Return to innocence
THE LANDSCAPES OF DANIEL MORPER
In his later works, landscape painter Daniel Morper (1944-2016) depicted the Santa Fe Railyard before its revitalization. His paintings convey a sense of history and time, and he captured moments of beauty in unexpected places — a signal station on a lonely stretch of rail, or an old metal drum awash in the late afternoon light of a summer sun. He was equally adept at painting urban landscapes and was known for his striking views of New York and the Grand Canyon. LewAllen Galleries (1613 Paseo de Peralta) opens a memorial exhibit of Morper’s works on Friday, Oct. 7, with a 5 p.m. reception. On the cover is a detail of Morper’s 2004 painting At Day’s End, oil on canvas (the remainder of the image is to the right).
Morper’s treatment of light is often dramatic and atmospheric. While his paintings evince a contemplative stillness, their light is stunning, saturating many of his compositions with golden sunset hues.
Alook back at 19th-century American landscape painting reveals a world quite different from our own. But in the paintings of Daniel Morper, there is an affinity with the idyllic, sun-dappled, virgin landscapes of the past. In his cityscapes, skyscrapers replace mountains; in more rural landscapes, roads and low buildings crowd out the open vistas and rolling hills of the American West. But the emphasis on natural beauty and light, which reflects on the human-made, gives one pause to regard his urban scenes in a new way: Morper’s works treat these settings as though they, too, were pastoral landscapes. “In his various series, and especially in the relationship of one series to the next, it would seem that Morper is seeking to recapitulate and to update the scope of earlier American landscape painting, the kind of painting that unabashedly and unselfconsciously celebrated the new land while it was still relatively new,” wrote art critic Peter Frank in a 2008 catalogue essay, “Daniel Morper: In the American Way.”
Morper’s subject matter belongs to the 20th century, but his style and techniques hark back through the intervening decades to the days of the Hudson River School and their romanticized visions of America. The works also derive influence from 20th-century art. Frank notes comparisons between Morper’s paintings and the panoramic landscapes of Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt but states that “later American landscape painting can also be found in Morper’s artistic DNA.” In some of his works’ urban settings, for instance, one senses the influence of Edward Hopper’s dramatic and cinematic style. Morper, a nationally recognized and influential painter, stayed true to America’s legacy of landscape painting while also keeping it relevant.
Morper, who died on April 8, is represented by LewAllen Galleries. A memorial exhibition for the painter opens Friday, Oct. 7. Morper was born in Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1944. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1966 and earned a law degree from Columbia in 1969. “His father had been a lawyer,” Morper’s widow, artist Carol Mothner, told Pasatiempo. At California Rural Legal Assistance, Morper worked with growers to uphold civil rights laws. “But he really wanted to be an artist,” Mothner said. “He went to the Corcoran Museum School for maybe a month. He was pretty much self-taught.”
Mothner, whose recent exhibition at Nüart Gallery, Aloft, was inspired, in part, by Morper’s love of birding, first met him in Santa Fe through a mutual friend with whom she attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. When they met, however, Mothner was already married to author Robert Mayer. “Daniel lived in New York at the time but would come out West to paint every year. He would stop by my apartment to say hello and I would give him lunch or I would give him dinner and that went on for about four years. One year he came out and I was no longer married and that was it. That was in 1984. We were together ever since then.”
Morper’s landscapes capture a different sense of place than those of his forebears, and few of his visions of the West depict pristine views uninterrupted by man’s incursion on the land. His South Valley – Beef Pro, an oil painting from 1992, for instance, is a panoramic, welcoming scene with trucks, tanks, electric poles, and a car driving past on the highway. But where other painters might consider such sights a blight on the land, under Morper’s hand, this scene of rural industry feels like a contemporary take on 19th-century landscapes replete with Native villages. The mood is essentially the same.
Morper’s treatment of light is often dramatic and atmospheric. While his paintings evince a contemplative stillness, their light is stunning, saturating many of his compositions with golden sunset hues, as in his painting Colorado, Day’s End from 2009. His depictions of twilight scenes are breathtaking in their ability to evoke moods in the viewer. Seeing them is akin to being there in person, as in the 2008 painting New
Ties, a Santa Fe Railyard scene where one can almost taste winter in the lowering sky. His more pristine landscapes, such as those of the Grand Canyon, can be loose and gestural while still providing a sense of rich detail. “It’s incredible to look at his brushstrokes and you’d think he used a size zero-zero-zero brush, but no, he got that detail with a wide brush,” Mothner said. “New York and the Grand Canyon were probably his favorite subject matter.” Morper was a realist and a colorist, but also a documentarian, capturing moments as they are. This documentary ability can be seen in his now-historic depictions of the Railyard before its revitalization. Morper, who made numerous paintings of train scenes in his later career, envisioned railcars as the silent remnants of a bygone world. “When he took on the Railyard, it was around the same time it was becoming something else, something polished. It was not old Santa Fe anymore — and Daniel, little by little, wasn’t himself anymore, either.”
Morper’s death came at the end of a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. He wasn’t diagnosed until 2005, according to Mothner, but she noticed that his memory was failing as early as 2000. Over the next 16 years, his condition worsened. “He did a few of his best works in 2006, but the difference was the toll that it took on him. To make sense of the anatomy of a cloud, say, was much harder for him, but he could still do it. The hardest thing for him was knowing that whatever it was that was in his brain, he couldn’t translate it to the canvas.”
Friends continued to take him on outdoor excursions. He still enjoyed birding trips with his wife, but he could no longer identify the different species, a disconsolate denouement for an artist who, as a child of eleven, was able to identify so many birds that he attracted the interest of the Audubon Society, which enlisted him in its annual Christmas Count of native bird populations. In fact, according to Mothner, John James Audubon, along with Thomas Moran and Karl Bodmer, was among his favorite artists.
The memorial exhibit offers a glimpse into Santa Fe’s recent past, and it seems fitting that his Railyard paintings are being shown in the same district that Morper chose as subject matter. If he mourned the changes to the Railyard, there is no overt condemnation of gentrification in those works. There is no social or political message. He painted locales as they existed on their own terms, and perhaps that sense of acceptance is what allows his paintings to be beautiful without being idealized, to be real without being didactic.
Daniel Morper: In Memoriam: The Life of a Landscape Painter Reception 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7; through Nov. 6 LewAllen Galleries, 1613 Paseo de Peralta, 505-988-3250