The Western Painters, Majestically Assessed

What, so far as the art of painting is concerned,

constitutes the American West? Where and when can it be said to have become a

serious subject for painting, and what, if any, are its geo-pictorial

boundaries? We naturally tend to think of its subject matter as derived from

the wide-open spaces west of the Mississippi River, yet there was a period in

our history when almost any picturesque wilderness west of Boston, New York and

Philadelphia qualified as a “Western” subject. Today, we seldom think of the

artists of the Hudson River School, for example, as painters of the American

West, yet some of the most celebrated painters of the Rocky Mountains owed

much, if not quite everything, to pictorial conventions perfected decades

earlier in subjects drawn from the gentler perspectives of the Hudson River

valley.

Still less do we usually think of such resolutely Eastern

20th-century talents as John Sloan and George Bellows, among the realists, or

John Mann and Marsden Hartley, among the modernists, as painters of Western

subjects. Yet they too at times found inspiration and romance for their art in

the distant reaches of the West and the Southwest. It nonetheless comes as

something of a shock to see examples of Ash-can School realism and Cubist

modernism turning up in an exhibition that features George Catlin, George Caleb

Bingham, Frederic Remington, Albert Bierstadt and other classic painters of the

Western frontier.

Is at least part of the reason for our confusion derived

from the way paintings of the American West have been written about in the

past? This is the thesis of the wide-ranging essay on Painters and the American West , written by Joan Carpenter Troccoli

for the catalog of the equally wide-ranging exhibition she has lately organized

at the Denver Art Museum. The entire show, consisting of some 75 paintings, is

drawn from the capacious private collection of Philip Anschutz and thus is

called Painters and the American West:

The Anschutz Collection . I saw it earlier this summer at the Corcoran

Gallery of Art in Washington, where it closes on July 30. It will then travel

to the Joselyn Art Museum in Omaha (from Nov. 3, 2001 to Jan. 13, 2002) and the

Art Institute of Chicago (in the

summer of 2003).

According to Ms. Troccoli, many writers on American Western

art have tended in the past to place it in the context of “American history,

not American art history.” The effect of this mistaken emphasis on art as

historical documentation has been to isolate paintings of the American West

from mainstream developments in American art in both the 19th and 20th

centuries-or so Ms. Troccoli claims. “Readers would be justified in believing,”

she writes, “that the United States had at least two separate and decidedly

unequal artistic traditions: the principal one, based in Philadelphia, Boston

and New York, and the provincial one, located somewhere beyond the Mississippi

River.”

To correct what she believes to be a false distinction, Ms.

Troccoli reminds us that “painters of Western subjects have always worked in

the same artistic traditions, responded to the same stylistic influences and

aesthetic theories, practiced the same techniques and expressed the same

cultural attitudes as American painters who depicted other subjects. By birth,

by education, by residence, and by their relationship with patrons, critics and

galleries, they have been tied to the eastern United States as well as to

Europe.” All of which is true, of course, and so is her further claim that the

West occupies “an enormous place in American history and the American

imagination.”

Her mission in both the exhibition of Painters and the American West and its ambitious catalog is thus to

restore painting of this persuasion to its proper place in the mainstream

narrative of American art history. Yet to accomplish this goal, Ms Troccoli has

adopted a methodology that tends to defeat it. She abandons historical

chronology in favor of dividing the exhibition and its catalog into four thematic

sections: “Portraiture,” “Still Life,” “Genre or Narrative” painting and

“Landscape.” And then, to complicate matters further, within these thematic

categories she introduces a formalist analysis of style which often implies

that the subject matter in paintings of the American West does not really enjoy

the kind of priority interest that the very title of the exhibition seems to claim for it.

The result is what may

legitimately be called the first ever “postmodern” account of paintings of the

American West. The problem with this mix-and-match approach, alas, is the

problem that bedevils virtually all postmodernist criticism: It either ignores

or cavalierly fudges distinctions of aesthetic quality. It also tends to make a

hash of the mainstream historical narrative it appears to be in search of.

In the section on

portraiture, for example, a not-so-terrific picture by Randall Davey,

called Buffalo Dancer (circa 1919),

is favorably compared to a well-known masterpiece by Matisse, The Young Sailor (1906), simply on the

basis of an alleged similarity in the use of Fauvist color. Yet as Ms.

Troccoli’s own text tacitly acknowledges, Davey’s art was closer in spirit to

that of the American realist Robert Henri, who had persuaded Davey and John

Sloan to visit Sante Fe in 1919. Henri was a considerable figure in his day,

but he was certainly no Fauvist, and neither was Davey. Both were painterly

realists of a pre-Fauvist persuasion.

In the section on still life, there is a similar blurring of

distinctions in the attempt to link Andrew Dasburg’s semi-modernist Indian Amole (circa 1927) to Picasso’s

Cubist masterpiece, The Architect’s Table

(1912). And in the section on landscape, there is an ill-judged attempt to

elevate Childe Hassam’s Sand Springs

Butte (1904) to the level of one of Monet’s great grain-stack paintings of

the 1890′s. This is asking too much. Hassam certainly learned a great deal from

Monet, and he painted some wonderful pictures. But Sand Springs Butte isn’t one of them.

Fortunately, there are many wonderful paintings in the Painters and the American West

exhibition that are spared such overreaching claims, and for the most part they

tend to be paintings by the artists who conventional art-historical wisdom has

long associated with pictures of the American West-among them, not only the

19th-century masters already cited here but also Thomas Moran, Alfred Jacob

Miller and Asher B. Durand. It is one of the great strengths of the Anschutz

Collection that it contains so many fine examples of their work.

It is another strength of the collection that it contains so

many fine modernist paintings. But the latter inevitably stand in a very

different relation to their Western subjects. The 19th-century painters who

ventured into the western wilderness in search of fresh subjects for their art

were often the first to attempt such subjects. Their work thus often has a

quality of visionary discovery we do not find in even the greatest of the

20th-century pictures. For the modern painters who journeyed West were cultural

tourists in search of the exotic and the primitive. It also needs to be

remembered that once Hollywood had succeeded in making the American West a

staple of popular culture, the entire subject had been effectively

domesticated, and thereby beyond the reach of heroic discovery.

Still, there has never before been an exhibition that

attempted to give us such a comprehensive account of the painting of the

American West, and both the exhibition and its catalog are bound to lead to

further studies and surveys of this material, which continues to occupy a

tremendous place in the American-and not only the American-imagination.