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"Mountain and Lake"
Oil on Masonite
23 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches
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THE EARLY YEARS: SWITZERLAND TO AMERICA, 1886-1907
CONRAD BUFF II was born on January 15, 1886 in the Swiss village of Speicher. From his earliest memory, Conrad Buff loved the grand mountains that surrounded his home town. He fondly recalled hearing farmers leading cows with big bells up to the Alps, the church bells ringing, and the local folk songs. Since childhood, Buff spent his spare time sketching. At first he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps by studying embroidery design at the School of Arts and Crafts in St. Gallen. However, once there, an inspirational teacher emphasized freedom and individuality in drawing, causing him to rethink his career path. By his third year, Buff decided that he wanted to become a fine artist and gathered the courage to tell his practically minded mother.
Unfortunately, his mother did not share his dream and promptly told him to leave home. Nearly penniless, Buff went to live with a cousin and made plans to attend the Royal Academy in Munich. While studying in Munich for the Academy’s stringent entrance exams, the little money Buff had saved ran out, forcing him to return home. He had reached a point in his life where he saw little hope for the future and therefore was determined to seek his destiny in the faraway American West.
In 1905, nineteen year old Buff passed through Ellis Island where congenial customs officials put him on the train to Wisconsin. He found work milking cows on a farm with other Swiss workers but left after learning about the terrible wages and working conditions. Soon after, he found a new position in Illinois at a cheese factory. Although he wanted to work, he felt exploited once again and quit. Buff made his way to Cheyenne, Denver, and Billings, Montana, drifting through many jobs from a saloon to an apprenticeship at a map-making company. Unfortunately, he felt slighted by nearly every employer he had come in contact with, which perhaps encouraged his resolve to work for himself later in life.
From Billings, Buff took the train to Seattle, peeling potatoes in exchange for travel. Finding limited opportunity there, he went to San Francisco, despite hearing that a recent earthquake had caused widespread damage to the city. True to the accounts, the city was devastated, and Buff headed south to Los Angeles in 1907.
ARTISTIC DEVELOPMENT: STUDY IN LOS ANGELES, 1907-1915
Although Los Angeles provided limited opportunities for artists at that time, it did provide sunshine, varied landscapes, and the Pacific coastline. Seeking to stay in Los Angeles and make a living, Conrad Buff cleverly combined his skills in house painting, drawing, and pattern making. While painting a living room in Eagle Rock, he incorporated a handmade stencil pattern of grapes. From that day, he experimented with stencil designs and color combinations to create unique, decorative spaces. Through his house painting venture, Buff became self-supporting for the first time and purchased land for a home in Eagle Rock. Although busy with work, Buff made time for easel painting, never losing sight of his goal to become a full-time artist. At this point in his career, Buff knew that he needed to further his art education.
Between 1910 and 1913 he attended the Art Students League in Los Angeles and learned certain painting techniques of the local Impressionists. He didn't stay long however, due to frustration with one instructor who regularly redrew and repainted students’ canvases according to his own ideas. Buff resented the restrictions there and as he had done with previous unsatisfactory jobs, opted to leave.
Soon after, Buff took evening classes at the Los Angeles High School with William A. Paxton. During this time, Buff painted an oil series where he experimented with brilliantly colored patterns and shapes. Prior to the advent of abstract art, Buff believed a painting’s foundation lay in how an artist arranged color and area.
In his early work, Conrad Buff never specifically adhered to a formal art school or movement. His primary inspirations were drawn from his love of color, architectural planning, and house painting. By 1915, he did begin to incorporate some aspects of California Impressionism. California Impressionism was the dominant style when Buff arrived in Los Angeles, and its influence was hard to miss. It was a regional variation of American Impressionism which found its roots with late-nineteenth century French artists whose loose brushwork and vivid colors revolutionized the art scene. Buff’s own work shared with California Impressionism an interest in direct observation and naturalistic landscapes.
OWENS VALLEY AND THE HIGH SIERRAS: 1917
In 1917, an opportunity came that would greatly expand Conrad Buff's ideas about how to approach landscape painting. California Impressionist Edgar Payne enlisted Buff’s help with a massive mural project for all eleven floors of the new Congress Hotel in Chicago. Working on the project, Buff gained valuable experience which served as a precedent for his extensive mural work later in life. The experience also cemented a friendship with Payne.
