In the Abstract

by Glen Nelson 

What does it say about us—about the dark side of human nature—that we see something new, immediately distrust it, feel threatened by it, revile it as dangerous, and turn to discrimination, illegal acts, and violence to suppress it? This roadmap of prejudice plays out frequently in history, but I’m talking here specifically of art.

I will tell you a story.

In 1929, a young painter left his studies at the University of Utah to enroll at the New York Art Students League. He was encouraged to make the trip, in part, to explore new painting techniques. The U of U’s professors fell into distinct camps regarding embrace/disdain for innovation; that’s probably true on every campus in the country today, as well. At the U, J.T. Harwood leaned to the traditional, and Mabel Frazer favored Modernism. By the late 20s, it was no longer necessary to travel abroad to learn how to paint, but a Utah painter who wanted to explore emerging philosophy behind the art needed to leave the state to do so. It wasn’t a question of having access to Modernism. The Art Barn in Salt Lake City mounted exhibitions that were controversial for the community, including shows of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. And university programs were already teaching principles of artists from Picasso forward, to some degree. These were isolated, though. To immerse oneself in new philosophies, a Utahn had to go far away.

The Art Students League had a reputation for progressive art. Students declared their independence in 1875 from the National Academy of Design to form the student-run League. Innovation was the school’s mantra. It was also notable for its equal treatment of women, still a novelty in the early 20th century.

How fascinating it is to look at Mormon Art’s history alongside the Art Students League. As a culture, where would we be without its influence? How would the work of Mahonri Young and Mierva Teichert have evolved without the League? And what about Harold Longmore Burrows, Joseph Alma Freestone Everett, Avard T. Fairbanks, Louise Richards Farnsworth, Lynn Fausett, William Dean Fausett, Mabel Frazer, Ranch S. Kimball, Torlief Knaphus, Waldo Park Midgley, George Septimus Sears, and LeConte Stewart—to say nothing of their thousands of students educated in decades to follow? There is a bit of the League in all of them.

The young LDS man who arrived in New York in 1929 to study at the League was named George Smith Dibble. He was born in Laie, Hawaii in 1904 (his parents were serving as LDS mission presidents at the time). It was his great-grandfather, Philo Dibble, Sr. who determined to establish the first museum for fine art in Utah—this idea eventually became the Springville Museum of Art which began in 1903 and whose building was dedicated by David O. McKay in 1937.

In New York, George Dibble was enthralled by Cubism, the city, its many museums and galleries.

After taking courses at the League, Dibble moved to Columbia University for a bachelors degree, and he continued there and earned a masters degree in Fine Art in 1940. Obviously, there was a lag in acceptance of Modern art techniques outside of New York (and within New York, too). Many artists, collectors, educators, scholars, and the general public scratched their heads (at the very least) when looking at new works that seemed to assault the eye. Utah and Mormon artists were firmly behind traditional painting. In part, it stems from the culture’s long reliance on art to tell stories (pioneers, settlers, devotional art, etc.) and to capture its stunning and varied landscape.

So what is a community to do with somebody who wants to challenge those norms of expression? Here’s what happened next to Dibble.

In 1938, even before his return to live in Utah, he submitted a painting to the Utah State art show. Pay Dirt, his painting of faceless surveyors and miners in a stylized landscape, won a purchase prize. (The State of Utah was required by legislation proposed by Alice Merrill Horne to purchase one work of art each year to build a collection of local artists.) Predictably, some people didn’t like Dibble’s painting. While it was in the State collection, another artist and teacher, Cornelius Salisbury, took a wire brush to Pay Dirt to destroy it. Or, as Salisbury said, to “clean” it.

For the 1940 Utah State Fair, Dibble entered Long Island Sound. The painting is a seascape reduced to its most elemental shapes of spheres, cones, and planes. The painting had won awards for Dibble at Columbia University. At the fair, Dibble was pleased to see the painting had won a cash prize. But he noticed that it had been moved from the professional to the amateur division. When he questioned the judging, he was told that the jury had determined his modern style could not be considered “professional.” Infuriated, Dibble demanded the painting be reinstated. It was. And the cash prize was withdrawn.

For the remainder of his life, Dibble resided in Utah. He made his living in three ways: primarily as a teacher; also as a fine artist; and finally as an art critic for the Salt Lake Tribune. The most perilous of the three was his main career—professor. In order to get tenure, Dibble was coerced to paint in the styles of his conservative peers: B. F. Larsen, LeConte Stewart, and Avard Fairbanks. Fairbanks said that modern works like Dibble’s “were laboratory experiments and that they destroyed and debased art.” Larsen went further, if that’s possible, and warned that Modernism was a Communist movement and that if Dibble continued in that direction, he would become a Communist himself.

This is a preposterous lie (that lingers even today). The American Communist Party hated Modernism, for one thing. Their publications followed art very closely, and they attacked non-objectivity with heated loathing. They much preferred, frankly, political cartoons. For them, it was all about the message. Abstraction simply couldn’t do the job.

