Most Utahns remember painter Doug Snow best for his epic clash with the Utah Supreme Court in 1998.
Snow's run-in with the justices wasn't legal in nature, and only indirectly related to the notion of freedom of artistic expression. Snow had created a 19-foot-high, 15-foot-wide painting for the new Scott M. Matheson Courts Building, into which the Utah Supreme Court was moving.
A selection committee had chosen Snow's "Conflict and Resolution" painting to be hung behind the Supreme Court bench. The painting captures the aftermath of a powerful thunderstorm over Utah's canyon country. Snow and a selection committee felt it was an apt metaphor for justice.
Despite Snow's stature as one of the state's most respected artists, some of the state justices took exception to his bold painting, arguing that their court "is not meant to be an art gallery." But many art enthusiasts believe that Snow's dramatic and towering depiction of nature and the land may have made the justices and their arguments over human disputes seem insignificant by comparison.
"It's a powerful painting and the justices feared it was distracting to lawyers and people in court," says Frank McEntire, curator of the Snow retrospective "Final Light." "They wanted people focused on them as the symbol of justice. It became a battle of symbols."
In the end, the justices spent $26,000 to cover Snow's $70,000 work with a gray curtain. The painting is revealed only when the court isn't in session.
"Final Light," which includes an early study for the Supreme Court work, is on display at the Salt Lake Art Center (through Oct. 22) and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (through Jan. 8).
Former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Zimmerman, who was on the selection committee and loved Snow's painting, says the problem was mostly the scale of the work, which has been renamed "Capitol Reef."
"It was an art-critic kind of thing," Zimmerman says. "The sheer size makes it striking. Nobody realized it was going to be that big. A portrait of Brigham Young that big would have been a problem."
Snow's electrifying abstract expressionism colliding with Utah's redrock the same artistic friction that meant curtains for "Conflict and Resolution" is evident in many of the 36 paintings in the exhibition.
The artist's theater background comes through in the paintings, McEntire says. "His paintings show a bit of theatrical flair. They have a dramatic quality."
After Snow returned to his hometown of Salt Lake City from New York in the early 1960s, he embraced southern Utah. Eventually in 1990 he moved to Teasdale.
"He became enamored with the land," McEntire says. Snow's later works, in particular, bridge the gap between abstract expressionism and realistic landscapes by leaving a patch of sky, a few trees or a rock face recognizable what McEntire calls a "fragment of the familiar."
"It's an abstract approach," McEntire says, "but in the end, it tells you it's a landscape."
Snow told McEntire he was content painting in southern Utah: "This place is it," the artist said. "I honestly think art in this country would be a more meaningful force if more artists took advantage of where they are planted."
Snow was painting on the morning before he died in a 2009 highway rollover near Sigurd. McEntire had had a long conversation with him a week before the accident and found the 82-year-old painter excited, as ever, about his work.
"He wanted to do another mural," McEntire says. "He was ready to rumble again."
As for the Supreme Court painting, McEntire hopes someday to see the curtain removed and the iconic painting embraced by another, possibly more humble, generation of justices.
firstname.lastname@example.org Snow's 'Final Light'
P A retrospective of the paintings of V. Douglas Snow is jointly hanging at the Salt Lake Museum of Art and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
When • Through Oct. 22 at the Salt Lake Art Center and through Jan. 8 at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
Info • 801-328-4201 or www.SLArtCenter.org and 801-581-7332 or UMFA.utah.edu
Address • SLAC, 20 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City; and UMFA, 410 Campus Center Drive, University of Utah, Salt Lake City
Tickets • Salt Lake Art Center is free; $7 admission at the UMFA; $5, seniors and youth.