Western American Art Movement | War and Peace

By Stephen May


This article is the sixth in a yearlong series chronicling the development of the western American art movement. Next month, Stephen May focuses on the period 1950-1960.

Barbara Latham, Decoration Day [n.d.], tempera, 24 x 281⁄2, Harwood Museum.,painting, southwest art.
Barbara Latham, Decoration Day [n.d.], tempera, 24 x 281⁄2, Harwood Museum.

More than any other region of the nation, the West was transformed by World War II and its aftermath. Dominating the 1940s, the conflict triggered a tremendous boom in population and a buildup of military bases and war production plants; it also spawned pockets of scientific work, such as those in New Mexico and Washington, involved in creating the atomic bomb.

Many artists interrupted their careers to serve in the military or participate in civilian war efforts, thus bringing to an end the boom of Impressionism, American Scene regionalist work, and New Deal mural projects. Amid all the upheavals of war, the 1940s were a somewhat fallow period for the creation of outstanding art in the West.

Painters continued to glorify the unspoiled frontier, virgin land, noble Indians, heroic cowboys, and courageous soldiers of the vanished West. Painters in the Southwest, whether permanent residents or tourists in the area, applied modernist techniques and European experiences to the scenes, people, and events of the area throughout the 1940s.

Florence Miller Pierce, First Form #1 [1944], oil, 26 x 361⁄2, Jonson Gallery of the University of New Mexico Art Museum, Albuquerque.,painting, southwest art.
Florence Miller Pierce, First Form #1 [1944], oil, 26 x 361⁄2, Jonson Gallery of the University of New Mexico Art Museum, Albuquerque.

Leading the way for a number of outstanding female artists, Georgia O’Keeffe—soon to achieve iconic status—settled permanently in New Mexico late in the decade, following the death of her husband Alfred Stieglitz. O’Keeffe’s work in this decade solidified her identification with the beauty and mystery of the Southwest.

Ensconced in her adobe homes, O’Keeffe [1887-1986] divided her time between Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch, 16 miles away. Toward the end of the decade she began her unique series of paintings of the patio door of her Abiquiu house. More often than not, O’Keeffe’s interpretations of the Southwest broke new ground, setting her art further apart from that of her compatriots and enhancing her national standing.

Gene Kloss, Christmas Eve, Taos Pueblo, II [1946], etching, 133⁄4 x 19, Harwood Museum, Taos, NM.,painting, southwest art.
Gene Kloss, Christmas Eve, Taos Pueblo, II [1946], etching, 133⁄4 x 19, Harwood Museum, Taos, NM.

In addition to O’Keeffe, an increasing number of talented women artists came to the fore in this decade. Among them was Alice Geneva (Gene) Kloss [1903-1996], who was drawn to the life of the Pueblo Indians. Kloss’ large drypoint etching Christmas Eve, Taos Pueblo, II conveys the dramatic setting of the Native American community.

Two other women who settled in Taos, Dorothy Brett and Rebecca Salisbury James, produced interesting work in the 1940s. English-born Brett [1883-1977] created Three Indian Women, reflecting her fascination with the Native American populace, while James [1891-1968] turned out landscapes, including the eerie Walking Woman, Taos.

Barbara Latham [1896-1989] illustrated children’s books and created richly decorative, semi-abstract paintings of local burial grounds, such as Decoration Day. Latham’s husband Howard Cook [1901-1976] was also active during this period, specializing in modernist views of the landscape and Native Americans of the area.

Dorothy Brett, Three Indian Women [1949], oil, 12 x 24, Harwood Museum.,painting, southwest art.
Dorothy Brett, Three Indian Women [1949], oil, 12 x 24, Harwood Museum.

Some of the newly arrived Taos painters rejected the academic romanticism for which the community was known in favor of fresh, new interpretations of area subjects. In the vanguard of artists who became known as the Taos Moderns was the first surrealist painter in New Mexico, Thomas Benrimo. A San Francisco native and former commercial artist, Benrimo created distinctive, often unsettling canvases depicting the power and mystery of the scenery around Taos. Building on the example of longtime resident Andrew Dasburg, other modernist newcomers to Taos in the 1940s such as Beatrice Mandelman, Agnes Martin, Louis Ribak, and Earl Stroh created a new tradition in the venerable community.

As a devoted follower of Ashcan School titan John Sloan, Will Shuster [1893-1969] was less inclined to modernism than his fellow Los Cinco Pintores members Joseph Bakos, Wladyslaw Mruk, Willard Nash, and Fremont Ellis. Shuster’s commitment to realism is reflected in the somber Las Viejas.

Rebecca James, Walking Woman, Taos [1946], oil, 231⁄4 x 171⁄2, Harwood Museum.,painting, southwest art.
Rebecca James, Walking Woman, Taos [1946], oil, 231⁄4 x 171⁄2, Harwood Museum.

Raymond Jonson, New Mexico’s most indefatigable champion and practitioner of abstract art, moved from Santa Fe to Albuquerque in 1949 to be closer to his teaching work at the University of New Mexico. His paintings from this period demon- strate his restless experiments with colorful, nonrepresentational compositions.

