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by Margarita Nieto

“Landscape", oil
on board, 23 x 32"

"Lake and Mountains",
oil on board, 23 3/4 x 32".

"Mountain", oil on
masonite, 22 2/3 x 35".

"Landscape", oil on
board, 16 x 15 3/4".
(George Stern Fine Arts, West Hollywood) The modernist aesthetic that painter Conrad Buff (1886-1975) developed in the almost three quarters of a century that he spent working in Los Angeles and Southern California reveals, yet again, the local experimentations with modernism that are still being assessed and understood. But in looking closely at this work it is obvious that Buff was, if not overtly aware of the tendencies and experimentation with an emerging abstraction, certainly a practitioner of a language which fit well into its parameters. The innovative role that this painter, lithographer, illustrator and muralist played in local history is pivotal to this retrospective, which will include nearly fifty paintings drawn from the artist’s estate. Also featured is the publication of a new book on the artist, The Art & Life of Conrad Buff, by Will South.

Born in Speicher, Switzerland, Buff trained as a lace designer at the School of Arts and Crafts in St. Gallen, Switzerland, and later studied in Munich. He arrived in the United States in 1905, settling to Wisconsin where he briefly worked as a sheepherder before coming to Los Angeles in 1906. While working here as a house painter, he began making trips into the deserts of Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. This encounter with the Southwestern landscape was the initial reason for his turning to painting. He also began a life-long friendship with painter Maynard Dixon, who often joined him on his trips to the Southwestern desert.

Buff’s passion for landscape painting was concomitant with the times: landscape painting was the genre cultivated by many artists in Southern California during the first four decades of the last century, and it produced a number of masters. Yet Buff’s approach to nature and its awesome grandeur differed in specific painterly directions from the plein aire style which dominated the local scene. Instead of the interplay between light and color, a bright, bold palette appears. Instead of referencing to Postimpressionism, a tendency toward abstraction emerges.

Buff’s palette has the boldness of the fauves but it is decidedly Southwestern, influenced without a doubt by the strong colors of the landscape itself and more subtly, by the turquoises, sienna browns and yellows associated with a Native American aesthetic.

There is a strong tendency toward an architectural spatial vision. Cliffs resemble skyscrapers and their layers of strata become foundations. Geometric in his compositions, he even explored a spatial dichotomy, often dividing the canvas in two, creating two views, two corresponding segments of the same vision.

Two bi-lateral influences come to mind in looking at Buff’s works. One is the woodblock prints associated with the Jungendstil and Art Nouveau movements in Europe, and the Japanese woodblock. The stark contrasts and the rectilinearity of the works is almost draftsmanlike in approach. In Mountains by the Lakeside those parallels are clearly evident in the treatment of the white mountains, the lake and the trees.

Buff utilized broad brushstrokes and at times a pointillisme. There is an opacity that anticipates acrylic. Utilizing oil on board, he sketched directly onto the board, conceiving the painting as one with the sketch.

Even though landscapes predominate in his work, Buff also turned his attention to still lifes and portraits, including self-portraits, revealing studies of passing time, of a face as craggy and strong as the landscape he immortalized.