influence of the West into perspective

Conventional thinking is that the evolution of American Modern art was an urban, East Coast thing. But "The Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890-1950," opening Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, examines the development of Modernism in the United States through an unconventional lens: artists in the West.

Organized by Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, this first-of-its-kind major exhibition places paintings, photographs and watercolors in an artistic and geographical context, said Austen Bailly, LACMA's assistant curator of American art. It explores how the physical and aesthetic qualities of the West -- and the psychology of its place in the American imagination -- served as a creative catalyst for scores of early 20th century artists as varied as Georgia O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams and Jackson Pollock.

The stark light, precipitous drops and deep canyons of a rugged landscape, as well as the difficulty of ascertaining "near" and "far" in vast, sprawling vistas, were among the unique challenges Western artists faced that were "Modernist in their very nature," Bailly said. "Sometimes just to paint them required coming up with new aesthetic conventions and new ways of interpreting the landscapes."

"For these artists, the West provided a 'new' environment ... for constructing a 'new' American art on thoroughly modern ground," wrote Emily Ballew Neff, who curated the exhibition for the Houston museum.

Similarly, Bailly said, works by Native American watercolorists included in the show reveal that these artists too were grappling with notions of change and modernity in trying to develop art that was both modern and expressive of their culture.

And, while the work in the exhibition stops at the midcentury mark, the story of the modern West doesn't end there, Bailly noted. Concluding with Abstract Expressionist pioneer Pollock -- who was born in Wyoming and raised in California and Arizona -- the exhibition demonstrates that "the kind of artistic language that artists working in the '50s, '60s, '70s departed from was largely set in place because of the work of the artists in this show."

"The Modern West" exhibition runs through June 3 at LACMA, in conjunction with a photography show, "Re-SITE-ing the West: Contemporary Photographs From the Permanent Collection."


-- Lynne Heffley

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