Every art historical chapter has its trailblazers. Monet, Picasso, Duchamp, Pollock, Warhol -- such singular figures seem to appear out of nowhere and, by some combination of vision, timing, charisma and gall, to embody the spirit of an era.
Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) belongs to a somewhat less fortunate category: those artists who, despite ample talent, slip into the cracks between chapters, who neither herald the birth of an era nor usher one to fruition but spend most of their careers eddying in the whirlpool of cultural transition.
"Maynard Dixon: Masterpieces From Brigham Young University and Private Collections," a hefty survey that marks the Pasadena Museum of California Art's fifth anniversary, offers a reminder of why we should never lose sight of these artists in the glare of the superstars. In addition to showcasing some fantastic paintings you've probably never seen, the show illuminates a fascinating moment in American art that's often overshadowed by the more decisive advances that followed.
Dixon, raised in Fresno and based for most of his life in San Francisco, was a sensitive painter at a time of prodigious change, his career wedged uneasily amid the tides of Romanticism, Modernism and Social Realism, between the cultural spell of Europe and the dawn of the American Century, the age of the academy and the rise of popular culture, the close of the Western frontier and the advent of a new West, one defined by the automobile and bound by the interstate highway system.
The West -- its landscape, its culture, its mythology -- was his subject, and he struggled throughout his career to synthesize a pictorial language adequate to its magnitude. He never entirely succeeded -- Georgia O'Keeffe may be the only painter who did -- but the struggle is visible, to one degree or another, in virtually every piece in the exhibition.
Impressionistic speckles blanket one hillside, Cubist shadows fracture another. One canvas has the delicate, dusty cast of a Whistler or an Eakins, another the queasy brilliance of Fauvism. Some figures recall those in Edward Curtis' photographs, chiseled and stolid, others the cartoonish everymen of Thomas Hart Benton. Some look as if they drifted out of a Hudson River School painting, others off the cover of a dime-store paperback. In Dixon's attitude toward the West, realism clearly battled sentiment, observation battled nostalgia. There was no obvious winner.
In a 1929 letter to the poet Sara Bard Field, Dixon wrote: "Long ago (1918) I had to make a choice between being 'modern' and being honest. After some experiments and self-searching I chose the less gaudy of the two."
In truth, the divide could not have been so clear. Though geographically removed from the nexus of Modernism -- New York -- Dixon was hardly immune to its radical effects. It rattles beneath the surface of even the most traditional compositions, resulting in a strange and often thrilling kind of tension: between a bulbous cluster of clouds and a jarringly shallow sky; lacy wisps of scrub and thick, blocky shadows; a spatially receding plain and a smooth, flat ribbon of pigment along the horizon.
The show's title is a bit of an overstatement: Not all these works are masterpieces. The scenes with figures are competent but lusterless, often generic. Dixon's white men -- first cowboys, then unemployed drifters in the "Forgotten Man" series he made during the Depression, while married to photographer Dorothea Lange -- are awkwardly idealized types. His Native Americans are stiff, depersonalized and uncomfortably fetishistic.
The vague unease that underlies the portraits, however, evaporates in the landscapes, which are vivid, passionate and deeply perceptive. Dixon is at his best in the great wide open, charting the sensuous interplay of horizon and sky. His compositions, though relatively straightforward at a glance, are engrossingly nuanced. He had an exquisite sense of color, and the delicacy of his orchestrations can be breathtaking: a sweep of violet across the crest of a mesa; the faint pink swelling in the belly of a cloud, a shock of electric blue in one corner of the sky.
What's curious, given the expansive nature of Dixon's subject, is how intimate this show feels. The landscapes, though outward-looking, are also touchingly solitary, windows into the soul of one man, alone in the wilderness, struggling to make sense of his surroundings.
Where: Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays
Ends: Aug. 12
Price: $6 adults, $4 seniors and students (free the first Friday of the month)
Contact: (626) 568-3665 or www.pmcaonline.org