During and after the brief life [1938-1942] of the Transcendental Painting Group, organized by Jonson and Emil Bisttram, members created some of the most diverse abstract paintings ever seen in New Mexico. They included the calligraphic forms of Hungarian-born Bisttram [1895-1976], the colorful, appealing abstractions of Ed Garman [b1914], and the ethereal biomorphic forms of Florence Miller Pierce [b1918], such as First Form #1. Pierce, who was the youngest member of the Transcendental Painting Group, continues working today, creating monochromatic resin squares on plexiglass in her New Mexico studio.

Henriette Wyeth, Ann Carol With Iris [1943], oil, 191⁄2 x 231⁄2, Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, Gift of Charmay B. Allre,painting, southwest art.
Henriette Wyeth, Ann Carol With Iris [1943], oil, 191⁄2 x 231⁄2, Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, Gift of Charmay B. Allre

Another female painter working in this period was Henriette Wyeth [1908-1997], daughter of illustrator N.C. Wyeth and sister of painter Andrew Wyeth. By the 1940s, Wyeth had settled with her artist-husband Peter Hurd on their ranch in New Mexico’s Hondo Valley. A diverse and talented painter, whose portrait of Patricia Nixon hangs in the White House, Wyeth’s Ann Carol With Iris reflects her considerable skills.

In Texas, a group of native artists known as the Fort Worth Circle experimented with cubism, surrealism, and other avant-garde styles in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They included Cynthia Brants, Dickson Reeder, Bror Utter, and Bill Bomar [1919-1991], whose watercolor and gouache Santa Fe View demonstrates his colorful, technically brilliant technique. Although slowed by cerebral palsy, Bomar went on to a successful career in New York and New Mexico.

Will Shuster, Las Viejas [1945], oil, 45 x 30, Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, TX.,painting, southwest art.
Will Shuster, Las Viejas [1945], oil, 45 x 30, Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, TX.

The most significant artwork in Texas in the 1940s was created in northern Texas, especially Dallas, with representational painters and some modernists occupying center stage. A key figure in Texas art for a half-century starting in the 1930s was Jerry Bywaters [1906-1989], a native of the Lone Star State who attended Southern Methodist University, studied art in the East, wrote about art, and served for many years as a teacher at SMU and as director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Art. Bywaters’ prolific output included book illustrations, murals, prints, and paintings such as Testing His Stirrups.

The grand dame of Texas regionalists was Florence McClung [1894-1992], a prominent mem-ber of the Dallas art community. McClung was born in St. Louis, MO, and raised and trained in Texas; she later became an influential teacher and created notable paintings and prints. She recorded the beauty of the region in such images as Squaw Creek Valley.

Art inspired by the war took many forms. One view of wartime was created by Kenneth Evett [b1913], who taught at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, CO, prior to the war. Evett, a Colorado native, used his experience working in a war plant to paint The Welder, epitomizing the strong, determined men involved in the home-front war efforts.

Florence E. McClung, Squaw Creek Valley [1937], oil, 241⁄2 x 301⁄2, Dallas Museum of Art, TX, Gift of Florence E. McClung.,painting, southwest art.
Florence E. McClung, Squaw Creek Valley [1937], oil, 241⁄2 x 301⁄2, Dallas Museum of Art, TX, Gift of Florence E. McClung.

A good deal of art was created at the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, much of it by artists trained in the American Scene style, who recorded everyday camp life. Sueo Serisawa [b1910], who had pursued his artistic career in the East, continued to work while interned, creating such depictions as the little girl at play in The Hobby Horse.

The war redirected certain cultural trends in the western states and set in motion others that would dominate the postwar era. After 1945, cultural pressures in the West became more outward than inward; artists previously committed to regional subjects and independence from New York influences often adopted broader, more expansive outlooks. Experimental styles, including abstract expressionism, became increasingly important, especially in California. In the areas of lifestyle and culture and more slowly in art the West, led by the Golden State, became a pacesetter for the nation.


Featured in June 1999

Bill Bomar, Santa Fe View [1942], watercolor, 227⁄8 X 311⁄2, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX.,painting, southwest art.
Bill Bomar, Santa Fe View [1942], watercolor, 227⁄8 X 311⁄2, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX.

Jerry Bywaters, Testing His Stirrups [1940], oil, 257⁄8 x 221⁄4, Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum.

Jerry Bywaters, Testing His Stirrups [1940], oil, 257⁄8 x 221⁄4, Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum.


Sueo Serisawa, The Hobby Horse [1947], oil, 27 x 37, Orange County Museum of Art, CA.,painting, southwest art.
Sueo Serisawa, The Hobby Horse [1947], oil, 27 x 37, Orange County Museum of Art, CA.


Kenneth Evett, The Welder [1944], oil, 201⁄4 x 16, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, CO.,painting, southwest art.
Kenneth Evett, The Welder [1944], oil, 201⁄4 x 16, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, CO.