THE ARTS Good Buy, Old Paint

The market value of western art has almost nothing to do with its artistic value.

The moment you walk through the door of the Texas Art Gallery on Main Street you realize that western art is doing very very well, thank you. No makeshift partitions or bare light bulbs here. The foyer is decorated with a soft, creamy marble, the carpeting is thick and expensive. Off to the right a staircase, lighted by a crystal chandelier, winds gracefully towards the mezzanine-more like Tara than Tombstone. Downstairs, in the main exhibition area, is an arrangement of bronzes, flanked by several dozen paintings. A few are portraits and landscapes, but the majority deal with the conventional subjects: cow-boys, cattle drives, buffalo hunts, Indian raids, the West of legend and folklore. Nothing here to startle or provoke a viewer. This is genre art, easy to decipher though not always easy to like. From time to time an attendant strolls by with coffee and advice, while at the front desk a secretary attempts to complete a sale over the phone.

“We’re terribly short on Jim Borens right now, ” she says apologetically, “and Melvin Warrens. They’re getting harder and harder to come by. But I’m sure we can arrange something. Perhaps you’d be interested in one of our other artists.”

This is a pleasant predicament for a gallery to be in these days, and one that director William Burford isn’t sure he understands completely. Seated behind an oversized mahogany desk that might have been designed for a summit conference, he puffs on his cigar and gives a quick summary of the state of “the industry.”

“Melvin Warren’s ’Remnants of the Herd’ sold for $22,500 back in 1973, $33,000 in 1974, and if 1 had it today I could easily sell it for over $100,000. 1 offered $100,000 for John Clymer’s “Whiskey, Whiskey,’ which sold for $15,000 in 1974, and couldn’t touch it.”

Burford cautions that such prices apply only to good paintings by name artists, yet a quick survey of recent gallery and auction activity suggests that the health of the entire “industry” is extraordinary. At the latest Cowboy Artists Exhibition in Phoenix, the principal guide to activity in contemporary western art, $680,000 worth of paintings and sculpture sold in less than 15 minutes, with the top price of $30,000 being paid for a new oil by John Clymer. There were 220 bids on it, and the buyer turned down two offers of $40,000 before leaving town. Competition for the work of Tom Lovell and James Boren was equally fierce, creating the impression that western art has become the preserve of cattle barons, oil men, and holding companies.

“Let’s say you can’t be poor,” says John Diffily, a curator at the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art and one of the judges of this year’s show. “You certainly see a lot of art being carried off in Cadillacs and Mercedeses.”

Prices for classic 19th- and early 20th-century paintings have risen even more dramatically. Before frontier buffs like Amon Carter and Sid Richardson began their collection forays, it was possible to buy Remingtons and Russells for less than $1000. Now an average piece by either artist would bring a minimum of $75,000 to $100,000, a fine one double that amount. An oil by George Caleb Bingham, one of the major artists of the Missouri-Mississippi frontier, sold recently for $980,000, a price that scared off most collectors, including the Amon Carter. The works of less exalted figures such as Ernest L. Blumenschein, Oscar Berning-haus, and other members of the Taos Society of Artists regularly bring from $10,000 to $30,000.

Not bad for art that has been generally snubbed by critics and the cultural establishment and that until quite recently was relegated to the stairwells and back halls of most museums. So what’s behind the remarkable surge of interest? Nationalist sentiment and education, says Rudolph Wunder-lich, director of the Kennedy Galleries in New York City. “All American art is hot right now. Primitives, impressionists, you name it. There are a hundred buyers for every good piece because there isn’t going to be any more of it. Also, there are more books and exhibitions about American art now than ever before. The public is simply more aware of its own artistic heritage.”

Without disregarding this explanation, other observers see the western art boom as something of a fad, a small rocket temporarily off its course.

“Eighty percent of the work being done today is crap,” says one local dealer, “technically shoddy, historically suspect, redundant, sentimental. It’s getting so that all you have to do is paint a corral and a few horses and you’re in business.”

The question, of course, is why? One obvious answer is that western art is essentially narrative art, and most people are more comfortable with stories than with abstract designs and bold splashes of color, especially when the central characters and situations are familiar from thousands of movies and comic books. Moreover, the American West has always been both a place and a state of imagination. From the early works of Cole to the hyperbolic canvases of Bierstadt and Moran, it has been presented as the modern Arcadia – wild, unspoiled, the preserve of natural, un-fallen man. And as more and more of these 19th-century paintings were engraved and distributed as prints, western art entered our collective fantasies in ways that cubism and abstract expressionism never could. It stroked our national pride while helping to justify our expansionist ambitions. It was sublime patriotic art.

