Unfortunate Tensions: Maynard Dixon and the BYU Museum of Art

The recently opened exhibition of work by Maynard Dixon, I told Sam as we walked in, offers food for the soul. On loan from the Smithsonian, for instance, one painting explores the dimensions of fear.

Among the treasures, another painting drew my attention from across the room:

The Plains 1931-1933

The clouds! The light! That dark horizon!

In the first art museum I ever entered, the Walraff Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany, a painting drew me from across room in a similar way:

Vincent Van Gogh, Langlois Bridge at Arles, 1888

I had never heard of the artist, I knew nothing about late-19th century European art. But the painting inspired feelings I hadn’t felt before. Dixon’s “The Plains” reassured me that even at my advanced age I was still susceptible to inspiration.

In 1937, Dixon sold most of his work done in the early 1930s to Brigham Young University.  Harold Clark, dean of the BYU School of Business, acquired 85 works for $2700, the equivalent of approximately $56,000 today. Several of the paintings on display in this show were done during and soon after the 1934 West Coast Longshoremen’s Strike. The strike drew violent, even lethal responses from the police, some incidents of which Dixon and his wife Dorothea Lange witnessed from their San Francisco studio. The strike lasted for 83 days and resulted in the unionization of all of the west-coast ports of the US.

As a founding officer of the BYU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors and then of the UVU Chapter of the AAUP/AFT, I have long identified with people oppressed by institutions. See my recent Dwelling in the Promised Land as a Stranger: Personal Encounters with Mormon Institutions for a collection of essays growing out that inclination.

Dixon’s paintings from the maritime strike and the Great Depression in general worked powerfully in me in yesterday for two reasons: one related to our UVU AAUP/AFT chapter’s recent struggle with our administration over due process in tenure and promotion decisions; the other because of how BYU’s professors have been put at risk by administrators acting as corporate managers.

Dixon’s “Free Speech” raises questions about rights exerted by labor organizers under threat by the police who support the oppressive employers.

Forgotten Man, 1934

Depression-era despair.

While the rich and powerful defend their corporations with the help of the police, the strikers are forced to “Keep Moving”:


Imagine these paintings in a museum owned by a Church/Corporation that generated a piece in today’s in The Salt Lake Tribune reporting that the Ecclesiastical Clearance Office fired “employees”/professors at BYU-Idaho for failure to demonstrate loyalty to teachings (including those on marriage, family, and gender), practices, and leadership of the LDS Church. The ECO employee contacted by one of the fired professors explained that firing without giving reasons is common practice: “I can tell you that any other corporation . . . might say reasons for firing are confidential. This is a common practice at corporations.”

Corporations, as Mitt Romney once explained, are people too.

No they aren’t. My friend Bonner Ritchie, professor emeritus of Organization Behavior at BYU, says it best: “All organizations are evil.” Not all people are evil.


Around the corner from the Maynard Dixon exhibition, an exhibition on Monumental Art, features….no!…a monumental work by Anselm Kiefer!

Untitled, 2016

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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5 Responses to Unfortunate Tensions: Maynard Dixon and the BYU Museum of Art

  1. roughghosts says:

    The painting The Plains has an immediate pull for anyone who has lived under the wide open skies of the plains. Could have been painted here in Alberta.



    I saw the tribune article this morning and thought of sending it this you. I needed to share the shock of this last step in silencing faculty members. An article in the Daily Herald describes the issue of censorship currently unveiled at the Orem library. It’s getting worse.


  3. Alex caldiero says:

    Totally dug this exhibition. Thanks, Scott for letting me know.


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