Alexandre Hogue, the southwestern landscape painter, spent much of his youth on a 50,000-acre spread not far from Dalhart, Tex. He has never cared for cities much. You see that in his art. And hear it in his words:
"Speaking for Texas," he wrote in The New York Times in 1924, "I'll say that thousands of its inhabitants have lived in New York and returned because they were disgusted by the rottenness of this place." Taos, N.M., wasn't half so bad, but then when Hogue first went there he made the trip by stagecoach. Nowadays he lives on a 240-acre farm near Oologah, Okla. Tulsa isn't far, but Hogue keeps his distance. "When I have to go into Tulsa," he wrote in 1972, "the noise and odors are sickening." His opinions haven't changed much in the past 60 years. Neither have his pictures. Hogue -- at 87 -- is still producing heartfelt, slightly ponderous portraits of the land.
Nearly 30 are on view in "Nature's Forms/Nature's Forces," his little retrospective at the National Museum of American Art. Nobody who sees Hogue's art will question his devotion. No wonder he's admired so out there in the Southwest. Hogue loves southwestern colors, southwestern buttes and grasslands and the big southwestern sky.
It is easy to imagine him in the vastness, experiencing white sunlight and the hot, stiff desert wind. His subject is enormous. But his art is oddly small.
It often feels constricted -- as if the painter had exhausted his exploring on the land. Hogue is no adventurer. His pictures have been tethered to the trustworthy, the safe. Other artists fence him in.
If you recall the Midwest "Regionalists" (Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton), or the romantic painters of the so-called Taos School (Walter Uffer, Ernest Blumenschein); if you think of the photographers who have portrayed the Southwest (the Westons, Ansel Adams), or of O'Keeffe's abstract landscapes, or of the easy-on-the-eye, easy-on-the-mind storytelling cowboy art of Remington and Russell, you have Alexandre Hogue pretty well corralled.
Like most Taos painters, Hogue flirts with at a distance, but on the whole distrusts, the "highbrow" modernists of Europe. ("Our country," Hogue complained in 1929, "is full of young artists who can never outgrow the fact that they are merely following the European herd -- just being little Ce'zannes, Derains, van Goghs, Gauguins, or whom have you . . .") Like Ansel Adams and Paul Strand, and O'Keeffe for that matter, Hogue frequently portrayed the adobe church at Taos -- which may be the most-often-pictured building in this country west of the Mississippi. Though Hogue objects when his paintings are compared to those of the midwestern Regionalists -- and though his Dust Bowl visions, unlike their lusher landscapes, are more accusatory than idyllic -- he too is enamored of one region of the country, and he too fills his pictures with rolling, rounded hills.
And his art, like theirs, has become dated. His success notably diminished after World War II. ("Before the war," wrote Hogue in 1971, "I was going full steam, but after the war new people were in the museums and somehow I just couldn't pick up where I had left off.") Hogue's symbolism, his half-concealed religiosity, now seems slightly corny. He turns his telephones into crosses. His rattlesnakes suggest the loss of Eden. His "Mother Earth Laid Bare" (1938) portrays a naked woman whose breasts and thighs and belly are topsoil-less, ruined land.
Hogue lived through the Dust Bowl of the '30s, a disaster he accurately attributed to too much plowing of the grasslands. Unlike the Farm Security Administration photographers who made their viewers mourn for Oklahoma's farmers, Hogue's paintings evoke feelings less of pity than of blame.
It is nonetheless easy to understand why Hogue is a much-beloved figure out in the Southwest. Those prosperous southwesterners who wear their boots and Stetsons to their air-conditioned offices, and who spend small fortunes on sentimental cowboy art, love all artists who appear to love the land as well as they do.
Hogue's best art is competent and meticulous. And he has never followed fads. His colors often startle, they are always nicely tuned, and his nearly abstract passages -- those desert floors and cliff faces and wind-sculptured hills -- have real power. But his virtues need not be overpraised. Contained in his show's 211-page catalogue -- which was written by Lea Rosson Delong for Tulsa's Philbrook Art Center -- is the suggestion that Alexandre Hogue is an important American painter. But the pictures on display, despite their integrity and cleanliness, cannot sustain such claims. The exhibition closes Nov. 3.