Ray Strong | Remembering a Master

Landscape artist Ray Strong was a force in the California art world for nearly 75 years

By Mark Humpal

Ray Strong, Wheat Field and Burned Stumps, 1952, oil on Masonite, 18 x 48. Courtesy of Diana Manthe.

Ray Strong, Wheat Field and Burned Stumps, 1952, oil on Masonite, 18 x 48. Courtesy of Diana Manthe.

This article is excerpted with permission from Ray Stanford Strong: West Coast Landscape Artist by Mark Humpal, published by the University of Oklahoma Press in December. For more information visit www.oupress.com.

This story was featured in the February 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art February 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

In a career spanning the last three-quarters of the 20th century, painter Ray Strong (1905-2006) strove to capture the essence of the western landscape. California’s voluptuous, sunbaked foothills, dotted with clusters of live oaks, are his best-known subjects, but his oeuvre also includes depictions of Oregon, New York, Arizona, Utah, Canada, and Europe. Fresh from training in New York, he arrived in San Francisco during the early years of the Great Depression and soon became a major player in that city’s vibrant art community. A variety of accomplishments during the New Deal art programs of the 1930s brought him national fame and opened doors of opportunity. He hit his stride a decade later in Marin County, where he refined his signature style.

But the important first steps in Strong’s odyssey as a landscape painter were taken years earlier in his home state. Growing up on a large berry farm in Oregon instilled a profound regard for the regenerative, life-giving qualities of the land. Besides helping his family cultivate farmland, he explored, hunted, fished, and chased butterflies at every opportunity, deepening his understanding of and respect for nature. Living close to the picturesque, rugged terrain of Mount Hood and surrounding territory provided ready access to inspirational subjects just as he began to investigate the medium of oil paint. Strong’s early experiences certainly set the tone and gave direction, but key aspects of character fueled forward momentum: a steadfast determination to master his craft, a hunger to intellectually grasp the processes that shape the natural world, and an insatiable desire to express direct responses in paint.

Strong discovered a predilection for landscape painting by studying landscapes created by his maternal grandmother, an amateur oil painter whose Hudson River School works adorned the walls of the family home in Portland. From the moment he could hold a brush, Strong industriously copied her work, revealing evidence of his promising talent. He continued to hone his skills under the guidance of a progression of teachers at least a generation older who preferred a representational approach to art. Strong particularly sought those who made the great outdoors their main classroom.

The rise of impressionism in the late 1800s opened the floodgates to experimentation and innovation in the world of art. By the end of the first decade of the 1900s, impressionism had achieved widespread acceptance among American artists. At the same time, avant-garde artists overseas were pushing perceptual barriers even further, devising radical new theories of expression. Cubism, futurism, fauvism, expressionism, Dadaism, and a host of other “isms” appeared to varying extents in the years leading up to World War I. As a budding young artist on the threshold of a career, Strong witnessed these developments as they gained traction.

In one respect, Strong was born a generation too late, since most artists in his cohort—that is, those born circa 1900 to 1915—aspired to the tenets of modernism. Art schools, museums, and other art organizations increasingly promoted these emergent trends as the new century progressed. An artist of Strong’s generation who excitedly pursued modernism was Louis Demott Bunce (1907-1983). Bunce, whose training and career provide parallels and counterpoints to Strong’s, came of age as a young artist in Portland and, unlike Strong, explored virtually every new idea in modern art-making. Similarities between Strong and Bunce include studies at the Art Students League in New York in the late 1920s, work on various New Deal art projects of the 1930s, resourceful navigation through the turmoil of World War II, and careers as respected art educators. Contrasts between the two provide a context for the successes and struggles particular to Strong, and other artists like him, determined to stay focused on realism and risk marginalization. Indeed, Strong’s reluctance to follow the drumbeat of the avant-garde instigated numerous career challenges over time, not all of which resolved painlessly. This is not to say that the modernists had smooth sailing either; the general public often ridiculed, rejected, and misunderstood abstract art (and still does).

