Maynard Dixon’s Grass Land and Ploughed Land murals for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition at San Francisco’s Treasure Island demonstrate his enduring influence as an artist of the iconic American West. The Exposition centered on the theme “Pageant of the Pacific” and specifically on Ralph Stackpole’s colossal Pacifica statue, while celebrating the completion of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. Stackpole’s sculpture, the largest of his career at 81 feet tall, personified the spirit of exploration in the Pacific as a monumental woman, standing stoically with hands raised. Dixon’s designs were painted directly onto the enormous building adjacent to Pacifica by Foster and Kleiser, the renowned advertising billboard company, and earned the nicknames Earth and Rain from the publicity department. In 1941, Treasure Island was repurposed as a naval station, resulting in the demolition of the Exposition’s buildings, Stackpole’s Pacifica and the unfortunate destruction of Dixon’s murals. Thus, the present studies for the Grass Land Mural and Ploughed Land Mural constitute some of the few surviving remnants of Dixon’s project.
Dixon once said of the significance of public works, “I believe…that one of the most important ways in which system may be expressed for the people is through the decoration of public buildings, that through interpreting subjects of American history and American conditions in our own temper we may develop an American expression.” (as quoted in D.J. Hagerty, “Visions and Images: Maynard Dixon and the American West,” from the California Academy of Sciences, Maynard Dixon: Images of the Native American, San Francisco, California, 1981, p. 21) The present murals represent just such an attempt by Dixon to develop an American visual culture. A tribute to the agricultural and industrial achievements of California, Grass Land and Ploughed Land symbolize the rich farming and cattle ranching traditions of the state. On the occasion of such triumphant technological advancements as the Golden Gate and Bay bridges and the construction of Treasure Island itself, Dixon’s murals stood as further evidence of America’s resilience. The standing figures, presumably Father Sun and Mother Earth from the Native American tradition, tower above the farmers and cattle ranchers, exemplifying Dixon’s perpetual fascination with Native American culture in the West. In his book The Art of Treasure Island from 1939, Eugen Neuhaus describes the achievement of Dixon's murals: “On one side is a decorative design, ‘Ploughed Land,’ on the opposite side ‘Grass Land.’ Both designs have a charm that results from a clear and simple use of form and color...these decorations in their straightforwardness reflect qualities long recognized in his easel paintings. The color scale is conscientiously restricted to the warm earth hues characteristic of the palette of the fresco painter.” (E. Neuhaus, The Art of Treasure Island, Berkeley, California, 1939, p. 112)
Epitomized by these murals, Dixon sought to create work that both reflected the truth of his time and inspired the American people in the midst of hardships. Fully aware of the havoc wreaked on the American people by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, he remained continually committed to capturing the natural beauty, wonder and vastness of the Western landscape and its people's traditions. Later in 1939, when Dixon and his wife left San Francisco for Tucson, he reflected on this purpose, “I’ve done all right as far as I’ve gone, but I’m not done yet. People need more than ever some realization of this country’s pioneer strength--some of its stark simplicity. It’s got to carry us through this evil period.” (as quoted in D.J. Hagerty, “Visions and Images: Maynard Dixon and the American West,” from the California Academy of Sciences, Maynard Dixon: Images of the Native American, San Francisco, California, 1981, p. 33)
The present studies were acquired around the time of the International Exposition by Aleck Ludvig Wilson, the first in a renowned family line of San Francisco architects graduating from the University of California at Berkeley. While Aleck was not a significant art collector, as his son Paul would become, he was an artist and his firm Aleck L. Wilson and Associates was highly involved in the ambitious architectural project of Treasure Island, where he would have seen Dixon's final murals.