From the Old West to the New

Leading the West, Southwest art.
Leading the West, Southwest art.

By Donald J. Hagerty

The West. The American West. The Transmississippi West. The Old West. The Frontier West. These are just a few of the many descriptive names that reflect the American experience with those lands and cultures beyond the Mississippi River. The West can start with geography, the border traced more or less along the 100th meridian. Westward lies an amazingly diverse topography—arid deserts, sagebrush plains, the canyonlands and mesas of the Southwest, the towering Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains—all different from the human-scaled landscapes of the East. Of course, there are other Wests: the Native American West, the Hispanic West, the Cowboy West, and nowadays, the Urban West or New West. These are realities, up to a point. Historian William Goetzmann calls the West, “The West of the Imagination,” a region that exists in our mind through stories, myths, legends, and sagas, a concept larger than the geographic reality. As such, whatever we want the West to be, it is.

Elmer Schooley, Winter Solstice, oil, 80 x 90. southwest art.
Elmer Schooley, Winter Solstice, oil, 80 x 90.

The West is not always due west. As the young artist Maynard Dixon made preparations in early 1900 to venture forth from San Francisco, CA, for his first extended journey through Arizona and New Mexico, he exclaimed, “I’m going East to see the West.” Even then, despite the rich history of California in the development of the region, the West meant something different than California it was a mythic region that lay somewhere between the Sierra Nevada mountains and the rolling prairies of the Great Plains. Now, as then, the West is a cornucopia. It is Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain. It is Wallace Stegner’s “The West is America, only more so.” It is Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Alan Ladd’s Shane, Mark Twain’s Roughing It, and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. It is the great playa that fills Nevada’s Railroad Valley, the red sandstone walls of Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly, and the ramparts of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons.

Artists ventured to this region in the early 19th century to document the awesome landscapes and their human and animal inhabitants. George Catlin and Karl Bodmer pushed up the Missouri River in the 1830s to record withgrace the vibrant life of the Plains Indians. Alfred Jacob Miller became the only painter to reveal the wild, free life of the mountain men and fur trappers in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Later arrivals included landscape painters Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, whose heroically sized work drew inspiration from the lofty peaks of the Rockies, the wonders of Yellowstone, and the sublime grandeur of the Grand Canyon.

Howard Post, Cattle Drive, oil, 42 x 72. southwest art.
Howard Post, Cattle Drive, oil, 42 x 72.

By the late 1880s and into the early 20th century, other artists turned not to the symphonic imprint of the landscape but to romantic melodrama and nostalgia. Two artists, Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, define an era that saw the concept of the “Old West” emerge, specifically the “vanishing Old West.” Through the paintings and sculpture of Remington and Russell and a host of artist-illustrators active in the “Golden Age of Illustration,” stories of the West were told—exciting narratives, sagas on canvas or embedded in bronze. Russell in particular used his art to comment eloquently on what he did not like about his own time, lamenting “the West that has passed,” as he called it.

Kenneth R. Bunn, Striding Cougar, bronze, 101⁄4 x 38 x 8, edition 21. southwest art.
Kenneth R. Bunn, Striding Cougar, bronze, 101⁄4 x 38 x 8, edition 21.

Sometime in the early 20th century, this art, and the art and artists before Remington and Russell, began to be referred to as “western art.” Western art, which can trace its beginnings to the restless, nationalistic energy of an expanding nation driven by Manifest Destiny, often centers on the rupture between the past and the present and is about transient time and loss. A complex and problematic domain, western art did not begin as a regional art but certainly has evolved as one.

Painting the western landscape. For contemporary landscape painters of the American West, nature is a starting point. Their art is a meditation about man’s relationship to nature, the topographic realities of the West’s landscapes transformed into their own private mirages. They journey to places like Canyon de Chelly, the Stillwater River, Truchas, and the Rio Chama, for example, and to places without names. About them hover, it seems, the ghosts of earlier landscape painters attracted to the magnificent land.

Don Crowley, Winter Coat, oil, 30 x 24. southwest art.
Don Crowley, Winter Coat, oil, 30 x 24.

In Taos Gorge [shown on the book’s cover], New Mexico artist P.A. Nisbet portrays the ragged slash of the Rio Grande River that bisects New Mexico’s Taos Valley with transparent, atmospheric light and spiritual force, an image worthy of Frederick Church or Albert Bierstadt. For Nisbet [b1948], nature, as embodied in a painting, is elusive, intellectual, and emotional. More importantly, though, it is spiritual.

Elmer Schooley [b1916] considers his paintings to be religious, an homage to nature. His mural-like canvases illuminate tiny views in the grasslands and forests of New Mexico. He does not refer to a conventional perspective nor paint figures in his landscapes, and at initial glance his taste for pattern appears as an abstraction. Among his favorite subjects are grasses, which he brings to life with thousands upon thousands of brushstrokes.

Wherever Californian Gregory Kondos paints, from Greece to the Grand Canyon, the landscape appears solid and manifest under the bright sapphire light of day, as in Mt. Pedernal A View From Ghost Ranch [cover image]. His longtime friend, painter Wayne Thiebaud, suggests Kondos [b1923] is somewhat of a classicist: big sky, large areas of evenly applied solid color, and a strong reference point.

Frank LaPena, Blue Shadow Spirit, acrylic, 40 x 36.
Frank LaPena, Blue Shadow Spirit, acrylic, 40 x 36.