Early 20th-century Swiss psychiatrist Carl G. Jung’s theory of psychological types offers one explanation for Strong’s lifelong inclination as a landscape painter and, notably, for his resistance to deep involvement in the world of nonobjective art. Jung outlined eight pairs of opposite attitudes and functions that characterize an individual’s preferred mode of thinking about and interacting in the world. Jung referred to the first dynamic pair of opposites as “extraversion” and “introversion.”
Essentially, introverts are most concerned with the inner world of thoughts and feelings, of processing experiences carefully and reflectively. Extraverts are most comfortable engaging the people, places, and things of the world outside themselves. Each attitude also entails shortcomings. Introverts may tend to overthink and procrastinate, whereas extraverts tend to jump headlong into action without considering all sides of the question. This distinction is not typically one of black and white but of degrees. Most people embody both but prefer one orientation.

Strong, virtually a pure extravert, viewed the natural world—and his connection to it—as the essential ingredient for art-making. He had little desire to plumb the depths of the psyche for artistic inspiration, choosing instead to respond experientially to the tangible world around him. Midcentury American art critic Clement Greenberg’s insistence on the primacy of the artist’s inner experience, expressed directly through art materials with few external references, held little attraction to Strong. He was simply wired differently.

Underlying vast changes in the art world, great social, economic, and political upheaval raged across the globe during the 20th century. In particular, the Great Depression significantly affected Strong, galvanizing ideals of social justice, peace, and cooperation to a degree rivaling his love of landscape painting. He was not alone in this regard as radical politics proliferated among artists during the 1930s, most notably in the urban population centers of the East. Strong occasionally used art as a vehicle to express his political beliefs and staunch social activism. More often, he channeled opinions regarding conservation and environmental issues through his landscape work.

Numerous public and private murals stand as a testament to Strong’s proficiency at handling large-scale, complex projects. He achieved national recognition as a major innovator in the field of diorama background painting from numerous institutional commissions. Collaboration with earth scientists and paleontologists deepened his understanding of geological processes that sculpt the earth over millions of years and of the ongoing action of wind, waves, and weather, which actively shapes it. He vigorously applied these principles whenever he painted, endeavoring to portray the fundamental characteristics of the earth beyond mere surface details.

As an art educator, Strong taught hundreds of students over nearly six decades and considered sharing his extensive knowledge and philosophy to be one of his highest callings. Along the way, he helped establish several art schools, organizations, and galleries. A broad resurgence of interest in landscape painting during the last quarter of the 20th century revitalized his career in his twilight years. A new generation of artists flocked to his studio, eager to learn from an acknowledged master and a living link to the once-flourishing plein-air tradition. Over his last 20 years, he spearheaded the fight for preservation of lands endangered by encroaching development—and helped win important victories—by organizing artists as environmental activists.

Though he created the bulk of his work in California and spent most of his life there, Ray Strong invariably exclaimed, “I’m a third-generation Oregonian!” An examination of Strong family heritage in the West reveals an intriguing narrative of connectedness to the land and its vital importance to livelihood. His father, Harold William (H.W.) Strong, worked first as a timber cruiser, then as a lawyer, and finally as a farmer who operated the largest berry farm in the Northwest in the 1920s and 1930s. His grandfather, Edward Webster (E.W.) Strong, owned a succession of lumber mills during the time when timber was king in the Pacific Northwest. Strong’s great-grandparents, William Riley and Harriet Strong, were Oregon pioneers from Indiana who staked their future on the remote settlement of Rainier, 50 miles north of Portland on the Columbia River, in 1852. Riley, as he was known, juggled numerous professions, including teacher, lawyer, and political activist, culminating in his election to the territorial legislature in 1858, where he helped facilitate Oregon’s arduous transition to statehood.

Ray Strong settled permanently in California in his late 20s but continually returned to Oregon to visit family and, of course, to paint. For decades, these lengthy trips were taken annually, producing a significant body of Oregon subjects, which stand as a counterpoint to the California paintings for which he is best known. Though he painted elsewhere during his long career, California, Oregon, and the American West were the subjects that inspired him most and form the majority of his
artistic output.

This story was featured in the February 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art February 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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