Montana Modernists: Shifting Perceptions of Western Art (2022, Washington State University Press) by Michelle Corriel is an art history book focused on the careers and work of a group of six post-World War II artists who called Montana home and brought Abstract Expressionist influences from major US metropolitan areas and modern European movements (particularly Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Bauhaus) to a state that had almost no market for the avant-garde. Their goals were not to achieve commercial success but to experiment with, teach, and spread an appreciation of Modernist art to their communities.
“Place,” the first of three sections, explores the work and creative relationship of Montana natives and ranchers Bill Stockton (1921–2002) and Isabelle Johnson (1901–1992). The second, “Teaching/Artistic Lineage” delves into the teachers who influenced the Montana Modernists, then focuses on the pedagogical approaches and legacy of companions in life and work, Frances Senska (1914–2009) and Jessie Spaulding Wilber (1912–1989). Section three, “Community,” discusses the sociopolitical conditions in Montana after World War II and the following decades, ultimately highlighting the work of Gennie DeWeese (1921–2007) and Robert DeWeese (1920–1990) who settled in Montana in 1949.
While relatively unknown in national or international contexts, what made these artists noteworthy was their willingness to buck Montana’s Old West art tradition (as in depicting Charlie “Kid” Russell-style cowboys, Native Americans, and landscapes).
While landscape and nature were important themes in their work, their approach to creating a sense of place was more about internal connections and emotional responses to their surroundings than the mimetic work of their Montanan contemporaries who purveyed a mythologized notion of western expansion and a romanticized portrait of the 19th-century American frontier. Popular themes in 20th-century Montanan art centered on Big Sky Country landscapes and life on the range. According to Corriel, these common expressions were, at least in part, driven by tourism dollars generated by vacationers at Montana dude ranches who created a market for the myth of the West.
Montana Modernists is both an analysis of an art movement and a series of biographical sketches of its primary influencers. Corriel clearly loves the land and the artists she describes, alternating between didactic and ekphrastic passages, evoking a sense of the artworks paralleling the way the Modernists evoked their surroundings. In describing Johnson’s “East Fiddler Creek” (1967), a landscape painting of a hardscrabble wash that disappears into soft peach foothills under a stormy sky, Corriel writes the work “conveys the constant scratch of sagebrush against denimed legs.” This statement is romantic, but it’s relatable to anyone who’s hiked a similar prairie scene. While these descriptive passages are pleasant and reflective of her experience as an art writer and fiction author, her didactic writing is often bogged down by miniscule factual details and plagued by repetition of phrases and ideas, revealing the book’s academic origin.
Montana Modernists reveals a previously little-known history of the development of Modernism in a region that, in the mid-20th century, was not keen to accept deviation from mimetic and romantic realism. Fans of contemporary artists with western roots like Theodore Wadell, Jerry Rankin, and Patrick Zentz will be particularly interested in this text, as it traces the development and influences of the generation that guided them in finding their voices as artists.
Montana Modernists: Shifting Perceptions of Western Art by Michelle Corriel (2022) is published by Washington State University Press and available through the publisher and online retailers.