|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|The following text was published in Southwest Art magazine, December 2009|
By Norman Kolpas
With its picturesque adobe buildings set along narrow streets and alleys, Santa Fe seems like an artist’s dream location. Evidence of this is everywhere: in paintings of the City Different found in local galleries or the occasional in-progress canvas set up on an easel at a scenic vantage point.
You won’t catch Daniel Morper, however, strolling Santa Fe’s streets in search of inspiration. Instead you’ll find him down by the old train depot, a short walk from his home near the downtown plaza. Behind the station are the rail yards, where Santa Fe’s strict zoning laws don’t apply to the clapboard sheds and corrugated warehouses that serve the locomotives, boxcars, Pullman coaches, and cabooses passing through.
“The rail yards in Santa Fe are the only place here that hasn’t been fixed up for the real estate market,” Morper says. “It is quite wonderful, with warehouses and dirt and gravel and empty space you can contemplate in. Near my house, it’s the place where I can see the most sky, where I can get out to see the sunset.”
You can hear in those words the romantic tug of the rails on Morper’s heart. And you can experience his feelings for that setting even more powerfully in the latest paintings this accomplished artist has produced canvases that subtly capture the way the rails have become part of a romantic vision of the American West while also synthesizing the artist’s own past.
Morper has spent much of his life crisscrossing the nation, and this traveling spirit permeates his work. His father was a lawyer with the Veterans Administration, and the family moved often from Morper’s birthplace in Fort Benning, GA, to Chicago, Seattle, St. Paul, and Arlington, VA. “I think there is definitely a feeling of wanting to go back to places in my paintings,” he acknowledges, “of trying to reacquaint myself with the feelings, a mood, a sense of being there.”
Further back than he can remember, Morper has used art to connect with the world around him. “My mother recounts that my kindergarten teacher was amazed by all the details I put into a picture I had done of a house,” he says. “A young child generally draws symbols of things, but I had made it more concrete.” By the time he was 10, while the family was living in St. Paul, that love of detail found expression in an interest in bird-watching and an admiration for John James Audubon’s Birds of America, an original copy of which was on display at the local Audubon Society.
Still, Morper says of his childhood, “I had no sense then that people actually did art for a living. I just painted or drew as the spirit moved me every once in a while, as more of a recreation.”
Following his father’s path, he planned to be a lawyer, completing his undergraduate work at the University of Notre Dame before attending Columbia Law School in New York City. He spent seven years practicing labor law, including stints representing farm workers in California and working with the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, DC.
But Morper grew dissatisfied with his career choice and turned his attention back to art. In 1972 he took six months off from work to visit the great art museums of Europe. Occasionally he’d do a painting, including one large abstract work that was included in the 1974 biennial show at New York’s Corcoran Museum of Art. Finally he decided to make the break and moved to Manhattan to pursue a career in art.
At that time Morper made a decision to paint in a representational vein. “I felt a need to connect to a specific environment, just to record my experience there, which required a very precise realism,” he explains. In 1978 his first one-man show sold out, and critics praised his highly detailed images of the tops of buildings against vibrant blue skies.
Looking at those canvases from two decades ago, you can see the same meditative quietude found in such current paintings as Waiting to Load or The Material Ghost. Morper says that their sense of melancholy is similar to the feelings evoked by the works of Edward Hopper, an artist whom he greatly admires. “My paintings come from someone reflecting on a quiet space,” he says. “You sense it’s a space fraught with some emotion.”
With success in New York came a desire to reconnect with the wide-open spaces he had visited as a child. He started taking painting trips out West every spring, producing vast landscapes to complement the more constrained vistas of his city scenes. Around the time Morper was rediscovering the West, he also met artist Carol Mothner. They fell in love, settled in Santa Fe in 1985, and married soon thereafter. “It’s a great thing when the person you’re living with understands what you’re doing,” Morper says. “Each of us can give constructive criticism without demoralizing the other person.”
From South Dakota’s Badlands to the Grand Canyon, Morper found in the West endless forms to delight and challenge him. “I spent a number of years working on stylistic strategies to allow more atmosphere to come into the paintings,” he says. “And I finally found that the easiest and probably best answer is getting the light right, which makes everything real, and then the painting takes on a life of its own.”
