Feature

The Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890–1950

An exhibition of landscapes that goes beyond the myth of the Wild West.

Everyone knows what the West looks like, said Scott Cantrell in The Dallas Morning News. The set of Bonanza, or maybe Brokeback Mountain. But a 'œmajor new exhibition' in Houston presents a vision of the West that goes far beyond cowboys, deserts, and dusty trails. 'œThe West wasn't, and isn't, a singular phenomenon but a vast tapestry of different terrains, climates, and qualities of light.' The Modern West shows how the crusading expansionism of early settlers, as captured by Thomas Moran's majestic Mountain of the Holy Cross (1875), gradually gave way to bleaker realities. 'œEarly on, artists had seen humans as corrupting encroachments in this new Eden,' and by the 20th century, we see artists such as Dorothea Lange and Thomas Hart Benton chronicling life in sooty boomtowns and the abject poverty of the Depression-era Dust Bowl. More controversially, The Modern West contends that the region's wide-open spaces were the true birthplace of American abstract art, as developed by Wyoming-born Jackson Pollock and native North Dakotan Clyfford Still.

'œIt's a stretch,' said Patricia C. Johnson in The Houston Chronicle. Some of Pollock's paintings bear a resemblance to Indian pictoglyphs, and Still's jagged blocks of color can look like natural rock formations. But seeing these works 'œas landscapes is not unlike seeing a face in the moon or an elephant in the clouds.' Still, viewing familiar artists in a broader context always suggests many unexpected connections. In Ansel Adams' Surf Sequence (1940), 'œthe master of black-and-white landscape photography' seems to have turned abstractionist himself, using an aerial view to turn a shot of California's coast-hugging Highway1 into an almost unidentifiable composition of rock, sand, foam, and water. This fascinating exhibition, like the land it chronicles, leads in unexpected directions.

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