I don’t really get the West. I find it hard to conjure up an image of a fruited plain or purple mountain that isn’t Hanna Barbera-esque. When I used to play the Oregon Trail computer game, my covered-wagon-mates would all perish before you could say “Donner Party.” I’m the kind of New York snob who, throughout all her out-of-tristate American experiences, keeps up a constant refrain of “Aren’t the people so nice?” and “Aren’t the portions so big?”
So when I found myself at the Denver International Airport, standing between a Starbucks and a tornado shelter, I started panicking.
To understand why I heeded the call of Manifest Destiny in the first place, you need to know that I was in Colorado to see a friend’s play at the deluxe Denver Center. But therein lay the dilemma: Between matinees how was I going to protect myself from the glad-handing natives and their 4,000-calorie meals?
Denver must have some museums, I conceded. I would take from them a crash-course in the culture of the rest of the U.S. Out on the town, at first I rolled my eyes at banners advertising “Art of Winter: An Outdoor Gallery of Ski and Snowboard Art,” as well as at public sculptures of bloated Botero people and Paul Bunyan-size prospectors clutching golden nuggets. However, when I ventured over to the brand-spanking-new Clyfford Still Museum—which still smells like new car—I had a revelation. The museum is compelling enough, a moody, Brutalist space, where you constantly feel like you are retracing your footsteps, reeling round and round past a stream of superficially similar canvases with their colorful jagged abstractions. But as I read some of Still’s curmudgeonly letters—tersely severing ties with his New York gallerist Betty Parsons as he retreated from the art world, etc.—the cloud of guilt descended. They reminded me of my favorite Still quote, from a diatribe on art critics in a 1959 epistle: “They will get no invitation from me to cock their legs like wandering mongrels against that which they can only approach with resentment.”
I headed down the street to the Denver Art Museum. Approaching the entrance to the museum’s cantilevered 2006 Daniel Libeskind addition (a structure as striking outside as it is awkwardly twisty and cramped inside), I encountered Claes Oldenburg’s Big Sweep (2006), a massive dustpan and broom. It was tempting to take it as a metaphor, but I uncocked my leg and resisted. The DAM is not a comprehensive museum, though it strives to be, with small galleries devoted to African, Oceanic, Asian, Pre-Columbian, Spanish Colonial and European art. It has the requisite Calder mobile—aptly titled Snow Flurry—and a Renoir here, a Pissarro there. But it really shines in two areas. The first is in its collection of late-20th-century art (particularly art of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s). The second is in its vast range of art through the ages that it deems specifically Western.
Now, I was brought up in the Alfred H. Barr school of modern art history, rapped on my knuckles for deviating too far from the vision of modernism the inaugural MoMA director laid out. And yet, at the DAM I found myself compelled by this notion of Western versus Eastern American art, of the use of those geographic distinctions as more than a backhanded way to say that Alexander Phimister Proctor and Frederic Remington’s bucking bronze broncos are goofy.
The DAM boasts an impressive collection of American Indian art, which there has found a far more fitting venue than New York’s Museum of Natural History. Beyond that, the DAM’s Petrie Institute of Western American Art, established in 2001, has brought together a wide, albeit sometimes weird (see: Red Grooms’ Pop Shootout, with a cowboy and Indian gunning each other down, old-timey racist-style) collection of art from the western side of the Mississippi.
The museum also plays host to exhibitions that redefine the West in ways that are fruitful for skeptical goons like me. I just missed a show of Robert Adams photographs, which I have always found draw out the humanity and stark beauty of even the strangest, most devastating aspects of Western expansion: of the rapid, messy development, of the suburban sprawl and the destruction of nature.
I did get to stroll through “Ed Ruscha: On the Road,” an exhibition that traveled from the Hammer in Los Angeles and which showcases work by the artist (a Nebraskan by birth) that excerpts and illustrates passages from Kerouac’s book. On display were pages from a fabulous 2009 Gagosian-Steidl edition of the novel, with text paired with photos courtesy of Ruscha, of beer cans, car parts, cigarette butts, diners, gas stations, crosses, road signs, skimpily dressed broads and jazz musicians.
Also in the gallery were Mr. Ruscha’s signature acrylic-on-canvas text paintings, with their mountain vistas, so similar to the landscape that I could espy through thin panoramic windows in Mr. Libeskind’s building. “Brakemen eat surly meals in diners by the tracks,” reads one 2010 work titled Brakemen Eat. Standing before it, I found myself coming around to the smiling myth of the blessed West, tempered as it is by the surly disappointment that sets in once you run out of land and have to put the brakes on the push to new frontiers.
I was so won over, in fact, that I lingered in a room dubbed the Western Discovery Library, adjacent to the Historic Western American Art galleries. There, among monographs, topical paraphernalia and funny costumes, I picked up a guest book, which asked visitors, “What does the West mean to you?”
The answers read like a parsed Joan Didion essay: “A sense of unlimited possibilities that can only be achieved through great risk”; “To me, the West means old-time America, the days of shoot-em-up bar-fights and horse rides to the mountains”; “I think it is very cool how they survived.”
But it wasn’t until I made it over to the modest Museum of Contemporary Art Denver that I realized that the thrill of the West, of the art it inspires, is alive and well, even as the legacy of Manifest Destiny proves increasingly complex.
In the MCA’s four-year-old David Adjaye-designed building I admired “West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977.” The show presents detritus and documentation from Anna Halprin’s experimental outdoor dances, the Cockettes and the Angels of Light’s extravagant performances at San Francisco’s Palace Theatre, the geodesic domes of Trinidad, Colorado’s Drop City, WomanShare women’s communes of rural southern Oregon, and other defiantly utopian projects.
Here were artists and innovators who engaged with the idea of having been weaned on a pap of possibility that has run dry (or started dispensing only 4,000-calorie servings of deep-fried junk), and who in response sought to colonize new frontiers of experience, of identity. The results are mesmerizing, but not always pretty. Theirs is a freedom that comes with psychosis, liberation that comes with bad psychedelic trips. Their West is still a land where “unlimited possibilities that can only be achieved through great risk.” It’s surly, it’s nice, it’s hopeful, it’s “cool how they survived” (if they survived), it’s wild, it’s wacky, it’s untamed mountains, it’s suburban sprawl. I still don’t get the West, but I’d be a fool not to keep trying.