Exhibition Browse: Creating the Modern Southwest

By any historic measure, the American Southwest is an ancient place. A crossroads of cultures and languages for centuries, the region stretching from western Texas to southern California contains the oldest continually inhabited communities in the United States. In rounded adobe architecture and weathered Spanish churches, layers of stone and earth plaster mark the deep passage of time. Yet beginning in the early 20th century, the region held a magnetic pull for contemporary artists experimenting with innovative ideas in American art.

In the late 19th century, many American artists studied in Paris when French painters were working with new impressionist styles, abandoning precise realism in favor of quick brushstrokes and vivid colors to convey the moods of contemporary life. In 1903, European modernism burst upon the American art scene with the opening of the International Exhibition of Modern Art at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York, known today as the “Armory Shows.” This exhibition, organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, was the first large-scale display of modern art in the United States. Americans accustomed to realist, academic paintings were astonished by the bold colors of Henri Matisse, the expressive lines of Vincent van Gogh, and the fractured geometric patterns of Marchel Duchamp.

Soon, American artists began blending the influences of European modernism with the distinct scenery and unique blend of cultures found in the southwestern United States. When the modern painter Georgia O’Keefe first traveled from New York to New Mexico in 1917, the brilliant clear skies and stark landscape of the Southwest captivated her like nothing before. On a dusty train ride through Santa Fe, she found her calling. “All the earth colors of the painter’s palette are out there in the many miles of bad lands,” O’Keefe later described, “those hills – our waste land – I think it our most beautiful country.”

In artworks with bold colors, reduced shapes, and expressive geometric patterns, the exhibition, Creating the Modern Southwest (October 16, 2016 - ongoing), reveals the modern art influences on the American Southwest with works from the Gilcrease permanent collection.

By Laura F. Fry, Senior Curator and Curator of Art, Gilcrease Museum, 2016.