After the project’s completion, Payne invited Buff on a trip to California's Eastern Sierras along with fellow California Impressionist Franz Bischoff. The shadowed mountains set against the deep blue sky made a strong impression on the artists. Buff would continue making trips to the Sierras, embracing a life-long challenge of portraying the contrast and harmony between sky and landscape.
A COMMUNITY OF ARTISTS: LAGUNA BEACH AND LOS ANGELES, 1918-1922
Following the Sierra trip, Edgar Payne invited Conrad Buff to live with him and his wife in their new home in Laguna Beach. Buff spent the winter of 1918 sketching in the afternoon and cooking in the evenings. In a period full of creativity and camaraderie, Buff spent time with other California painters such as Jack Wilkinson Smith, Elmer Wachtel, Frank Cuprien, and Mabel Alvarez. Never comfortable with promoting himself, perhaps his interactions with these artists inspired him to pursue the next step in his artistic career.
In 1920, Buff worked up the courage to show his paintings to the associate curator of the Los Angeles Museum of Science, History, and Art. The associate curator, Mary Marsh, was also an artist and had studied with Birger Sandzen. They began sketching together and a romance ensued that led to a lifelong creative partnership and marriage. With Mary’s support, Buff exhibited in group shows and in 1921, had his first solo exhibition at the Los Angeles museum. Work from this time shows that Buff began painting on larger canvases with small color dots in lines of defined shapes.
Conrad Buff and Mary Marsh’s marriage in 1922 brought significant changes for them both. Mary left her job with the museum and moved to her husband’s small house in Eagle Rock. Although Buff continued house and decorative painting, his social circle grew thanks to Mrs. Buff’s bright and outgoing personality. They established a group of influential, artistic friends including Edward Weston, Henrietta Shore, Clarence Hinkle, and George Stojana. Buff gained further contacts and alliances by joining the prominent California Art Club. After his first entry into a CAC exhibit was juried out, he felt due to the painting’s modernist tendency, he worked as an active CAC member to champion progressive painting.
MONUMENT VALLEY AND SOUTHERN UTAH: 1923-1933
In 1923 Conrad Buff and his new wife, Mary, set out on the first of many painting excursions in Southern Utah and the Southwest. Similar to his impression of the Sierras, Buff was taken aback by the expansive, serene desert landscape and the overpowering geometric formations against the clear, blue sky. Buff’s talent didn’t go unnoticed, and in 1925 he received an invitation to participate in the Pan American Exhibition of Oil Paintings in Los Angeles.
In 1932, Buff left for another extended trip to the Southwest to produce artwork for a 1933 exhibition at the Ilsley Gallery in downtown Los Angeles. The exhibit featured many architectural pieces where defined forms, weighted by darker values at their bases, reach up to the sky like skyscrapers. Buff's show left a positive impression on the curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. They brought Buff national recognition by including the painting The Minarets in their exhibition Painting and Sculpture from 16 American Cities.
Conrad Buff’s work also attracted attention from the artist Maynard Dixon who came to see the exhibit. Buff’s style and the locale where he painted impressed Dixon and the two became friends quickly. Although Dixon was older than Buff, they had much in common. They were muralists, traveled often to the Southwest, and worked separate from dominant trends in California art. Furthermore, when painting, they both looked for shapes and colors that brought attention to a landscape’s intensity and immensity. Conrad and Mary Buff often visited Edith and Maynard Dixon’s small cabin in Mount Carmel, Utah where they enjoyed spending time together and painting the awe inspiring landscape.
MID-CAREER: EXHIBITIONS, MURALS, AND LITHOGRAPHY, 1925 - 1945
Although busier than ever before and increasingly recognized for his work, Conrad Buff welcomed new outlets and influences. In 1925, he joined and showed with a contemporary artists’ organization called The Modern Art Workers led by Stanton MacDonald-Wright. Buff shared with MacDonald-Wright a desire to dispel local opposition to Modern Art, but he differed in that he didn’t want to do so by dismantling other movements. The organization was not a high priority for Buff, and it ended before becoming a major force. Furthermore, discussions with Karl Howenstein (later director of the Otis Art Institute) about modern art and Freud intrigued Buff.