But that insidiousness gains quick traction, doesn’t it? How easy it is demean a new idea and associate it with a shared enemy. If you don’t understand something, call it a name, and chances are it will stick, at least with a certain crowd. The other easy-out is to say it is elitist. And Dibble heard that, too.

Of course, Dibble had no connection to anything un-American or elitist. He said that he found in Modernism a way to heighten the experience of looking by paring away inessential details. Nearly all of Dibble’s paintings are watercolors, and Modernism’s transparency and reductive openness were perfect fits for the medium. A few Utah institutions rallied to his work and saw it as a bridge between traditional painting and Modernism. In truth, Dibble’s works strike a 21st century viewer as completely tame. A few other Mormon painters and Utah painters took up this approach to art as well.

In 1941, nine Utah artists drafted and signed a “Modern Art Manifesto.” They attempted to explain their philosophy to the public. Several of the artists had faced censorship, like Dibble. It was the first such document in Utah. It stated four guiding principles:

A modern artist:

1. Uses individually conceived forms to express his aesthetic ideas and emotions, in terms of the particular medium employed.

2. Employs the design element contained in plastic form, including relationships of line, tone, space, planes, texture, color, and subject matter.

3. Uses conventional and intellectual freedom in organizing the subject matter into unified form.

4. Respects the validity of the picture field. The picture field is composed of front, back and side planes, determined by the artist.

In hindsight, it is worth stating that nothing these artists were doing in the 1940s could be considered radical alongside their peers in the art capitols of the world, and they are not remotely shocking now. Dibble said as much as he wrote weekly reviews in his Tribune columns. It wasn’t until 1956, when LeConte Stewart retired from teaching at the University of Utah, that Dibble felt he could paint what he wanted without fear of retribution from his employer. George Dibble published a much-read textbook, Watercolor: Materials and Techniques (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.) that generations of students have used to form the basis of their approach to the medium.

In the mid-50s, Dibble came to a place philosophically where he was peace. At the time, he was guest-lecturing in Cedar City, Utah. Close to the town, a large cliff of sheer red rocks forms a monumental wall. Cedar Breaks, as it is called, is a destination spot for many travelers, and a long-time source of inspiration for artists. Dibble painted Cedar Breaks 2 in 1952, and it may be his most successful work. It is reductive and potent, and yet if you know the landscape—as I do—the painting captures it in a way that no other painting or photograph has.

Cedar Breaks 2 won a prize at a Utah exhibition, and it was purchased by Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University). The University had a welcoming history with Modernism because of Calvin Fletcher. But after Fletcher retired in 1947, attitudes shifted. Dibble needed a photograph of Cedar Breaks 2 for the cover of his textbook, and he traveled to Logan. But once on campus, he was told the University had no record of the painting at all. He was at a loss. There was nothing in their inventory to say they had ever owned it. As he left the building, he happened to walk by a janitor’s office. Inside, pinned to the wall with a thumbtack, was Cedar Breaks 2. One can imagine the ensuing conversation. As it turns out, the janitor had found the painting in the trash.

On the cover, Cedar Breaks 2, 1952, watercolor

George Dibble continued teaching, writing, and painting. He died in 1992. Anyone interested in his work should read his textbook on Watercolor, an exhibition catalog, George Dibble: Painter-Teacher-Critic (by Robert S. Olpin, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, University of Utah, 1989), and a striking Masters thesis written by his granddaughter, George Dibble and the Struggle for Modern Art in Utah (Masters thesis, Brigham Young University, 2012). After his death, many of his paintings were dispersed between the museums of Utah by his heirs. Fittingly, the Springville Museum of Art, in particular, has a sizable number of his works.

Last week, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art deaccessioned one of his paintings, Sketch for Cubist Breaks, and I purchased it. Of his watercolors, it’s one of the most abstract work by Dibble that I’ve seen. I feel honored to have it. I promise to take good care of it.

Sketch for Cubist Breaks, undated, watercolor

A final word. The Dibble story is a cautionary tale. I hear the same old complaints today that Dibble must have heard when he returned to Utah in 1940. The divide between traditional painters and modernists is as wide and as deep as the Grand Canyon. But it is hurtful when either side uses their arguments to belittle and taint the works of the other. We’re better than that. And in the Church, we are compelled to be better.

Recently, I was part of a conversation about Mormon art and temple art. The consensus was that the only work appropriate for decoration inside a temple is Realistic. I disagree. I find abstraction to be a perfect way to engage viewers into profound and mysterious feelings and symbols. But that’s a chat for another day.

Can I implore you simply to take a second look at things? Don’t rush to judgment—either that something’s too traditional or it’s too modern. Live with it awhile. Let it affect you how it’s going to. If you find that effect interesting, than go back for more; if you don’t, be kind as you move on.