By: Sheri Linden
Maynard Dixon: Art and Spirit
Cloud World, Screens Aug. 2,
Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, Calif.
Even in this digital age the iconography of the American Southwest—the horizontal expanse of land and sky, the mammoth cloud formations, the sculpted buttes and wind-scrubbed mesas, the lone saguaros and cottonwoods—commands considerable evocative power. When the California-born artist Maynard Dixon first visited Arizona and New Mexico in 1900, he met his muse in that wild terrain. For the next four and a half decades he would be instrumental in creating a modern visual grammar for the unspoiled landscapes that spoke so urgently to him. As director Jayne McKay’s documentary lovingly illustrates, Dixon found beauty in places that others perceived as merely flat and arid.
Recalling his family’s move to Taos, one of Dixon’s sons tells the filmmaker that they made many stops—his mother, photographer Dorothea Lange, was behind the wheel—so that his father could sketch by the side of the road. “I didn’t see anything,” he says of the view before him. “There was nothing there.” But after studying his father’s work-in-progress, he turned back to the scenery, newly aware of the violet shadows and contours of sagebrush.
McKay sets out to demonstrate the fresh perspective Dixon brought to his work, and the rich collection of canvases and sketches she presents builds a solid case for a distinctive talent. In its brief 67 minutes, Maynard Dixon: Art and Spirit crystallizes the biographical essentials, much as Dixon strove to strip his canvases of all but the most vital elements. The artist is glimpsed in film snippets and photographs—such as Ansel Adams’ poignant portraits of the painter in his waning days. Reading excerpts from Dixon’s writings, cowboy troubadour Don Edwards inhabits the artist’s words with a fitting drawl. The guitar-centric score by John McEuen, of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, enhances the visuals with its plangent, open-plains twang. And the voiceover narration receives a spirited delivery by Diane Keaton, an avid Dixon collector.
Cowritten by the director and the artist’s older son, Daniel, the narration is occasionally overstated but mostly has a clean, spare eloquence, heartfelt and direct. The film doesn’t sidestep the personal difficulties that Dixon faced during his 71 years, nor does it linger on the rougher patches of his three marriages or his financial setbacks, physical ailments and depression.
Biographers, collectors and curators weigh in, but the most indelible testimonies are those of Dixon, Lange’s two sons and his granddaughter from his first marriage. (All of his wives were artists.) Painter Ray Strong—who died in 2006 and to whom the film is dedicated—also makes an impression. A friend and colleague of Dixon’s, he delivers the unadorned but emphatic pronouncement: “He loved the desert. And he could draw.”
Dixon’s love of the land infuses the film. Despite a lifelong asthma affliction and arthritis in his later years, he made arduous trips into the country, often to places accessible only by foot. Like his mentor, the journalist and activist Charles F. Lummis, Dixon felt a strong affinity with the native people of the Southwest; members of the Navajo, Hopi and Blackfeet tribes were among his favorite subjects.
When he wasn’t on his pilgrimages into the backcountry, Dixon cut an elegant figure as a high-profile San Francisco bohemian. Success as a magazine and book illustrator had come early to him; his commissions included private and public murals, billboards, posters for the railroads and paintings chronicling the construction of the Boulder Dam. He also recorded his times. Dixon’s Social Realist paintings of the Depression’s “forgotten men” are at least as haunting as Lange’s famous photos. Even as their marriage unraveled, the couple grew closer in terms of their work. A voice recording of Lange commenting on his long absences on painting treks is a highlight of this well-researched documentary.
Completists might cavil that the film doesn’t explore Dixon’s excursions into Fauvism and Expressionism. But it honors his legacy, tapping straight into his deep connection with nature and the singular vision that turned windswept vistas into bold and vibrant modern compositions.