Memorial to Maynard

Tucson's most famous painter is honored with a huge Arizona show at the Tucson Museum of Art

It's a Maynard Dixon kind of day.

The Catalinas are glowing in the late-afternoon sun as I write, their dark-blue canyons alternating with sun-washed stretches of pink-gold. Finger Rock is jutting into pale-lavender clouds traced wispily against a cerulean sky.

Maynard Dixon and I have one thing in common: We both bought our houses for that view. In 1939, the celebrated Western painter bought property on Tucson's near northside, at Prince Road and Jackson Avenue, about a mile north of where I live. Dixon's view was a little less obstructed than the one out my window, where nowadays, trees are beginning to edge out the mountains.

The painter's two acres were on what was then the unspoiled edge of town, and the Catalinas unfurled splendidly from one end of the northern horizon to the other. He and his wife moved from San Francisco to their new place in 1941. Dixon died in the house they built, in 1946, at 71, but not before spending five years painting his personal Catalina vista again and again.

I'm partial, but these late Tucson paintings are easily the best of the 160 works in A Place of Refuge: Maynard Dixon's Arizona, the sprawling show at the Tucson Museum of Art. Dixon had simplified the landscape into a near-geometry by the end of his life, and only its most important elements survived. The colors are swift and true, and even the brushstrokes are minimal. No need for the brushy impressionism of his earlier years. Dixon, ill with emphysema and tethered to an oxygen tank, gave these Tucson paintings all that he could, but only what they needed. They're perfect as they are.

He painted the ever-changing Catalinas in every light and from every perspective, moving his horizons up or down to favor either mountains or sky. A giant cloud formation dwarfs the mountains in "Cloud Banks and Shadow," 1944-1945, and leaches the desert below of its colors. The Catalinas are king in "Home of the Desert Rat," 1944; a red-gold peak soars upward, almost to the top of the painting, dominating the skies. Its canyons tumble down in a kaleidoscope of salmon and deep blue.

The best of the paintings are autumnal, painted when colors deepen in the Sonoran Desert and when the cottonwood, Dixon's favorite tree, blazes gold. "Home of Tucson," 1945, reduces the home of the artist's Prince Road neighbors, the Ronstadts, to a blinding white rectangle against a swathe of dark-blue mountain. A yellow cottonwood is impossibly dazzling in the light.

A Place of Refuge, aptly named, is the first-ever museum show to display only Dixon's Arizona works; with its dozens and dozens of drawings and oil paintings, and a smaller number of lithos and watercolors, it's also the largest Dixon show ever. The earliest work, dating from 1900, tends mostly toward Indian imagery, including portraits and genre studies of people at work. But as the years go on, Dixon's art is mainly about the land.

A model of thoroughness, A Place of Refuge was the brainchild of Thomas Brent Smith, TMA curator of the Art of the American West for about a minute. Smith kept the job only long enough to re-mount the Western artworks in the Fish House and to put together the Dixon show before absconding to the Denver Art Museum. TMA, shockingly, owns no Dixons--works which now can command millions of dollars--and Smith had to draw on loans from other collections. His goal, he told me before he left, was "to give the people of Arizona an artist they could call their own, who loved this state. He chose Tucson as a home."

Born in Fresno, Calif., in 1875, Dixon lived in sophisticated coastal cities much of his life, mostly in San Francisco and a little in New York. But he was always drawn to the Old West. At 16, he sent off sketchbooks filled with his drawings of cowboys, cattle and colts to the famous Western artist Frederic Remington. Remington famously replied, "You draw better at your age than I did at your age," as Donald J. Hagerty reports in a biographical essay in the catalog.

Dixon never got rich, but he became a successful illustrator for newspapers, books and the big magazines. (His "Navajo Indian From Life," a striking litho of man draped in a red blanket, standing in front of a distant mesa, made the cover of Sunset in 1903 and is still sold as a poster.) He disliked the hackneyed Western images his editors demanded, though, and he would periodically flee to the wilderness to do his own art.

Dixon tried art school only briefly, and later would say that he studied "in the open." He first lit out for Arizona Territory in 1900 at the ripe old age of 25, arriving in the searing heat of June. He loved the place immediately. "So long had I dreamed of it that when I came there, it was not strange to me," he wrote. "Its sun was my sun, its ground my ground."

The trip was the first of what would be some 10 extended sojourns in Arizona. This one was typical. Dixon stayed for months, roughing it in Indian country, traveling back roads to sketch Mojaves, miners and Mexicans. He had not yet started painting, but the drawings from 1900 are already spectacular. "Desert Ranges Roberts Ranch," a graphite on paper, uses plain pencil marks to re-create a cascading series of hills; the accompanying sketch, "Roberts Ranch, Arizona," portrays the ramshackle house. Dixon had already figured out how to create form and volume with an economy of line, and how to alternate dark passages with light, skills he would later deploy in his paintings to brilliant effect.

He didn't make it down to Tucson until 1907. His Old Pueblo architectural sketches wonderfully evoke the lost Mexican city. "Tucson Barrio" is a vivid rendering in charcoal and conté of a street that switches between sun-baked walls and deep shadows. "Moonlight, Tucson," 1907, is a charming watercolor of the historic buildings on Main Street now operated by the TMA. "In Old Tucson," an oil on canvas board, pictures a Mexican woman in a long skirt and a shawl slowly making her way down a dirt street, with Sentinel Peak ("A" Mountain) in the background.

A commission from the Southern Pacific railroad had brought Dixon to town. He'd been hired to paint four "lunettes," oils on canvas shaped into half-circles, to be placed inside arches in the train station. The three surviving lunettes lionize Arizona types, each of them occupying specific Arizona landscapes. "The Prospector" is in rocky desert studded with saguaros (those may be the Tucson Mountains in the background). "The Cattleman" is astride a horse in flat grasslands, and "The Apache" is on horseback in the high country.

A fourth painting, "Irrigation," has been lost. These three almost disappeared, too. They were removed during World War II when the station was renovated--too old-fashioned, perhaps, for the modern image Tucson wanted to project--and dispatched to the Temple of Music and Art, where they languished in the basement until 1968. The Arizona Historical Society now owns all three, but this is the first time since 1943 they've been shown together.

Tucson will always have Dixon's Catalinas, but the city's most famous painter is being honored once again at the depot, if only in reproduction. Three giclée prints have been hung in the paintings' original spots in the restored station. And the new food place revives Dixon's memory in its name: It's called Maynards Market.