Light plays a crucial part in his rail yard paintings setting a mood, giving the canvases an inner glow, and making the rails themselves come sinuously alive as they catch the rays of the rising or setting sun. Illuminations, for example, literally draws the viewer into a scene at the Santa Fe rail yards with tracks brought to life by the setting sun. That same sunlight richly burnishes buildings and casts a lengthy shadow that lends deep mystery to the solitary figure of a woman standing near an old caboose. Such elements irresistibly intrigue the imagination, a deliberate goal. “I see painting as constructing a stage, which will allow a story to be played out,” Morper says.
Even more theatrical is Toys. Starting with his familiar neighborhood rail yards, Morper eliminated all buildings from the scene to create “a vast landscape, an indeterminate place” in which he positioned a boxcar, a passenger car, and a child’s tricycle elements that feel as poignantly alienated as the characters in a Beckett play. Reflecting the sky are puddles left by a swift-moving storm still visible in the background, which adds an enthralling sense of time’s passage to the otherwise still scene and causes the viewer’s gaze to shift repeatedly between the precisely rendered foreground objects and the vast landscape in the distance.
Despite his focus on the rails, Morper still approaches such paintings as landscapes—breathtaking panoramas in which the machine has indelibly made its mark. In Enlightment, two pairs of gleaming tracks converge in a snow-covered field and then disappear into the sunset. In Evening Stillness, a rail line snakes alongside southern New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache bird sanctuary, where the empty tracks underscore the stillness of sandhill cranes standing in water that reflects the evening sky.
Such overtly romantic images have led some critics in the past to label Morper a luminist, referring to the group of mid-19th-century American artists who strove to capture the spirit behind the material world through their depiction of light. While not actually applying that label to himself, he does acknowledge that the description fits his own works. “Luminism depends on a fairly quiet composition, with an all-enveloping light and an attention to detail,” he says.
If you must use the term, however, at least call Morper a 21st-century luminist, one who finds spirit as much in the objects of the rail yard as in earth, water, and sky. “I really want both natural and man-made elements in my paintings,” he says. “That’s what I consider the logical landscape.”
|Biography from LewAllen Galleries at the Santa Fe Railyard:|
|Landscape painter Daniel Morper is known for his naturalistic, light-saturated images of such diverse scenes as views upward into the skies above Manhattan, scenic panoramas of the badlands and canyons of the American West, and nostalgic paintings of rural landscapes and townscapes. In 2008 LewAllen Contemporary presented the first retrospective exhibition covering the full scope of Morper’s career, from his Manhattan cityscapes of the 1970s, up to and including his portraits of the old Santa Fe Railyard.|
“Morper rewards looking.” So says well-known art critic and historian Peter Frank in the catalogue for LewAllen Contemporary’s retrospective exhibition. Frank adds: “Morper has a knack for finding the spectacular in the mundane…emphasizing – but not exaggerating – the skew of a vantage, the force and weight of a horizon, the surprise and poignancy of an object silhouetted against a sky.” By combining a pre-modernist regard for the meaning of nature with a modernist’s search for elemental vision and post-modern exactitude, Morper has, in Peter Frank’s view, “helped to bring about a veritable renaissance in American landscape painting.”
Another critic has noted, “Morper’s style borders the edge of photo-realism but is filled with metaphor: stunning Southwest light and enough painterly touches to remind viewers that they are looking at hand-painted expressive illusions and not imitations of photography.”
Peter Frank first celebrated Morper’s unique take on American landscape painting in a January 1979 review in ARTnews praising Morper’s solo exhibition at the G. W. Einstein gallery in New York.
Born in Fort Benning, Georgia, Morper earned his BA at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and later studied at the Corcoran Museum School of Art in Washington, DC. He received a law degree from Columbia University in New York and practiced law before devoting himself full-time to painting.
His landscapes have been exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the United States for three decades including Cleveland Museum of Art, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Philbrook Museum of Art and Fort Wayne Museum of Art.
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