Masters of Western Art

Joseph H. Sharp, John and Jerry (Hunting Son and Elkfoot) [n.d.], oil, 22 3/8 x 21, courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.,painting, southwest art.
Joseph H. Sharp, John and Jerry (Hunting Son and Elkfoot) [n.d.], oil, 22 3/8 x 21, courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.

By Donald J. Hagerty

For the past century, the American West has represented a vital component of the American experience. By the end of the 19th century the frontier West was in its last throes, yet the idea of the West in art and literature survived long after the geographical and cultural reality dis-appeared. Artists, in par-ticular, continue to explore the storehouse of ideas the region’s history has offered. This exhibition is organized into four eras characterized by shifts in the interaction between the western art tradition and larger developments in American art.

Echoes of a Vanishing West, 1900-1920. The western art tradition coalesced in the first two decades of this century as a number of mostly eastern-trained artists dedicated their careers to recording impressions of the West. From the theatrical, often melodramatic paintings of Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell and the light and space of the western landscape portrayed by Thomas Moran and William R. Leigh to the reflections about Native Americans offered by Henry F. Farny and Edward S. Curtis, these works were inspired by nostalgia for the disappearing Old West. By joining historical fact and epic myth into pictorial narratives, they defined not only a western style of art but also how most Americans would view the West through much of the 20th century.

Frank T. Johnson, Pack Horses from Rim Rock Ranch  [1931], oil, 36 x 46, courtesy Desert Caballeros Western Museum.,painting, southwest art.
Frank T. Johnson, Pack Horses from Rim Rock Ranch  [1931], oil, 36 x 46, courtesy Desert Caballeros Western Museum.

Timeless Traditions, New Visions, 1920-1945. The lure of a vanishing West continued unabated after World War I with artists such as Frank Tenney Johnson, who painted cowboys in rugged landscapes, or Joseph Henry Sharp and E. Martin Hennings, who portrayed Native Americans in a timeless fashion. Some artists were influenced by modernist aesthetics and ideas, notably John Marin, Ernest Blumenschein, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Maynard Dixon, who started as a western illustrator, ended his career as a staunchly independent, modernist-attuned landscape painter of the West.

The Legacy of Western Realism, 1945-1975. In this period, western art lost touch with developments in modernism, once again focusing on narrative realism. The new generation of postwar modernists ignored the West at the same time that popular culture especially through the media of film and television was becoming enthralled with western romance. Narrative realism re-emerged among a group of painters after World War II who felt a kinship with the West and a strong commitment to history and tradition. Artists such as John Clymer, Tom Lovell, and Harold von Schmidt engaged viewers in stories, using skills gained as magazine or book illustrators to transport viewers to another place and time. In contrast, Robert Lougheed, also trained as an illustrator, probed contemporary western ranch life rather than the past West. Joe Beeler, one of the founders of the Cowboy Artists of America, continues the tradition of looking back at the region’s culturally sustaining myths and legends. Peter Hurd, who studied under N.C. Wyeth, had an introspective fascination with the landscapes around his southern New Mexico home. For other artists, notably photographer Ansel Adams, the pristine western landscape offered opportunities to produce meticulous images celebrating the transcendent poetry of unspoiled places.

Old West, New West, 1975-2000. During this century’s last quarter, the western art tradition ‰  has continued, reaching a devoted and probably growing audience. Artists such as James Reynolds portray the present-day cowboy with a feel for the story of still-independent, self-reliant individuals. Howard Terpning paints dramatic stories about long-past experiences in the Old West.

Despite its long persistence, this western art tradition now shares the stage with artists who offer alternative views of western subjects. These individuals come from a wide variety of artistic schools and backgrounds and have different issues and agendas to address. Fritz Scholder and Jaune Quick-To-See Smith adopt symbols of popular culture to confront old stereotypes about Native Americans. Allan Houser searched for Native American spiritual foundations in his evocative sculpture. Wilson Hurley and Ed Mell, with different approaches, probe the sublime qualities of arid landscapes, while Gary Ernest Smith shows the changes wrought on the West’s terrain by man’s reshaping of native ground into farmland, now itself rapidly disappearing under the relentless onslaught of urbanization. Finally, other artists like Bill Schenck use wit, irony, and humor to critique our culture’s undying fascination with cowboys.

Here at the century’s end, the western art tradition still flourishes, though balanced by other views of the West. Increasingly, the traditional cowboy, Native American, and landscape art that fueled the western art tradition has become just one form of artistic commentary in the diverse, urban culture of the New West.

Featured in December 1999