By Stephen May
This article is the 10th in a yearlong series chronicling the development of the western American art movement. Next month, Stephen May focuses on the last decade of the century.
Howard Terpning, Apache Fire Makers , oil, 44 x 32, Cowboy Artists of America Museum, Kerrville, TX, courtesy the Cowboy Artists of America.
The 1980 election of adopted westerner Ronald Reagan as president ushered in a period of conservatism in the White House. In the world of western art, tradition and realism surged in popularity. A relatively good economy, the proliferation of museums and galleries exhibiting western art, and auction houses promoting sales contributed to growth in the region’s art. Diversity and aesthetic innovations continued, and egalitarian attitudes engendered by the civil rights movement and the rise of minority-group artists plus technological advances such as computers and videos tended to blur art-world lines between East and West. Overall, though, the enduring singularity of the West and its determination to be independent of national trends had a continuing impact on the region’s oeuvre in the 1980s.
In every year of the decade but one, the annual Cowboy Artists of America sale brought in gross earnings exceeding $1 million a testament to the enormous popularity of traditional western art. Members of the CAA continued to carry out their mission to “perpetuate the memory and
Tucker Smith, The Way Things Were , oil, 20 x 40, National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson, WY.
culture of the Old West as typified by the late Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, and others” with a prolific outpouring of realistic, usually narrative, images. Among the group’s outstanding artists is Kenneth Riley. Originally from the Midwest, Riley [b1919] was a magazine illustrator in New York before relocating to Arizona in the 1960s, where even today he concentrates on narratives of the Old West, often featuring early artists of the region. Frequently painting on the site of historical events, Riley is a stickler for accuracy, as reflected in Bodmer Painting the Piegan Chief, a realistic depiction of Karl Bodmer, the pioneering Swiss painter of Native Americans.
Sherry Sander, Great Northern , bronze, 26 x 12 x 30, JKM Collection, National Museum of Wildlife Art.
Another top CAA artist painting the historic West is Howard Terpning. “I would like to be remembered as an artist who painted the American Indian well and honestly,” says Terpning [b1927]. The artist is a native of Illinois who gave up commercial illustrating to become a painter in Tucson in the 1970s. In the quarter-century since then he has created historically accurate images of Native Americans in evocative, storytelling works such as Apache Fire Makers.
Painting the modern side of life in the West is CAA member Gordon Snidow [b1936]. The artist was born in Missouri, raised in the Southwest, trained in California, and now lives in New Mexico. Snidow’s self-proclaimed fascination with the “character and independence and the hardworking, fun-loving way of the contemporary cowboy” male and female is reflected in starkly realistic images such as I Don’t Make Coffee, Either.
Luis Jimenez, Vaquero , six-color lithograph, 46 x 34, Colorado Springs Fine
Arts Center, CO.
CAA sculptors creating images of the West included Grant Speed and Pat Haptonstall. Texas native Speed [b1930] worked as a ranch hand before becoming a professional sculptor in Utah. His action-packed bronzes, reminiscent of his hero Russell’s work, feature cowboys and their steeds, as shown in The Rough String.
Haptonstall [1943-1995] grew up in Colorado and Arizona. Inspired by the sculpture of George Phippen (a founder and the first president of the CAA), Haptonstall cast and finished works at the Phippen Bronze Foundry. Later striking out on his own, he created such works as Settlin’ the Dust [see page 8], which shows a cowboy scooping a drink of water from a stream.
In New Mexico, failing eyesight and increasing frailty curtailed the output of the iconic Georgia O’Keeffe [1887-1986], although she did some interesting work in clay. Summing up her career at 90, she said, “It takes more than talent. It takes a kind of nerve … and a lot of hard, hard work.”
Wulf E. Barsh, Toward Thebes , oil 72 x 48, Springville Museum of Art.
O’Keeffe’s name will forever be associated with the purity and spirituality of the New Mexico landscape and with new ways of looking at the land and architecture of the Southwest. Preservation of her homes in Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch, projects of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, and works in numerous prestigious museums, including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum which opened in Santa Fe in 1997, will help perpetuate the public’s fascination with her mystique, her life and her art.
Another New Mexico artist garnering nationwide attention and acclaim in the 1980s was Hispanic sculptor Luis Jimenez [b1940]. Best known for his huge, colorful fiberglass sculptures, Jimenez brings the same dynamic line, vivid color, and animated images to his strong lithographs, as demonstrated by Vaquero.
Texas-born musician-turned-artist Harold Joe Waldrum [b1934] translated his attraction to the architectural forms of northern New Mexico’s churches into a striking series, exemplified by La Sombra del Machon atras de la Capilla de San Antonio en Chacon. In this aquatint, bright colors and precise style underscore the strength and beauty of the adobe structure.
Kenneth Riley, Bodmer Painting the Piegan Chief , oil, 48 x 40, Cowboy Artists of America Museum.
Utah’s diverse scenery continued to stimulate a variety of artists. The state’s tradition of strong religious art was furthered in the 1980s by numerous artists as well, notably German émigré and Mormon convert Wulf E. Barsch [b1943], who augmented teaching duties at Brigham Young University with explorations of mystical-spiritual themes, as in Toward Thebes.
Contemporary realist Lee Udall Bennion [b1956] captured something of the directness and intrepid spirit of strong Utah women who helped build the state in views of elongated mothers and children such as Full Bloom.
Responding at least in part to threats to wildlife and their natural habitats, artists in the 1980s
Gordon Snidow, I Don’t Make Coffee, Either , gouche, 333⁄4 x 25, Cowboy Artists of America Museum.
created numerous images of animals in the wilds of the West. Among the most prolific has been Ken Carlson [b1937], whose expansive, atmospheric oils include Spring Antelope. Another noted wildlife painter is Tucker Smith [b1940]. “I wish I could have seen the great herds of buffalo that once frequented the West,” says Smith, who recorded his version of the scene in the expansive The Way Things Were.
Sculptors who stood out in the decade include Sherry Sander and Glenna Goodacre. Montana-based Sander [b1941] continues the tradition of realistic western wildlife sculpture in bronzes such as Great Northern. Texas native Goodacre [b1939], now living in Santa Fe, gained national fame for her Vietnam Women’s Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC. She received the commission in 1990, and the sculpture of three women caring for a wounded soldier was unveiled in 1993. Much of Goodacre’s sculptursl work, however, has focused on expressive, perceptive group portraits of Native Americans, such as The Basket Dance.
Harold Joe Waldrum, La Sombra del Machon atras de la Capilla de San Antonio en Chacon [1983-85], aquatint, 20 x 20, Harwood Museum, Taos, NM.
The realistic cowboy and Indian art created by the Cowboy Artists of America and others experienced its heyday in the late 1970s and ’80s. With burgeoning technology encouraging artists to take their work in all kinds of new directions and abstraction continuing to be a major force, the tug of war between traditional realism and nonobjective art seemed to ensure a diverse field of western art in the last decade of the 20th century.
tephen May is an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer on American art, culture, and historic preservation. He lives in Washington, DC.
Featured in October 1999
Lee Udall Bennion, Full Bloom , oil, 40 x 30, Springville Museum of Art, UT.
Ken Carlson, Spring Antelope (detail) , oil, 26 x 36, National Museum of Wildlife Art.
Glenna Goodacre, The Basket Dance , bronze, H84, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
Grant Speed, The Rough String , oil, 32 x 181⁄2 x 24,Cowboy Artists of America Museum.