Grand Canyon Views 97-98

Afternoon Shadows at Maricopa Point by Peter Adams,painting, Southwest Art
Afternoon Shadows at Maricopa Point by Peter Adams

This article is an excerpt from Leading the West—100 Contemporary Painters and Sculptors [1997 Northland Publishing, Flagstaff, AZ] by Donald J. Hagerty, a 224-page book illustrated with 175 color reproductions; foreword by Susan Hallsten McGarry. To order a copy call 800.358.6327.

For present-day artists, the western landscape is more than an image or a picture—it’s about exploration, about forming a relationship to the “there” out there. In most cases, human presence rarely intrudes upon the settings in their paintings. These landscapes are quiet, ageless, and unaffected by the hand of man.

For more than three decades, Wilson Hurley [b1924] has portrayed the western landscape in a style reminiscent of 19th century luminism that employs the effect of clear light, an approach that challenged earlier artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, and Thomas Moran. Hurley shares their credo that paintings are windows on the world.

Studies for Arizona Suite by Wilson Hurley,painting, Southwest Art
Studies for Arizona Suite by Wilson Hurley

When Hurley spent summers in New Mexico after his family moved to Santa Fe in 1935, his mother arranged for him to spend time with artists Theodore Van Solen and Josef Bakos. After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1945, Hurley served in the Air Force, then resigned his regular commission to enter law school. Upon his return to Albuquerque, he practiced law, worked as a banker, and continued to paint part-time. In 1965, Hurley decided to become a full-time landscape painter and was interrupted only by a 1968-69 tour of duty in Vietnam.

In 1991, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City, OK, commissioned Hurley to paint five large murals for the walls of their new addition, which resulted in panoramic, almost Wagnerian landscapes. Each mural, painted as a triptych, depicts a different location in the American West. The center panel of each triptych measures 16 by 16 feet, flanked on either side by two 16-by-10-foot pieces. Arizona Suite is a portrait of the Grand Canyon viewed from Cedar Ridge.

Canyon Morning by Merrill Mahaffey,painting, Southwest Art
Canyon Morning by Merrill Mahaffey

Aridity, evolutionary time, space, and how the colors of the earth change by time of day and sun position are elements that drive the art of Merrill Mahaffey [b1937]. Monumental forms enter his canvases through a combination of realism and abstraction, resulting in works of art that are responsive to landscape that is more than scenery. In his large-scale paintings, Mahaffey has developed a realistic style that replicates natural scenes yet permits freedom of technique and interest in color.

Intrigued by the Southwest’s rock formations, water, and desiccated canyons, Mahaffey paints acrylic and watercolor images devoid of human presence or narrative, primal and timeless in their ability to convey a natural world. For Mahaffey, rocks are the bones of the earth and water its spiritual arteries. With this philosophy he creates paintings like Canyon Morning, a portrait of Marble Canyon. Unlike painters who prefer to paint along the rim, Mahaffey plunges down and through the canyon for his views by way of a whitewater raft. With energy and confident brush strokes, the painting evokes his awe and reverence for the austere Grand Canyon landscape.

On the western edge of the continent, particularly in Southern California, a new breed of environmentally conscious artists reminiscent of the early California impressionists has emerged. One of them is fourth-generation Californian Peter Adams [b1950]. Adams’ plein-air landscapes are drawn from his explorations along the Southern California coast, the San Gabriel Mountains, and the Grand Canyon. Other artistic adventures have taken him to India, Bhutan, China, Tibet, and, in 1987, Afghanistan, making him the only American artist to travel and paint in that war-torn nation.

Adams is trained in bonsai, the Japanese art of shaping trees. The trees in his landscapes, like his Grand Canyon painting Afternoon Shadows at Maricopa Point, are conscious design statements created out of his editing of forms. Drawn to an Asian philosophy that suggests nature is a centering force within which one can discover peace and calm, Adams paints landscapes that are serene and meditative. “My best paintings come from the beginning and end of the day, when I can capture atmospheric moods,” he says.