George Phippen Cowboy in a Storm , Bronze, 17 3/4 x 12 x 16, National Cowboy Hall of Fame
By Stephen May
This article is the eighth in a yearlong series chronicling the development of the western American art movement. Next month, Stephen May focuses on the period 1970-1980.
Like the rest of the country, the American West experienced both exhilaration and trauma during the turbulent 1960s. When President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated at the beginning of the decade, a sense of optimism and confidence—bolstered by economic prosperity and technological advances swept the nation. Before long, however, a series of assassinations notably two Kennedy brothers and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the agony of the Vietnam War and turmoil over civil and equal rights issues roiled the country and the West.
In the midst of all this turbulence, many artists focused on new and innovative styles, media, and techniques, although pockets of tradition
Gordon Snidow, Shipping the O-Bar_N , Watercolor, 113/4 x 14, National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City, OK.
continued to flourish in all areas. Famous painters as diverse as Richard Diebenkorn of California and Georgia O’Keeffe of New Mexico brought art associated with the West to increasing national attention, and avant-garde artwork, especially that emanating from California, augmented the artistic reputation of the region.
In the postwar years, the formation of several organizations and the opening of museums such as the Cowboy Artists of America Museum in Kerrville, TX, and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City, OK, helped encourage accurate, high-quality art of the West. These institutions not only perpetuated the memory and culture of the Old West, as typified by the work of Remington and Russell, but also prompted growing respect and higher prices for accomplished western art.
Ruth W. Smith, Allegory of the 1960 Presidential Election, , Oil, 38 x 28 1/8, Springville Museum of Art, UT.
The great narrative tradition that had been so important in the art of the West was continued in the 1960s by a number of talented artists, many of whom moved from illustration work to easel painting. One example is John Clymer [1907-1989], a native of Washington, who trained as an illustrator under Howard Pyle’s student Harvey Dunn. Clymer was influenced by another Pyle disciple, N.C. Wyeth, and became a successful illustrator for such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post.
In the 1960s Clymer turned to fine art, creating brightly colored evocations of the Old West such as Free Trapper.
Chicago-born Harry Jackson [b1924] worked as a cowboy in Wyoming, served in the Marines in World War II, experimented with abstract expressionist painting in New York, and studied the old masters in Europe before returning to figure painting and sculpting in the West. In his sculpture Jackson often used themes recalling the Old West, as in Pony Express, which reprises the image of the rider on horseback looking back and firing at unseen pursuers.
Kenneth Young, The Dry Ditch , oil 50 x 36, Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art, Inianapolis, IN.
The first president of the Cowboy Artists of America, Iowa native George Phippen [1915-1966], started out as a self-taught illustrator before establishing a ranch, studio, and foundry in Skull Valley, AZ. An accomplished painter of western subjects, he is best remembered for his bronze sculptures such as Cowboy in a Storm.
Another illustrator-turned-fine artist and former president of the Cowboy Artists of America, Gordon Snidow [b1936], was born in Missouri, raised on farms in Texas and Oklahoma, and today creates art on a ranch in New Mexico. His realistic gouaches of contemporary cowboys, such as Shipping the O-Bar-N, reflect his understanding of the men, horses, and landscape of the Southwest.
Canadian-born Robert Loug-heed [1910-1982] also worked for years as a book and magazine illustrator before moving to New Mexico and taking up full-time painting of the West. His free, impressionistic oils are exemplified by Bell Remuda.
Fritz Scholder, Super Pueblo #2 , oil, 70 x 80, Roswell Museum and Art Center, NM.
Tom Ryan [b1922], a consummate draftsman and meticulous realist, was born in Illinois, trained in the Midwest and New York, and illustrated book jackets before becoming a self-styled “spectator watching cowboys.” Ryan’s affinity for the work of Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth and his understanding of cowpokes and ranch life come through in such paintings as Sharing an Apple (see page 8), in which a cowboy gives a slice of fruit to his cow pony.
William Moyers is an artist of the Old West who is both a sculptor and painter. Moyers [b1916] was born in Atlanta, GA, but learned to break broncos and mend fences as a youngster in Colorado. He went on to college, art school, and a job as an animation artist for Walt Disney Studios in California. Following a successful career as an illustrator for major publishing houses in New York, Moyers took up fine art in the 1960s, creating detailed, accurate, and insightful works that capture the spirit of the West, such as The Evening Chill.
A sculptor who carried on the realistic, storytelling tradition of Remington and Russell was Robert M. Scriver [b1914], who was born on the Blackfoot reservation in Montana and turned his taxidermy hobby into full-time sculpting in 1951. His bronze Buffalo Runner captures the frenzied action as an Indian brave on horseback runs down a pair of buffalo.
Wayne Thiebaud, Lunch Table , Oil, 35 7/8 x 59 3/4,Standford UniversityMuseum of Art, CA.
American Indian life continued to fascinate painters of the West, particularly in the Southwest. Raised and trained in California, R. Brownell McGrew [1916-1994] sketched and lived among Navajo and Hopi Indians even before moving to New Mexico. His portrait of Sam Billie is representative of his fine, sensitive work.
The increasing diversity among artists of the West in the 1960s was epitomized by developments in New Mexico, where “pluralism, driven by expanded forms of communications, began to dominate the cultural landscape,” says Joseph Traugott, curator of 20th-century art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe. “Nevertheless,” adds Traugott, “the underlying themes of spiritual values, harmony with nature, and self-representation remained.”
Richard Diebenkorn, Girl with Flowered Background , oil, 40 x 34, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Museum Purchase, Sid W. Richardson Foundation Endowment Fund.