At this time, Buff met Los Angeles architects Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler. Their work, influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, demonstrated to Buff the monumental effects that one could achieve by interlocking large unadorned shapes. In Buff’s paintings, sunlit and shadowed forms like walls and beams, became increasingly flat and mutually dependent. Visual balance became a predominant concern for Buff.
Buff’s desire to reintegrate painting with architecture naturally flowed into his mural work. In 1928, Buff completed three murals which depicted a Zion scene with spectacular Utah vistas for a Mormon Church’s social hall. The murals demonstrate that through careful study, Buff understood the expansive Utah landscape. Soon after, Buff exhibited his work alongside Lorser Feitelsen, Nathalie Newking, and Hanson Puthuff for a group exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum. By the end of the 1920’s, thorough a combination of talent and tenacity, Buff was recognized as a leading painter and muralist on the Los Angeles art scene.
The 1930’s Great Depression made it difficult to find work, but Buff pursued various opportunities to support his growing family of four. Conrad Buff III, who was later to become a well-known architect, was born in 1926. Then David, a Down’s syndrome child who sadly lived only into his teens, was born in 1929. With new needs to meet, Buff found work painting a mural for the Guaranty Building and Loan offices in Pasadena. Before finishing the Pasadena mural, Buff heard that the Southern California Edison Company constructed a new office building in downtown Los Angeles. Buff suggested to the contractors that the building should contain scenes form the Sierras due to Edison's power dependence on the Eastern Californian mountain range. Management agreed, and Buff executed six panels with fellow artist Barse Miller. Buff’s panels, entitled White Coal, feature enormous figures symbolic of power and light set against the Sierra Mountains. Local critics applauded Buff’s work for the Edison building, and he soon received a major mural commission for the First National Bank of Phoenix. The Phoenix mural shows activities of the model American city. Making a living during the 1930’s required intentionality, and Buff rose to the occasion.
Due to difficulty in selling paintings in the depth of the Depression, Buff turned to lithography for its economic accessibility. He loved the tonal variety and technical detail he could achieve in his lithographs. Employing the same careful drawing and architectural elements exemplified in his monumental landscape paintings, lithography allowed Buff to exaggerate the tension between light and dark and create heightened visual drama. Buff was so enthusiastic about lithography that despite his shyness, he gave a lecture on the printing process at the Los Angeles Museum.
In addition to completing his own works during the depression era, Buff also participated in President Roosevelt’s Public Works of Art Project which employed artists nationwide to decorate public buildings and parks. For his first project, Buff painted a mural for the Santa Monica High School entitled Westward. Buff derived the mural’s subject from a historical Mormon expedition to the treacherous south eastern region of Utah. Two hundred and fifty pioneers with wagons and cattle attempted to make their way through almost impassible terrain. The mural, with its masterful composition, minuscule figures and wagon, and overpowering red rock background, demonstrates man’s subordinate relation to nature’s power. In addition, Buff documented the construction of the Hoover Dam located on the Colorado River. Buff’s PWAP work expressed man’s struggle against formidable obstacles, an appropriate theme for the Great Depression era.
The 1940’s brought changes for the U.S. and for Buff. He became less involved with the Federal Art Projects and mural painting as the country turned its attention to foreign affairs. When the U.S. joined the Allies in the Second World War, Buff served as the local air raid warden for his home in Eagle Rock. In addition, Buff’s son Conrad III eventually joined the navy. Despite the turmoil around him, the artist spent many quiet hours painting in Southern Utah’s red-rock country. He showed Southern Utah landscapes at his second solo exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum in 1940.
Buff’s desert paintings at this time began to hint at his later interest in minimalism. Oftentimes, one would see in Buff’s composition a simple but powerful split between sky and land. In other paintings, Buff successfully balanced a minute attention to detail though labor intensive cross-hatching with an acute awareness of overall pattern and shape. One painting, Agatha Peak was purchased for the Encyclopedia Britannica’s collection of American Art, signaling the national art community's respect for Conrad Buff as a significant American painter.
