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2009 Catalog > 3. White, “Desert Rain.”

Theo White’s Remarkable Lithograph of the Desert Virga Phenomenon

3. Theo Ballou White. “Desert Rain,” c. 1934. Lithograph. Image: 7 7/8 x 11 5/8." Sheet: 12 1/2 x 17 5/8." Titled and numbered in pencil at l.l.: Desert Rain 13/21. Signed in pencil at l.r. Artist’s monogram in stone at l. r.: TW. Fine.


Look back toward those dark clouds between you and the vanishing point. They are wrung out by their passage over the mountains, but still hold enough moisture to rain gray sheets, wispy tendrils aching for the ground far below. You can drive beneath such clouds and never need to reach for the wiper arm: the desert air, greedy, sucks the water from the rain before it reaches the ground. This is virga, the evanescent desert rain that falls but never lands. You see the rain, its scent plays around your nostrils like the sagebrush . . .

— Chris Clark, Creek Running North

Theo White (1902–1978) created this evocative interpretation of the desert phenomenon of virga showers following his travels to New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada in the 1930s. He was inspired by his journey through the Southwest to develop a series of lithographs drawn from the scenes he observed, and focused primarily on landscapes and religious themes of the Taos and Santa Fe areas. In these works, White employed a spare modernist approach, paring down landscape and architectural subjects to nearly elemental forms. With superb simplicity of form, White captured the essential power of the indigenous Southwest, especially the potent spiritual presence in northern New Mexico folk traditions.

In Desert Rain, White reduces mountains and clouds nearly to silhouetted cutouts. Virga showers hang from the dark thunderheads like curtains of gossamer, approximating the effect of falling rain that dissipates in mid-air long before it reaches the ground. According to Native American tradition, this is the “female” rain, which cannot replenish the earth. In hot and dry climates, rain changes from liquid to vapor and in the process removes heat from the air. The resulting small pockets of cold air descend rapidly, creating mircobursts and streamers of trailing precipitation. White’s image captures the phenomenon through skillful brevity and sensitive combinations of subtle textures.

Theo White was born in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, and trained as an artist and architect in Philadelphia. In his time, he was well known as an author of architectural history. As an artist, he produced a limited number of images in the print medium. White completed sequences of prints using as subject matter the Hoover Dam, Colonial Richmond, Philadelphia area mansions, as well as the landscape and religious iconography of the Southwest. The Southwest lithographs are extremely scarce, having been pulled in editions of 25 or fewer—in the case of the present print, only 21. Desert Rain is a fine example of one of White’s most unusual compositions.

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