That appeal persists, though in somewhat diminished form. The rancher or oil man who buys a piece of western art may only be trying to recapture his youth, but the fellow back in Baltimore or New York City, hemmed in by freeways and shopping centers, is probably buying a vision of a simpler, less cluttered life. To him, a painting of a lone cowboy driving a herd of cattle across an open range, purple mountains shimmering in the background, is an expression of freedom and self-determination. He probably doesn’t think much about the hardship and loneliness of the cowboy’s life, because generally speaking western art doesn’t deal with that sort of thing.

Western painters, past and present, have depicted an idealized world in which there is no poverty, no pollution, no suggestion of the insoluble problems that bedevil the rest of the world. Reality passes through a series of filters and comes out clean, polished, definitely on the rosy side. Out here, the art says, courage and initiative still count. A person can be whatever he, and sometimes she, wants to be. If violence appears, it is so highly stylized as to be almost charming. Nobody winces at the spectacle of one of Remington’s cowpokes blasting away at a rustler. That’s only frontier theatrics, with no more connection to the real West than “Hogan’s Heroes” has to POW camps.

To say that the western artist is drunk on the past isn’t necessarily to damn him. The backward glance is one of the basic facts of art history. Renaissance painters stole everything they could from Greece and Rome, and the Romantics did a pretty good job of ransacking the Middle Ages. And after all, the western movement is one of the world’s great romantic dramas. What is disturbing to many people about the western artist’s obsession with the past is that his past is so limited. It is mainly the past of the cowboy, which historically lasted only a bit longer than “Gunsmoke.” By 1890 it was over,though the art would have us believe it is immortal. By comparison, the miner, the mountain man, the farmer, and the explorer are terribly underrepresented in western art.

By being so hooked on the past, western art has neglected the present, to the point that it could be said to have no present at all. We search in vain for images of rodeos and pickup trucks and small roadside bars. Even artists who claim to be painting the modern cowboy update only the clothes. The subject matter remains traditional because, to most people, that’s what the West means. A “western novel” is something by Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour, not On the Road or even The Last Picture Show. Georgia O’Keeffe’s name rarely turns up in discussions of western art, though no one has captured the character of the West better. This is a problem both of nomenclature and of attitude. “Western” has come to mean a particular kind of subject matter rather than work done in a particular region. Most western novelists and poets try to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the myth of the West, but western artists tend to wear it like jeans-the snugger the fit the better. They don’t mind being called regionalists and romantics; what they fear are words like “innovative” and “experimental.” Such labels could interfere with sales.

“Technically, there wasn’t much difference among the paintings in this year’s show,” says John Diffily. “They were all highly varnished, untextured. Not a brush stroke visible anywhere. So we looked instead for new turns on the familiar subjects. We found a few, but not many.”

There are even some artists who refuse to paint anything but Herefords because, they insist, that’s what the public expects to see in a western painting. A good Black Angus just won’t sell, at least in a gallery.

To the charge that all of this constitutes an abuse of the past, western artists reply that, on the contrary, they are helping to preserve aspects of the western experience that might otherwise be lost. They point to the superb modeling and intricate detail of the bronzes by Remington and Russell, usually without mentioning that their overall portrayal of cowboy life has more holes than the back bar of the Long Branch saloon. Among contemporary western artists, John Clymer has one of the strongest reputations for historical accuracy. He spends six months a year in the Rockies, poking around small museums and libraries, retracing the routes of Lewis and Clark and other explorers. His paintings of mountain men are authentic-down to the belt buckles and the fringes on the buckskin jackets, and they could legitimately be considered historical records as well as works of art. James Boren is certainly one of the finest water-colorists working anywhere, a superb draftsman and a master at handling the dramatic interplay of light and shadow that is characteristic of the West. His best paintings, particularly those of contemporary Indian life, have great luminosity and intensity of color, which suggests that he’s studied Turner and Homer as well as the genre painters. And even when his subject matter is thoroughly conventional, his work has a freshness and a spontaneity that sets it apart from that of the paint-by-numbers crowd. But for every James Boren and John Clymer there are a dozen artists who are content to repeat the motifs of Remington and Russell, with little respect for history or their own reading of it. Many are former East Coast illustrators who’ve decided that the grass is greener, or browner, west of the Mississippi. Though often technically polished, their work tends to be sentimental and meretricious, more suitable for a dime novel than an art gallery. It deserves the critical clubbing it usually gets.

As for rodeos, oil wells, pick-up trucks, and other key ingredients of contemporary western life, they have yet to make their way into paint. Only photographers and filmmakers seem to find them intriguing. But just to be on the safe side, don’t throw away your old Lone Star coasters or those mugs from last year’s Cowboys/Broncos Super Bowl. The way things have been going, Sotheby’s might hold an auction any day.


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.