As our Centennial year winds down (Arizona turns 101 on February 14, 2013), I thought it would be timely to indulge my fascination with George Elbert Burr, an early-20th century chronicler of the Southwest through his delicate etchings and drypoints.
I say “delicate” because of the soft and deft way his landscapes are rendered but, in fact, Burr depicted indelicate forces of nature such as thunderstorms, sand dunes and dust storms rolling across vast deserts. At the same time, he devoted his artistic attention to the iconic saguaro, ocotillo and other flora. One of my favorite Burr works, not more than 12 inches in width, is the serene “Evening in Paradise Valley, Arizona” from 1933, showing a virtually uninhabited expanse where now there are probably high-end resorts and mansions.
With titles like “Superstition Mountain, Apache Trail, Arizona” and “Moonlight, Holbrook, Arizona” it’s clear that Burr’s work as an artist took him to remote places where he was struck by the magical beauty of mesas, desert peaks, dry washes, palo verdes and the like. To me, the etchings are romantic views of an early Arizona.
About a dozen Burr drawings were on view for a couple of months at the Arizona State University Art Museum, where curators grouped Burr with Edwin Borein and Walter E. Bohl, who also excelled in drypoints and etchings of Southwestern terrain. As the museum noted, each of these artists worked in different professions before they began to make prints. They lived in various parts of the country until health considerations and their pursuit of art brought them to the desert. Burr lived in Phoenix from 1924 until his death in 1939, according to the webpage georgeelbertburr.com
Although the exhibit is no longer up at ASU, the Burton Barr Central Library has a nice selection of Burr prints on the fourth floor (go through the door on the right as you exit the elevator).
Speaking of the ASU Art Museum, though, I highly recommend seeing the Miguel Palma show in the upstairs main galleries before it leaves in mid-February. The multimedia works by this well-known Portuguese artist are of a thought-provoking nature that too often escapes our view. Palma, who spent several months in Phoenix as part of an international residency, lets his work pose questions about sustainability, the military presence in the desert, water usage, mining and technology — all the while embracing the harsh beauty of the desert. The truck at the entrance to the museum is part of the show, too, and is called the Desert Initiative Remote Shuttle. Palma’s video explains his adventures in that truck.
Here’s hoping that our appreciation of the Arizona desert in all its splendor is an enduring presence in the next 100 years of our state.