Animals and wildlife. In a calling once dominated by an emphasis on scientific illustration and a limited choice of subject matter, artists today search for inspiration from the natural world and the animal kingdom. Driven by a reverence for nature, contemporary artists express the startling beauty of the West and its animals in images marked by meaning and depth.

There is a difference between wildlife artists and animal artists, who portray the behavioral characteristics of specific animals. For wildlife artists, habitat is paramount; the paintings must include the right terrain, vegetation, and mood. They are as much landscape painters as they are delineators of wildlife. For others, the animal itself is the sole subject, as the artists pursue each creature’s individual idiosyncrasies.

A regular visitor to the Denver Zoo, sculptor Kenneth Bunn [b1935] has traveled to Africa and to wilderness areas of the American West, creating small studies focusing on details from his observation of live animals. But design is as important as subject matter to Bunn, who strives to create animal forms “infused with all the elements of a work of art.” He reshapes the anatomy of his subjects and suspends motion and reality, as in his bronze mountain lion, Striding Cougar.

Lynn Taber-Borcherdt, Human Nature at Work in the Cool of the Evening at Ventana Canyon, pastel, 201⁄2 x 251⁄2.0, southwest art.
Lynn Taber-Borcherdt, Human Nature at Work in the Cool of the Evening at Ventana Canyon, pastel, 201⁄2 x 251⁄2.0

The romanticized West. A legion of painters and sculptors envision themselves as purveyors of the western myth, of heroes, heroines, and heroic events; they are the keepers. They digest the past’s cultural experiences, then conjure those experiences onto paper and canvas or fashion them with stone and bronze. Each creation is like a fly in amber, a slice of time frozen.

The work of all these artists is “western”—the Old West of cattle ranges, wild mustangs, mountain men, cowhands, frontier soldiers, and proud, breechcloth-clad Indians. While the geographical and cultural realities of the Old West have faded, the idea of the frontier, with its individualism, free enterprise, and romance, maintains a presence in this art.

Painter Don Crowley focuses on Native Americans Paiutes, Pimas, Apaches, and Shoshones. In his Arizona studio, Crowley [b1926] creates photoreal images that chronicle his subjects’ attitudes, costumes, and traditions. Each painting narrates a personal story. The young Shoshone man in Winter Coat, for example, came to pose for Crowley and brought along a wool coat he was in the process of making. “I was interested in the man’s strong features and the dignity of his bearing,” says Crowley. “The coat was the perfect prop to enhance those qualities.”

Harold Joe Waldrum, Belfry at Corrales, acrylic, 40 x 40. painting southwest art.
Harold Joe Waldrum, Belfry at Corrales, acrylic, 40 x 40.

Contemporary cowboys. Cowboys, cowgirls, and ranch life remain vital in certain regions of the West, icons of self-made individuals and enclaves of self-reliance. From the measured perspective of realist painting to the liberality of contemporary pop art techniques, images of the cowboy spirit still thrive as subjects for painters and sculptors. The open range and the free rider have long passed by, but contemporary artists throughout the West continue to find inspiration for a uniquely American subject matter.

Known for his paintings of cattle, cowboys, rodeo arenas, and ranch life executed with a unique aerial perspective and sun-drenched hues, Howard Post is an impressionist who portrays the contemporary West in a modern fashion. Post [b1948] was raised on a ranch near Tucson, AZ. Viewers of his oils and pastels respond to a bird’s-eye view of cattle clustered in a corral, cowboys perched on a fence, or a distant ranch house. This high perspective creates strong shapes and patterns, as in Cattle Drive.

The new West. Yet there are not only a present West and an old West but also other Wests and new Wests poised over the horizon. Artists portray the new West through expressive art, sometimes balanced on the tension between realism and abstraction. Some of these artists reflect on the ambiguities of change, tragedy, alienation, and death. Yet others respond with reverence, hope, spiritualism, irony, and the sacred, as they search for ways to communicate what the West means to them. Many attempt to place in their art threads, that bind the past to the present.

One of those threads, the timelessness of northern New Mexico’s Hispanic churches, has inspired the paintings, etchings, and linocuts of Harold Joe Waldrum [b1934]. New Mexico’s churches have personal significance for Waldrum with their saints, angels, and dead ancestors. Waldrum also finds inspiration in the formal creation of the space, color, and light that dance around these structures.

California painter Frank LaPena [b1937], the son of Asian and Nomtipon Wintu parents, finds a spiritual link to the past in rock-art symbols. “Spirits embedded in the stone images help connect the past to the present,” he says.

Drawn to spiritual places and events, like the desert storms that periodically sweep over
Tucson, Lynn Taber-Borcherdt [b1943] need only look out the window of her studio in Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains for subject matter. She creates enigmatic, almost formless atmospheres, visions of magical worlds endowed with redeeming rain. Occasionally, giant irrigation sprinklers appear as subjects, as in Human Nature at Work in the Cool of the Evening at Ventana Canyon. The sprinklers are a metaphor for the artificial replacement of natural processes, or “humans usurping the role of Nature.”

What is western art? In representational to abstract works, contemporary artists continue to redefine, refine, and personalize their experiences with the West’s immense, poetic landscape and with the region’s cultures, past and present. What is western art? In whatever form it takes, it is a passionate response to a dramatically beautiful region, a response typified by that of writer D.H. Lawrence on his first trip to New Mexico. “The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul,” he wrote. “In the magnificent fierce morning, one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to the new.” (Survey Graphics, May 1931).

Featured in September 1997