By Michael R. Graurer
This article is the ninth in a yearlong series chronicling the development of the western American art movement. Next month, Stephen May focuses on the period
James Reynolds [c1970s], The Good Life , oil, National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City, OK.
In a decade marked by the resignation of Richard Nixon, the final pullout of troops from Vietnam, an oil crisis prompting long lines at gas pumps, and raging inflation, artists of the West tended to be all over the board in the 1970s. Although abstract, pop, and other avant-garde styles dominated art in the East and found many adherents in the West, realism remained the cornerstone of western art. With an increasing number of Americans visiting the natural wonders of the West, representational landscape painters of the decade were challenged to create views that were realistic but still carried their personal stamp.
J.N. Swanson, Where White Men Killed , oil, 36 x 48, Cowboy Artists of America Museum, Kerrville, TX.
Some of the strongest art of the region grew out of an opposition to nonobjective, abstract work and a resurgence of interest in realist, or representational, art in the 1960s and ’70s. According to art writer Patricia Janis Broder, the new realists looked upon art as “above all a form of communication. Therefore, a recognizable subject and an intelligible execution were of critical importance—the necessary components of communication,” she says.
Continuing to build on the inspiration of western forefathers Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, organizations such as the Cowboy Artists of America (founded in 1965) and the
Tom Lovell, The Wolfman , oil, 34 x 24, National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
National Academy of Western Art (founded in 1973) encouraged the creation of historically accurate, high-quality representational work depicting the West of yesterday and today. Among the early members of the Cowboy Artists of America were John Clymer and his World War II Marine sidekick, Tom Lovell. A prolific illustrator turned fine artist, Clymer [1907-1989] executed evocative, often panoramic views of man and beast in the West. Santa Fe-based Tom Lovell [1909-1997] turned from illustrations for national magazines to paintings that accurately depicted frontiersmen and Indians. His painting The Wolfman shows Comanche warriors using a tree branch to cover their tracks.
Frank McCarthy joined the CAA in 1975. After several decades of magazine and book illustrating, McCarthy [b1924] became an Arizona-based painter of historical scenes, running the gamut from views of frenzied cavalrymen in combat to dramatically lit depictions of mounted Indians on the move, such as Breaking the Moonlit Silence (see page 8). “My paintings are based on truth and their settings in reality,” McCarthy once said, “but the events are not specific.”
Ray Swanson, Arizona , oil, 24 x 36, Cowboy Artists of America Museum.
Another CAA painter whose work is set in the 19th century and reveals the influence of pioneering artists is Missouri-born, Arizona-based Kenneth Riley [b1919]. His works rely on historical research, which he then depicts with a mystical quality. Pulling from his background as an illustrator, Riley creates such enlivened canvases as Homage to Catlin.
Accurate depiction of early western life is also a cornerstone of the work of California painter J.N. Swanson [b1927].
“It’s important to me that life in the West be
R.C. Gorman, Lady Dorothy Brett , pastel, 23 x 28, Harwood Museum of the University of New Mexico, Taos.
remembered accurately and not in a fanciful way someone wishes it had been,” he once said. An experienced rancher who also raised horses, Swanson has implemented his credo in such works as Where White Men Killed.
A number of these 1970s western painters depicted the lifestyle of the new West as well as that of the bygone era, and many still do so today. Contemporary ranch life forms the principal subject matter for CAA member James Reynolds [b1926], who was born and trained in California and worked in the movie industry before moving to Arizona and becoming a professional painter. Reynolds’ brand of realistic impressionism is well suited to works in which he depicts modern cowboys holding on to a vanishing way of life, such as The Good Life.
Bob Kuhn, Pas de Deux , acrylic, 20 x 36, National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson, WY.
Ray Swanson [b1937], an-other Arizona member of the group, grew up on a South Dakota ranch and worked as a civil engineer in California before settling in Arizona. On frequent visits to area Indian reservations, he has found subjects for his intimate, sympathetic oil paintings, such as Arizona.
Wyoming resident James Bama [b1926], a New York City native who started out as an illustrator, uses photographs of living people to set the stage for perceptive, highly detailed oil portraits. His primary subjects are Native Americans and young and old cowhands, such as Bill Smit—Number One.
William Moyers, The Reckless Breed, bronze, 20 x 28 x 10, Cowboy Artists of America Museum.
New Yorker Willard Midgette was also drawn to the contemporary southwestern lifestyle, as can be seen in his 1970s masterpiece Pow Wow. While on an Interior Department commission to record western views for a bicentennial exhibition, Midgette [1937-1978] spent time with the Navajo Indians, gathering ideas for huge, striking paintings that recorded the paradoxes and challenges of contemporary Indian life.
In Pow Wow, which measures 9 feet high and more than 25 feet wide, Midgette portrayed modern Indians engaged in a variety of festive activities.
Luis Jimenez, The End of the Trail With Electric Sunset , fiberglass, h89, Roswell Museum and Art Center, gift of Mr. And Mrs. John P. Cusack.
