Beckoned Into Landscape: The Paintings of Dale Livezey

By Rick Newby

“At dusk, things take on a light-life
of their own: greens glow, whites
shine, browns grow black…”

-Eamon Grennan

Montana painter Dale Livezey is a poet of dusk and of daybreak. He has always been drawn to the swiftly changing light, the intensities of color, that come at sunset (and at dawn). He nurtures an obsession with the play of shadow in folds of landscape (in the depths of gullies, at the verge of forests, along unruly clusters of willows) – and he delights in the moody changeability of these magic times between night and day. There is a contemplative, almost prayerful quality to Livezey’s dramatic and serene evocations of real (and wholly imagined) places at their most striking.

These landscapes (for nearly all of Livezey’s production is landscape, with the occasional still life and rare portrait) capture western hillsides and mountain slopes, deep forest and sweep of open country, creeks and high lake, coulees and river valleys, and the ever-present vastness of the Montana sky. They speak of place, but even more of perception – and of perception attached to feeling. They are, in the bes sense, emotional landscapes; they call up – through an alchemy of pigment, compositional rightness, and painterly skill – emotions that reside in every beholder.

Almost entirely self-taught, Dale Livezey has schooled himself in the western landscape, immersing his vision in both the sharply etched beauties of the Rocky Mountain Front (at the ravishing margin between mountain and prairie) and in the more modest pleasures of central Montana, where tablelands afford the greatest drama and a simple coulee can hold your eye for hours.

But Livezey has also taken as his principal teachers two American artists, Maynard Dixon and Wolf Kahn, a pair of painters – mavericks like Livezey – who internalized the lessons of modernism while never rejecting the rendering, however simplified and intensified, of the visible world of landscape. In Dixon, Livezey discovered a painter of nearly Cubist landscapes who felt powerfully that the West “is spiritually important to America.” And in Kahn, he found a daring colorist who, in the words of art historian Meyer Schapiro, “makes the abstraction and representation at the same time.”

Following his mentors’ leads, Dale Livezey has turned away from the conventional rendering of a detailed realism in favor of a dynamic and simplified vocabulary of planes and cubic forms (in the mode of Dixon) and a palette that sometimes stretches into the heightened “untrue” colors that express a truer reality (as with Wolf Kahn).

Unlike many painters of the West, Livezey is not interested in narrative. Rather than tell a story, he hopes to afford viewers emotions akin to those they might feel in front of a landscape on the Rocky Mountain Front, say, or at the foot of a tableland on the Montana prairie. He rarely includes any trace of the human in his paintings, “or even an animal,” because these traces of living beings suggest narratives that can distract from the purely visual impact. In fact, he recently said, “I have found that I’m more attracted to abstract painting than to representational work. The artist is not trying to tell you anything. The viewer is completely free. Personally, when I’m out in a beautiful place in nature, I feel a similar freedom.”

But unlike abstractions, Livezey’s paintings do speak directly to our memories of places and the feelings that these particular places evoke. He adds that he hopes those who view his paintings are “comforted by the non-narrative quality and beckoned into the painting. This beckoning aspect is something that a landscape can offer that few abstract paintings can.”

Working exclusively in oils (except for the rare block print), Livezey paints full time, but at a pace that meets the demands of his imagination. His is not a swift expressionist brush seeking an effect of spontaneity; rather he prefers to work slowly, searching through many sessions – wet paint applied to dry, night after night – to achieve a surface enlivened and deepened by highly charged layers of underpainting.

This approach, developed over thirty years, enables Livezey to create paintings that are emotionally and spiritually resonant, somehow right, even when they depict places that exist only in the painter’s imagination (a surprising number of Livezey’s landscapes cannot be found in the real world).

Of this role of invention in his paintings, Livezey recently said,

My paintings are more and more fictional landscapes. I find it more liberating to paint landscapes out of my head than being chained to documentation. In the painting process, I can establish a dialog with the painting as it is being created. I start with only a rough idea of what the painting will eventually be. As elements take shape, they demand other elements for a “proper” balance both in composition and color, and I respond. This process can be time consuming, but very rewarding. I think, for abstract painters this process if very similar.

Montana fiction writer Peter Fromm, the covers of whose books are often graced by Livezey paintings, says of the quality of “rightness” in the artist’s work: “Oftentimes I’ll work for weeks, months, just trying to fix a story in a place, a vary particular place – nothing that blows your ideas of landscape out the door, just something so everyday that it takes a second glance to realize its incredible beauty. Then I’ll happen upon one of Dale’ paintings and realize that the place has been there all along, perfectly realized on his canvases. He does it to me every time.”

A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky is a landmark in the literature of westward expansion, and Guthrie’s phrase still resonates with many westerners. It is no accident then that, when the 1947 novel was reissued in 1992, the publishers chose a Dale Livezey sky painting, Evening Glow, as the appropriate cover image. And when the collection of literary essays, Writing Montana, was published in 1996, it is small wonder that the Montana Center for the Book selected a Livezey landscape, Ridge over Smith Creek, for the cover, as clearly embodying “the endurance, the realism, the various forms of terse eloquence” that characterize, in the works of critic William Bevis, the best of Montana literature.

The fruit of deep commitment by an artist for whom the act of painting landscape is a spiritual practice, the paintings in this exhibition call forth our dreams and our memories – of landscapes we have loved or imagined we might. This exhibition proves Dale Livezey to be a singular painter of the American West, a true voice of this spiritually important place.

(This essay appeared in a 2007 catalog for a Dale Livezey exhibition at the Stremmel Galley in Reno, Nevada. An earlier version of this of this essay appeared in the catalog accompanying the exhibition, Open County: The Landscapes of Dale Livezey, mounted by the Holter Museum of Art, Helena, Montana, 2001.)