Artists as diverse as Luis Jimenez, Agnes Martin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Fritz Scholder, and Kenneth M. Young offered new images inspired by New Mexico’s fabled air, light, landscape, and people. The youngest and last surviving member of the Taos Society of Artists, Young [1897-1966] continued creating direct, modernist-tinged, warmly hued landscapes and depictions of Hispanic people.
The Dry Ditch, painted not long before his death, evoked the hard life of the region.
An important member of the Taos art community after 1960 was Indiana-born Doel Reed [1894-1985], who achieved an international reputation as a printmaker and was a member of the National Academy of Design. After a long teaching career at Oklahoma State University he moved to New Mexico, where he was inspired by “the feeling of endless space of the great plains, the high mountains, the unlimited sky and clouds.”
Edward Ruscha, Standard Station , Serigraph, 251/2 x 40, MOdern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Anonymous Gift in Memory of Sam B. Cantey III.
A master of the aquatint medium, Reed’s harmonious, earth-toned geometric compositions featured architectural forms and the New Mexico landscape. In addition to his graphic works, Reed also created oil paintings, such as Records of the Past, which suggested how adobe ruins returned to the earth.
Fritz Scholder [b1937] moved around the Southwest and eventually made his mark with enigmatic depictions of Native Americans. He created large abstract-expressionist evocations of the New Mexico scene in the 1960s, including Super Pueblo #2.
Securely ensconced in her New Mexico enclaves far from the art-world centers of New York and Los Angeles, Georgia O’Keeffe [1887-1986] continued to enhance interest in her ascetic lifestyle and in her new paintings. “The clarity, that’s what I love about this place,” she told a visitor to her Abiquiu home in 1963.
O’Keeffe’s extensive airplane trips in the 1950s and ’60s around the nation and the world led to aerial-inspired views of sky, clouds, and river patterns and offered new perspectives on the desert and mountains. “It is breathtaking as one rises up over the world one has been living in,” O’Keeffe said.
In Utah, regional realists and artists who reflected national avant-garde art movements vied for attention in the 1960s. “Utah art [of the decade was] derivative rather than unique,” says Vern G. Swanson, director of the Springville Museum of Art in Utah. “Utah imported most of its artistic language from elsewhere both coasts, Europe, et cetera.”
One of the most interesting regionalist painters was Ruth Wolf Smith [1912-1980] of Salt Lake City, who combined her interest in figurative and symbolic work in the ambitious and evocative Allegory of the 1960 Presidential Election. Called by Swanson “one of Utah’s first fine-art political satires,” it shows Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican nominees, riding an elephant, while Democratic candidate Kennedy is astride a donkey led by running mate Lyndon B. Johnson as they travel on a golden road to the White House trailed by an intriguing assortment of political types and animals.
An outstanding artistic figure during this period was native son Lynn Fausett [1894-1977], who was trained and launched his career as a muralist in the East before returning to Utah, where he became a respected teacher and creator of a diverse body of work. In Angel’s Arch, Fausett captured the epic beauty of the Utah landscape in a large gouache work that is credited with helping to have the area designated as Arches National Park.
Seeking to offer alternatives to some of the radical art styles of the day and to express truths of the Mormon faith through their art, students at Brig-ham Young University launched the Art and Belief movement in the 1960s. Steps of Conversion by Gary Ernest Smith [b1942] epitomizes the movement.
California, in the vanguard of many new art trends, spawned a dazzling variety of artwork in the decade. Affluence and growing appreciation for contemporary art energized the cultural life of the state, even as political assassinations, racial unrest, rising crime rates, and controversies over the Vietnam War divided the populace.
New museums, galleries, and art schools furthered the independence and importance of artists of the West, particularly in California. Building on the foundations of earlier postwar artists, Californians made significant contributions to the national art picture that their predecessors could only have dreamed about. As California art historian Nancy Dustin Wall Moure observes in her comprehensive new book California Art: 450 Years of Painting and Other Media, in the 1960s, “After two centuries on the periphery of the western art world, California began to shed its provincial identity and even to assume a place in the front ranks of American art.”
The most important California artist of this era, and one of the few artists in recent years to achieve international acclaim in both abstract and figurative styles, was Richard Diebenkorn [1916-1993]. The artist created some of his finest work in the 1960s. Having switched from abstract expressionism to more representational work in the mid-1950s, his art of the early ’60s was characterized by strong colors, vehement brushwork, and isolated figures in architectural or outdoor spaces.
Standout figurative canvases include Girl With Flowered Background, which evokes moods of introspection in a vigorous, broadly brushed canvas. Diebenkorn could well have had this largely representational painting in mind when he observed that “what is important is a feeling of strength in reserve tension beneath the calm.”
Toward the end of the decade, the ever-restless artist began to look beyond representational images to new challenges. Before long, he launched his famous Ocean Park series.
Also in California, advertising artist turned painter and teacher Wayne Thiebaud [b1920] depicted various aspects of contemporary society. His subjects included the ribbons of highways encircling Northern California cities, repetitive images of familiar objects such as gum-ball machines, and rows of enticing cakes and pies, as in Lunch Table.
Pop artist Edward Ruscha [b1937], a native of Nebraska, transformed everyday signs and images of contemporary life ranging from billboards to gas stations into idealized symbols of Los Angeles. His precise images such as Standard Station reflected the prevailing view of service stations as uniform, clean, and impersonal. Ruscha “rejected painterly abstraction and borrowed the hard-edged design of advertising art to present subjects that mirrored the world of consumerism and commercialism,” says Southwest Texas State University art historian Francine Carraro.
The accelerated development of new aesthetic forms combined with the persistence of interest in realism and figurative work in the West during the 1960s set the stage for the next decade. In the ’70s, the art of the region increasingly joined the national art mainstream.
Featured in August 1999