A Native American painter who was on his way to establishing wide popularity in the 1970s was R.C. Gorman. Gorman [b1933], who combines his Navajo background with Anglo techniques, is known for his dignified depictions of Indian figures. Early in his career he executed an oil pastel of the oft-portrayed Lady Dorothy Brett.
In addition to western ways of life, landscape and wildlife were popular subjects during this time. Among the most successful wildlife painters of the decade was Bob Kuhn [b1920]. A master of the timeless drama of animals in their native habitat, he conveyed danger and excitement in works such as Pas de Deux.
Some of the most accomplished sculptures of the West have been created by artists who are also painters, and in the 1970s it was no different,
Fremont Ellis, Capillita de Pajarito , oil, 27 1/8 x 33 1/8, Stark Museum of Art, Orange, TX.
with artists such as CAA member William Moyers [b1916] working in both mediums. Moyers’ three-dimensional work runs the gamut from Remington-like, animated bronzes such as The Reckless Breed to evocative views of Native Americans.
Allan Houser [1914-1994], a Chirichua Apache from Oklahoma, devoted much of his career to creating challenging, dignified bronzes of fellow Native Americans and their culture, such as Apache Mother. “I work not just for myself,” Houser said, “but to honor the American Indian. I hope to draw attention to centuries-old values that benefit all people, if only given the chance.”
LeConte Stewart, The Corral at Grass Valley, Near Richfield , oil, 21 x 30, Springville Museum of Art, UT.
Perhaps the most nontraditional of western sculptors, Luis Jimenez [b1940] made a mark during this time by using fiberglass to create vigorous depictions of vaqueros and other figures of the Southwest, including the colorful and enigmatic The End of the Trail With Electric Sunset.
Established traditionalists and modernists continued to play active roles in the New Mexico art scene of the 1970s. Fremont Ellis [1897-1985], a survivor of Santa Fe’s art group Los Cinco Pintores of the 1920s, carried on his love affair with the region’s landscape in fluidly brushed, atmospheric views. Declaring that for artists “the important thing is to see with your own eyes and speak with your own tongue,” Ellis worked into his 70s on evocative canvases such as Capillita de Pajarito.
William F. Whitaker, Young Woman , oil, 18 x 24, Springville Museum of Art.
A longtime teacher at New Mexico Highlands University, Roswell-based painter Elmer Schooley [b1916] has centered his art on enormous, highly de-tailed almost abstract paintings of vast stretches of grasses and trees of the Southwest. His unique style is exemplified by Winter Aspen Thicket.
One of the most influential realist painters of the era—and certainly one of the longest lived—was Utah native LeConte Stewart, who studied at the University of Utah, the Art Students League, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He painted murals in Mormon churches and taught high school art before serving as chairman of the art department at the University of Utah from 1938 to 1956. Committed to representational art, Stewart helped set the tone for much of Utah’s artistic output for years.
Painting the state’s farms, roads, and mountains in all seasons, especially winter, Stewart left a lasting legacy of regional realism, as epitomized by The Corral at Grass River, Near Richfield, which is painted in his characteristically conservative, tonalist-impressionist style. Stewart continued to be an inspiring landscape instructor into his 90s: “It was almost requisite for every Utah landscape artist to visit and study with this legend,” observes Vern Swanson, director of the Springville Museum of Art, UT.
One of the few classical or academic realists of Utah is William Whittaker [b1943], for years a teacherat Brigham Young University. One of Whittaker’s earlier paintings is the idealized, figurative portrait Young Woman.
During the 1970s, the burgeoning California art scene was marked by searches for new and innovative ways for artists to express themselves, but some maintained an allegiance to realism. In both paint and three-dimensional work, fresh approaches, abstraction, and new forms of realism found adherents. “At the beginning of the 1970s, possibly half of California’s artists worked in an abstract mode,” says art historian Nancy Dustin Wall Moure. “But through the decade abstraction increased as humanist-oriented art burgeoned.”
An inevitable backlash against abstraction, minimalism, and other new forms of art surfaced in anti- or post-modernist interest in representational art. Some tried pop art, and others explored photorealism or new realism. Sculpture enjoyed a substantial revival in the Golden State. “After 1960,” Moure has observed, “sculpture took off in many directions and was taken up by so many artists that it grew to rival painting in importance.”
Tradition and the search for new directions characterized western art throughout the 1970s. Artists set the stage for further exploration of subjects and styles in the decade that followed.
Stephen May is an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer on American art, culture, and historic preservation. He lives in Washington, DC.
Texas Art turned to history painting and scenes of Hispanic life in San Antonio, along with portraits. Robert’s son Julian brought American Impressionism to Texas, focusing on the south-central Texas landscape, while his daughter Eleanor became an accomplished miniature painter and was a long-time curator at the Witte Museum in San Antonio.
These artists are just a few of the Texas treasures the new dictionary documents. The authors hope this reference will not only lead to broader appreciation of the variety of artists consistent with the vastness of the Lone Star State but also and perhaps more importantly that the book be used as a springboard for additional research on Texas art. There is an enormous amount of work yet to be done.
Photos courtesy Texas A&M University Press.
Michael R. Grauer wrote about Edward Borein in the May issue.
Featured in January 2001