Creating the West in art

July 2009 | For about two generations now, a group of American museums has been exploring the nature and significance of western art. It was exactly fifty years ago, in the dusty but prim and busy town of Cody, Wyoming, near Yellowstone National Park, that the Whitney Gallery of Western Art (sister institution to New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art) was founded with that charge as its mission.1 About five hundred miles south of Cody, in the more cosmopolitan setting of Denver, the broadly based Denver Art Museum in about 1954 embarked on building a collection of representative early western works and mounting western art exhibitions.2 Other museums—among them the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art (now the Gilcrease Museum) founded in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1949; and the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art (now the Amon Carter Museum), which opened in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1961—also embraced a mandate of studying, preserving, exhibiting, and interpreting the American West through the art that had shaped its identity.

What motivated the nascent ballooning of interest in examining the West through its art is unclear. It may be that, following World War II, the nation was searching for cultural attributes that could explain its uniqueness and greatness. The history of the West would have provided at least a few ways of formulating an answer.

Today there are more than a dozen American museums devoted to the art of the West. To celebrate the semicentennial of this trend, the Whitney Gallery and the Denver Art Museum are presenting special exhibitions of their permanent collections, supplemented with some spectacular loans, as a way of reconsidering the place of western art in American cultural history. The Whitney Gallery, in newly refurbished galleries, is focusing on fresh interpretations of the western scene by integrating the work of historical and contemporary artists who address themes from both the past and modern day. The Denver Art Museum, which revived a serious interest in western art following the 2001 gift of more than seven hundred works from the remarkable collection of William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen, has recently opened an exhibition titled Creating the West in Art, which spans over eight-thousand-square feet of newly appropriated and remodeled galleries.

The past fifty years of studying and exhibiting western American art have witnessed a multitude of interpretations, all of which are explored in Creating the West in Art. Two works dominate the exhibition’s introductory gallery, which has as its theme “The West Defined as Movement”: Alexander Phimister Proctor’s 1927 maquette-sized bronze of the Kansas City monument The Pioneer Mother (Fig. 1); and Dean Cornwell’s painting Gold Rush II (Figs. 2, 2a), which illustrated an article entitled “The Days of 49” in the October 1926 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine. These works emphasize the notion that the West is not only a physical place identified by coordinates on a map, but was also at the heart of an experience known as “westering,” a place to move through on the way to opportunity. The Amon Carter Museum’s initial mission statement claimed that its primary goal was to explore the cultural attributes of a “westering America,” so the idea has served as an intellectual construct for museum interpretation for decades.

Had these two works been included in the Whitney Gallery’s inaugural display in 1959, they would have been selected primarily for their accurate rendering of historical events and details. The founding director of the museum, Harold McCracken (1894–1983), wrote at the time that its objective was to acquire and exhibit objects “for their documentary faithfulness as accurate portrayals of life as it was in the Old West.”3 The two works would have also been positioned to symbolize the hope of the Anglo- American settlers and the potential of the region’s bounty, and they would have been vaunted for portraying nineteenth-century expansion of American democracy and economic opportunity.

These works, as they were created in the mid-1920s and as they were initially interpreted by the earliest western art museums, underpinned a political agenda that employed art as an analogue to history and viewed that history as the foundation of the democratic and capitalist systems that had made the United States a world leader by 1950. Many of the founders of the early western art museums, like Thomas Gilcrease (1890–1962) and Amon G. Carter (1879–1955), recognized themselves in the works they collected. They were, in a sense, parodying their own experiences as ambitious, entrepreneurial captains of fortune prospering at the midpoint of what has come to be called “the American century.”

Some twenty years later, in the mid-1970s a new generation of art historians and museum professionals began to explore Western art in terms of its formal qualities, raising the question: “What is the art in western art?”4 They felt that western art, having been separated from the larger canon of American art, had been left out of the formalist art historical dialogue. They would have wanted to consider a work such as The Pioneer Mother for its French Beaux-Arts style, and for its relationship to the works of Proctor’s mentor, the American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907), who called for artists to produce objects that expressed nobility, simplicity, and dignity. Proctor had spent at least three years studying and working in Paris at the Académie Julian, and he made The Pioneer Mother while at the American Academy in Rome. Likewise, the exciting colors and vigorous delineation of the figures in Gold Rush II would have been discussed in terms of Cornwell’s debt to the British muralist Frank Brangwyn (1867–1956), with whom he studied.

One of the most ambitious projects to focus on the formalist qualities of western art was the 1988 retrospective exhibition Frederic Remington: The Masterworks, which was organized by the Saint Louis Art Museum in conjunction with the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody. The curators claimed to be searching for “a higher level of critical discourse” and projected that their work would mark “a turning point in the historiography of the art of Frederic Remington.” They were, in their estimation, “righting an art-historical wrong.”5

Then in the early 1990s there was a swing back to emphasizing the social, historical, and political aspects of western art, prompted by an exhibition organized in 1991 by the National Museum of American Art (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) in Washington titled The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820–1920. This time scholarly interpretations were not tinged with patriotic zeal, as they had been in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, the story, according to the museum’s director Elizabeth Broun, was “disturbing rather than ennobling.”6 In a quest for revisionist truths, the curators, perhaps as a reaction to the emerging unbounded entrepreneurialism and self-satisfied Americanism of the Reagan era, searched for images, such as Proctor’s and Cornwell’s, that would testify to the avaricious, racist, and imperialist imperatives of nationalist ideologies such as Manifest Destiny.

In addition, scholars interested in issues of gender would have focused on the blue-clad female figure at the right in Cornwell’s painting as evidence of sexist typecasting, exemplifying in their minds the male artist’s perception of women as inert participants in the westering experience, helplessly dragged along by their fathers, brothers, and husbands. Proctor’s bronze, on the other hand, would have forwarded the argument of these feminist art historians that women were often not passive bystanders at all, but rather driving forces in the pursuit of new homes in the West. Proctor wanted his women to be active, self-determined partners with men, and he often quoted Mark Twain (1835–1910) when discussing this piece: “The women had to endure everything the pioneers did, and then they also had to endure the pioneers.”7

In the current evaluation of this western material, the Denver Art Museum has taken the position that none of these earlier perspectives should stand alone. Instead, visitors to the galleries should consider the full range of ideas when analyzing these artworks. As the curator of The West as America, William Truettner, recently concluded, “I’m arguing for aesthetic strategies that are timely and local and can be seen in terms of a historical context” because that is what now “enriches our appreciation of western art.”8 This suggests a combination of formalist as well as semiotic and relativist considerations. The very multiplicity of interpretations is fascinating in and of itself and reveals the full measure of elements that may have informed the creative response to the American frontier.

Beyond the introductory gallery focusing on the western movement, there are eight other thematic galleries in the exhibition that interpret nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century ideas in broad aesthetic as well as socio-political terms. One of the most important topics is the way in which American Indians were portrayed by Anglo-American artists over the years. Proctor is brought into the story again, this time with his 1898 bronze The Indian Warrior (Fig. 7),an idealized symbol in the McKinley era of the United States as proud, bellicose, and masculine. This is contrasted with James Earle Fraser’s 1915 bronze End of the Trail (Fig. 5), which alluded to the epic tragedy of the near extinction of native cultures in the nineteenth century and posed the United States as a classic provocateur of racial genocide. On a more positive note, E. Martin Hennings’s canvas The Rabbit Hunt (Fig. 3) of about 1935 demonstrated how American Indian cultures in the Southwest could coalesce as productive, functioning modern entities, neither idealized in grandeur nor diminished in loss, but rather revealed in an identity of their own, quotidian though it may have been.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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