ILLUSTRATIONS FOR CHILDREN'S PUBLICATIONS: 1937-57
In the mid 1930's, Buff began selling silkscreen prints for extra income. Mary Buff promoted the prints at various venues including local libraries and schools. One school administrator told Mary that the schools needed books that promoted a positive image of Native Americans. The Buffs sent a print to the Viking Press in New York City and the press agreed to publish a book for children on Native Americans. Mary and Conrad Buff’s firsthand study of the Navajos resulted in the first book they made together, Dancing Cloud, published in 1937. Conrad’s skill in illustration paired with Mary’s skill in writing and research opened new possibilities for the couple.
Their next book focused on a young boy growing up in Switzerland. The book presented the childhood Conrad wished he had and provided incentive for the couple to visit Buff’s hometown of Speicher, Switzerland. In 1938, the family took a boat to France then traveled by car through Europe to Switzerland. The trip must have been powerful for the artist, to return to the scenery that inspired him as a child while also recalling the discontent he faced there. On his return home, Buff focused on paintings for the book, but he did paint a number of Plein Air paintings and larger paintings upon his return to Europe in 1947.
In addition to easel painting, Buff continued to write books with his partner and wife. In 1942, Mary and Conrad Buff published their third book together entitled Dash and Dart. The charming book told a story about deer and other animals that Buff often painted and that he and Mary enjoyed. Another book published in 1949 entitled Peter’s Pinto, recounted a young Mormon boy’s adventures in Southern Utah. The book received praise for its gentle stand for religious tolerance. In addition, they wrote a book that explored the Colorado River which Buff believed was integral to the Western Landscape.
The royalties from the publications helped supplement the family’s income while writing also gave the Buffs a chance to share their appreciation for nature and humanity. So successful had the pair become that after writing more books, they accepted an invitation to attend the 29th annual International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists Congress in Tokyo in 1957. Buff was enthralled with Japan's people, culture and geography, and he completed a series of paintings documenting his experience.
THE LATER YEARS: BANDS OF COLOR, 1960 - 1975
During the last quarter century of his life, following the Second World War, Buff enjoyed his work and family. Although serious and focused, Buff had a generous heart for those close to him. He spent many casual evenings enjoying food and conversation with family and friends, and many mornings and afternoons painting in his studio. So engrained would Buff become in his work that his grandson, who affectionately called him “Gaga”, oftentimes had to lure him out of his studio to take a break for lunch. Through hard work and discipline, Buff had achieved his childhood dream to paint full time.
Buff’s later paintings continued to genuinely convey nature’s grandeur, weight, and intensity. The magnificent blue sky juxtaposed with its complimentary color orange consistently fascinated him. At the same time, his work evolved. Buff eliminated details and instead painted with thicker brush strokes creating broad color bands and basic interlocking shapes. Buff’s later work brings to mind his early oil experiments where he explored various color and area arrangements. For Buff, a shape’s visual strength and a color’s emotional and intellectual energy took precedence over all other concerns.
Member: California Art Club.
Exhibited: California Art Club, 1920-30; Painters and Sculptors of Los Angeles, 1920-37; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1923, 1929, 1937, 1940; San Diego Museum of Art, 1925; Modern Art Worksers, 1926; Stendahl Galleries, Los Angeles, 1927, 1934; Carmelita House, Los Angeles, 1927; Oakland Art Gallery, 1932; Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1939, Commonwealth Club, Los Angeles, 1950.
Works held: British Museum, London, England; California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco; Detroit Institute of Art, MI; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Los Angeles Public Library; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC; Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach; San Diego Museum of Art.
Murals: Guarantee Building and Loan Association of Los Angeles; Mormon Church, Huntington Park; Phoenix National Bank, AZ; Southern California Edison Building, Los Angeles; William Penn Hotel, Whittier.
Buff, Libby and George Stern. The Art and Life of Conrad Buff. 2000.
Hughes, Edan M. Artists In California 1786-1940. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. Sacramento: Crocker, Art Museum, 2002. N. pag. 2 vols. Print.