By Laura F. Fry, Senior Curator and Curator of Art, Gilcrease Museum
In popular imagination, desert climates are often dusty, barren wastelands of lifeless, parched earth. Over the years, writers, artists and filmmakers have portrayed the desert as a metaphor for emptiness and death. All too often, deserts are defined only by what they lack.
But there is another side to the story. For millennia, the dry climates of the American Southwest have been home to flourishing civilizations, unique architecture and sophisticated arts. Far from a place of emptiness, this desert is full of life with a rich cultural heritage. Beginning in the early 20th century, after railroads made the Southwest increasingly accessible for travelers, modern American painters began to recognize the distinct beauty of this place. In their work, the brilliant colors of the changing seasons reveal the vibrancy of the desert landscape.
At the dawn of a new year, rocky peaks and broad plains are softened with snow, blanketing the landscape with a pearly glow during long winter nights. The glittering crystals reduce the land to a cool palette of indigo and pale gray. With quick brushstrokes, Colorado painter Charles Partridge Adams portrays a clear winter day in the mountains. The extraordinarily crisp winter sunlight of the high desert is captured in complimentary colors of gold and violet against a pale blue sky. Adams reveals the startling beauty in the coldest, harshest season of the year.
Thunderheads loom and the first hints of delicate gold and green shoots begin to emerge from dormant branches and rough dirt, as the desert awakens in early spring. Artist Edith Hamlin found inspiration in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona, as new springtime growth emerged from mesquite and cacti. By juxtaposing soft desert shrubs and a family of deer against jagged, barren mountain peaks, she emphasizes the resilience of desert flora and fauna.
In contrast to Hamlin’s calm landscape, B.J.O. Nordfeldt captures the tumult of a spring thunderstorm in the New Mexico mountains. Nordfeldt reduces the landscape to repeated arcs, portraying a mountain ridge that mimics turbulent ocean waves. The rain fractures the scene with strong diagonal lines, showing how a storm can radically alter the view of a landscape. The forces of spring demonstrate that the desert is ever-changing.
Golden light, vivid blossoms and dusty travelers mark the sweltering summer months. Sage and poppies erupt in bloom. For a brief period, emerald valleys and bright flowers emerge. Painter William Henderson portrayed the lively landscape near Santa Fe, showing the contrast between the vivid greens of summer and the rust-colored rocks of steep canyon walls (see cover image). By reducing the details of the land to bold shapes with strong outlines in a post-impressionist modern style, Henderson focused on the brilliant array of summer colors — scarlet stones, chartreuse hills, green shrubs, a deep purple mountainside and a sparkling blue river leading through the New Mexico landscape. The two riders on horseback are dwarfed by their surroundings and allow viewers to imagine themselves traveling through this scene of summer.
As the heat mellows and cool winds return, autumn reveals the Southwest’s most radiant colors. Creek beds become ribbons of yellow, ablaze with cottonwood foliage. Artist Stuart Walker captures an entire season of fall color in his landscape Near Chama, New Mexico — from green to pale gold, from fiery orange to crimson, from maroon to burnt umber. The colors themselves become the primary subject of the scene. Shortly after Walker completed this work, he took the concept a step further and began creating abstract paintings focusing purely on color and form, without reference to the natural world. For artists who found inspiration in the autumn landscapes of the southwestern desert, the bold colors and sparse shapes inspired a wide variety of creative responses including Walker’s explorations in abstract painting.
In artworks from the collection of Gil Waldman and Christy Vezolles, Seasons of the Desert explores shifting views of the Southwest in the winter, spring, summer and autumn. Created during the past 100 years, these works range from realist scenes to heavily abstracted modern portrayals of the landscape. Each painter in this exhibit depicts the desert as a vibrant place, worthy of an artist’s brush, not a desolate wasteland. By showing the cycle of the seasons in the Southwest, this exhibition explores how artists helped change impressions of American deserts and inspired an appreciation for the unique southwestern landscape.
Seasons of the Desert: Landscapes of the American Southwest has been organized by Gilcrease Museum and runs from March 16 to June 10 in the Sherman Smith Family Gallery. Title sponsor the 2018 exhibition season is an anonymous donor in fond memory of Sam Miller. Generous support is also provided by the Maurice DeVinna Charitable Trust, Robin F. Ballenger and Merkel Family Foundation.
This collection has a particular connection to Tulsa and the Gilcrease Museum. Gil Waldman became interested in artwork of the American West after moving to Tulsa in the 1950s with his new bride, Nancy. They enjoyed visiting Gilcrease, and Nancy soon became a Gillie. Summering in New Mexico, they attended seminars on the Taos Society of Artists and began collecting in earnest in the early 1980s. Together, they amassed a collection of historic paintings of the American West and American Indian art. After Nancy’s passing in 2011, Gil and art appraiser Christy Vezolles discovered a shared interest in museums, modernist works and Native American arts. They married in 2014 and have been happily acquiring new work, ranging from historic to contemporary.