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Santa Elena Cliffs at Big Bend   2001, Oil on linen, 41″ x 44″

Amherst, Massachusetts, where Margaret Jean lives, was the whole world to Emily Dickinson. Jean the 19th century poet very much and has paid homage to her by creating a boxed edition of landscape etchings to accompany less familiar Dickinson poems. But Amherst is not Jean’s only universe. Each year, for more than a decade, she has gone to the American Southwest to gather sketches, watercolors and photographs that will be the background information she needs for major paintings. Jean was born and raised in Austin, Texas, and the Big Skies of the West will always draw her back, if only to visit.

Jean has applied the lessons of modernism to the classic, hallowed scenery of the West. She isolates a feature or streamlines the actual contours of a place to make it more expressive. The paradox is that with Jean, simplification has the effect of intensifying the feelings and emotions a landscape can carry.

One of her inspirations is obvious, Georgia O’Keeffe. Throughout the many decades she spent in the West, O’Keeffe refined her vision, reducing it often to a mere suggestion of a landscape. For Jean, her early small watercolors, done when she was teaching in north Texas, are some of O’Keeffe’s most distinctive images. Milton Avery’s late paintings are also an influence for Jean.

A feature of many of Jean’s Texas and southwestern landscapes is a “big sky.” Her painting “Big Bend Cactus” demonstrates her proclivity for audacious placement. The cactus, with its bright yellow flowers, is at eye level, growing from the middle of the bottom edge of the painting. It doesn’t block the view of the distant mountain, but it certainly competes with it. Its triangular shape mimics the mountain and suggest that the lack of its size in relation to the mountain belies its strength.

Jean often presents a desert landscape that is strangely sheltering and intimate. Many of her landforms assume soft folds that are unexpectedly comforting. The message here is that nature, however wild, can also accommodate. But it also means that one would be especially cruel to disturb the essence of this part of creation.

At a distance, the essentially abstract quality of Jean’s imagery reveals itself strongly. At a time when much of the art world is unsure about abstraction’s future, Margaret Jean, like some other incisive artists, is in her own way, marrying abstraction’s principles to the American scene, to the benefit of both.

William Zimmer
New York City, November 2003
(Edited for Margaret Jean Taylor website)

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