Gordon Mortensen, “Winter Sunset,” 1979

This semester, Assistant Professor of Art History Jennifer Borland’s students explored the collection in their final assignment for ART 2613: Art History Survey II. As a group, students did research and visual analysis of an object of their choice from the OSU Art Collection. This week’s post is based on an in-class presentation by Mauresa Hankinson, Stephanie Addison, Kyra Guffey and Sam Valliere.

Winter Sunset is a reduction woodcut created by Gordon Mortensen in 1979. Mortensen is originally from North Dakota, but he attended college in Minnesota at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. At MCAD, he discovered an interest in the woodcut process after many years of painting portraits. For most of his woodcuts, he starts with a watercolor painting. He copies the painting onto on a wood block with ink, and when content with the drawing, he carves out the first sections and applies his lightest-color ink. He then presses the block onto Japanese mulberry paper, printing the first layer of the image. After that, he carves a little more, inks in the next color, and repeats the process until he is happy with the image. The final piece ends up being a mirror image of his watercolor painting.

Gordon Mortensen, “Winter Sunset,” 1979. Woodcut (ed. 84/150), Gift of Smith and Nancy Holt.

The majority of colors in the print are cool tones. Mortensen uses complementary colors, yellow and purple, for the grass; and he uses different values to give the work dimension. Darker colors in the foreground and lighter colors in the background create an effect of atmospheric perspective. There is a general feeling of anxiousness because sun is setting and it’s getting darker and colder. Overall, the mood of this print is fairly somber.

“Winter Sunset” with perspective lines overlaid to reveal the vanishing point.

Mortensen also uses one-point perspective, leading the viewer’s eye to the horizon and indicating a vanishing point. As the trees get closer to the middle, they get smaller, indicating the distance and giving the illusion that the landscape continues on for miles past what the viewer can see.

“Winter Sunset,” detail of grass.

Mortensen uses yellow toward the front to highlight some of the grass. When the print is viewed from afar, the colors blend and the landscape appears calm. But when viewed up close, the grass appears to be wild, as if the wind were blowing.

“Winter Sunset,” detail of clouds.

Looking at the print up close, you can see the individual grass blades—but you can also see the individual carving strokes, especially in the sky. Even though the carving in the sky is visible, it appears softer than the grass.

Cover of the “New York Times,” August 8, 1974, with headline, “Nixon Resigns.”

This painting helps reflect certain cultural ideas of this time period. For example, this is a very calm and peaceful painting. This could reflect how people in the late 1970s sought peace and beauty, especially since they had to deal with the bloody Vietnam War, protesting college kids, and the Watergate scandal when President Nixon resigned shortly after. Furthermore, this painting could reflect the desire for simplicity in life during a time when many new technologies were invented. Some of the new technologies of the 70’s include the ink-jet printer, home computers, and video recorders. Mortensen might have created this painting to reflect how he and others sought for a simpler life without technology and cities.

Unknown source, image of Vietnam War protesters, ca. 1970s.

Mortensen’s woodcut “Winter Sunset” may have been a response to his being reared in the cold of North Dakota and Minnesota. He obviously spent a great deal of time and care creating this piece. His detailed cuts and variety of colors demonstrate an affinity with the sunset scene. He uses cold, complementary colors effectively, creating a calming, harmonious feeling. Mortensen’s technical mastery of his medium is evident and certainly impressive.

This woodcut was a gift to the OSU Art Collection from Smith and Nancy Holt. Smith Holt is a professor emeritus in Chemistry at Oklahoma State University, and was Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1980-1998.


About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
This entry was posted in permanent collection, student research, student writing. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Gordon Mortensen, “Winter Sunset,” 1979

  1. Janelle says:

    Bravo, very well written and thoughtful piece.

  2. George Whitfield says:

    Gordon Mortensen is my favorite artist.

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