High Hills of Tehachapi (No.558), 1936 signed and dated 'Maynard Dixon 1936' (lower left) and titled, numbered, signed and inscribed '728 Montgomery San Francisco' on the reverse oil on canvas 36 x 40in
In 1936, Maynard Dixon created the dramatic painting, High Hills of Tehachapi, which was a continuation of his refined painting style that emerged in the early 1920s. He initiated the concept of High Hills of Tehachapi with a series of small idea compositions in pencil, pen and ink, or wash based on past impressions, actual notes or drawings, or perhaps oil sketches made in the field. After exploring the idea on paper, he then proceeded to develop the composition on canvas, making a full-scale drawing in charcoal or in a delicate painted line (oil color diluted with turpentine or paint thinner), afterwards removing any residue. Light washes in dilute color might have been added as an underpainting. Dixons palette encompassed sharp, clear colors, almost unmixed, rather dry, laid down in bold brushstrokes.
The large compositions from the Tehachapi visit are characterized by space division, his own personal adaptation of Jay Hambidges theory of Dynamic Symmetry. A small drawing of the prospective image might have a geometric-appearing grid superimposed as an overlay. This helped to clarify certain vertical, horizontal, and diagonal stress points in the painting, giving an image like High Hills of Tehachapi additional power and simplicity. Dynamic Symmetry came into prominence during the 1920s, led by Hambidges reservations about the modern tendency to regard design as instinctive or intuitive. The theory was advanced as a mathematical system of composition based on the relationship of the diagonal to the sides of a rectangle, attempting to discover in nature a set of geometrical relationships and apply them to painting. Some of the practitioners included American painters George Bellows and Robert Henri. Dixon rejected the mathematical premise, but intrigued enough with the theory used his own modified version. Organization of pattern in High Hills of Tehachapi is evident, as Dixon strived to achieve a personal synthesis. As to my technique, he once said, it is no accident, and is developed to meet my needs. My feeling is toward the thing I do, and austerity and clear definition are the dominating character of the arid lands I work in.
Although he closely studied and adapted some techniques from modernism, Dixon scorned the pursuit of art for its own sake and remained aloof from the modern art movements emphasis upon the sanctity of the act of painting. Through his landscape painting in the 1920s and 1930s he reached further toward a personal, idiosyncratic vision. Ansel Adams believed Dixon belonged to a long American artistic tradition of devoting an almost pantheistic reverence to the grandeur of the natural scene. Yet Dixons art stood apart from that tradition because he rejected sentimentality and romanticism to pursue realism and understanding. A distinctive artistic vocabulary anchored by an abstract, less is better approach entered his canvases, where he strived to penetrate beyond the optical appearance of what he saw to find truth in the landscape.
In High Hills of Tehachapi, Dixons sculpted composition has captured the drama of several cowboys herding a group of cattle across the sparse terrain, marked by a strong swell to the distant peak, and a calm, majestic feel for seasonal time. Californias glaring light is reflected in the topographys brown hues and hint of green, matched by a hard, brilliant sky. Nature appeared close to the surface in the Tehachapi Mountains, stark and exposed. That starkness emerged in High Hills of Tehachapi through Dixons trademarks-the defined horizon, flat, designed composition, smooth surface, limited colors, and reduction of unnecessary details to maximize the impact of the lands forms. Here he has recast and reinterpreted nature, reducing the superstructure in the canvas in search of essential rhythms emanating from the landscape. There is no sentimentality; the painting is austere, uncompromising, a total subjugation of detail to larger effects, reflecting the Tehachapis harsh desolation. Like the other paintings done in 1930, there is an appreciation for the intensity of connection between the natural environment and its inhabitants, an unfailing companion for his art. Part imagination, part invention, part memories based on actual encounters with the Tehachapi Mountains, and all Maynard Dixon, High Hills of Tehachapi reflects the singular vision of the artist and his deep-seated belief in the lands power to withstand the trauma of the Depression.
Wallace, Grant. Maynard Dixon: Painter and Poet of the Far West. Edited by Gene Hailey. Typescript. Abstract From California Art Research, vol. 8, WPA Project 2874, O.P. 65-3-3632, San Francisco, 1937. p. 112. 2 Hagerty, Donald J. Desert Dreams: The Art and Life of Maynard Dixon. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 1998.
We are grateful to Donald Hagerty for his time and expertise in writing this essay.