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.