Anschutz Collection of Western Art, Museum of Natural History (1985)



 In 1984, a 31 year-old Ph.D. candidate living in a Buffalo, N.Y. suburb was taken to court by his neighbors and the town for failure to cut his lawn. The man wanted to allow wild flowers to grow. A forced mowing took place this past July. Very recently, fines totaling $30,000. were reduced to $50. by a higher court judge who upheld the lawn mowing ordinance.


 What does this incident have to do with the exhibition of a century and a half of American Art at the Museum of Natural History, 79 Central Park West, through February 16th? Probably everything, if we use the Philip F. Anschutz Collection, "Masterpieces of the American West," to examine some meanings of the West in reality and myth.


 The West is, and has been, a metaphor for freedom, danger, challenge, expectation and opportunity. It is, and has been, wide-open spaces; great mountains and canyons; a bigger, higher, more dramatic sky; a rougher, arid, more primitive way of life.


 But the West is not just a place, it's an idea, a feeling, the stuff of man's eternal dreams of quest and fulfillment. For Thoreau, "Eastward I go only by force; but Westward I go free." The historical Western attitude (nearly everything is diluted or corrupted these days) would not tolerate the anti-life, restricting conformity of a prim and proper Eastern town telling a free man how to run his life, much less mow his lawn...if there were any lawns.


 The seventy-six paintings of the Anschutz Collection include major 19th Century figures like Asher B. Durand, Albert Bierstadt, George Inness, Thomas Moran and a sampling of 20th Century artists (good works by Georgia O'Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock) dominated by the Taos artists and cowboy painters and illustrators.


 The show is a mix of fine art and illustration, both at varying levels of accomplishment. While the latter can be done extremely well, as in Frank Tenney Johnson's lush "Riders of the Dawn," 1935, it does not rank that high as art. The sparer vision of Frederic Remington has a stronger claim to being fine art, yet it would be difficult to equate it with the level of Winslow Homer or Thomas Eakins, for example.


 It is the nature of the beasts that illustration "illustrates" life and artistic form at a superficial rather than profound visual and emotional level, while fine art must rediscover, redefine and reconstruct them both through every generation of artists


 Numerous painters were attracted to Taos, New Mexico early in the century. They reveal both the strengths and weaknesses in this exhibition.


 Weaker painters like Victor Higgins, Laverne Nelson Black and Leo Gaspard cloyingly sweeten and sentimentalize the Indian. The marvelous architectural and spiritual statement of the pueblos is turned into a decorative backdrop.


 The artists' searching out the Indian in the first place seems the honest longing by technological man-cum-artist for the basic truths of life that European artists sought in African sculpture. But, in general, the Taos artists literally steal his soul -- after the theft of his lands and pillaging of his way of life -- by recreating the Indian as a colorful figure of legend, superficial modernist imagery and travel poster. They substitute nostalgic languor, picturesque anecdote and a sugary version of modernist color for acute observation and rigorous form. Even an artist as vigorous as George Bellows succumbs in "Pueblo, Tesuque, Number One," 1917.


 E. Martin Hennings, Ernest L. Blumenschein and Carl Oscar Borg emerge as the class acts among the Taos artists (there are others), at least in the following paintings. Hennings' "Taos Plaza, Winter," 1921, has the strength and freshness of a directly perceived and felt "everyday" reality undiminished by false idealism. His Indians emerge from wagons to stand between stolid, hitching-railed horses and stores offering "F. McCarthy Merchandise" and "Bargain Clothes."


 Blumenschein's "Sangre de Cristo Mountains (Blood of Christ)," 1925, are thunderously dark and portentous, a glow of sun (or God) light illuminating the foothills and central, horizontal swathe of golden adobe buildings. In foreground shadow, a compact, miniscule band of semi-stylized Indians re-enact Christ's struggling carry of the cross to Calvary.


 Borg's "The Niman Kachinas," 1926, unsentimentally masses the strong forms of six male dancers in costume. Solid realism and genuine pictorial drama are enhanced by distinguished, darker color and low eye level which thrusts the figures effectively against the sky.


 Earlier, Thomas Moran's "Indian Pueblo, Laguna, New Mexico," 1908, and Ralph Blakelock's "New Mexico Landscape," 1869, set a standard for honest response to the Indian and his environment largely unmatched by later artists. Moran's wonderfully subtle, tawny color and sensitive, painterly blend of glazes and impasto, and Blakelock's richly gouged and scumbled surface capture the timeless mystery of the wedding of man and architecture with the great earth from which both are made.


 Moran's "Children (three ravens) of the Mountain," 1866, like so many other paintings of the 19th Century, continues that artist's quite realistic but poetic examination of nature's grandeur for evidence of the presence of God. The seething swirl and disparate compositional angularities of cataract, dark rocks, live and fallen timber, and towering mountains half hidden by diving mists and incipient rainbow, is nearly a match for the Englishman, Joseph Turner.


 George Inness and Worthington Whittredge, on the other hand, more than do justice to the peaceful aspect of nature, to the space and light that seem their subjects and the accoutrements of the deity present in quiet beneficence and wholeness of spirit. Bierstadt and Moran seem to "rage, rage against the dying of the light," as God's illumination slowly fades, preparatory to the emergence of 20th Century man. Bierstadt's "Rocky Mountain Waterfall," 1898, vertically splits the picture in two as if the precursor and personification of the troubled modern condition that manifests itself in cubist disintegration.


 William Jacob Hays' "The Gathering of the Herds" is an effective painting and painful reminder of America's lost heritage. Vast herds of numberless buffalo, like endless accumulations of brown algae on an infinite prairie sea, flow over distant hills, to grow large and individualized in the foreground. Painted in 1866, shortly before their mass murder, they snort and paw the ground at the sight of a single buffalo skull, as if at the omen of their own demise (Apparently the Union Pacific Railroad was deliberately routed through the northern and southern herds so that the slaughter of the Plains Indians' food supply would hasten their conquest).


 A Buffalo Bill Cody poster vividly advertising his turn-of-the-century Wild West Show in Brooklyn, N.Y. is not part of the Anschutz Collection. But the lithographer's conception reveals much about how things Western were viewed then, and how we still respond to its lure as the magical place of fulfillment of physical and spiritual desires.


 Buffalo Bill on horseback flies high over New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty and infant Manhattan skyline. He appears to emerge out of the divine power of the sun like a reborn Apollo of the West, driving his sun chariot across the heavens; a transcendent Jesus Christ, buckskin redeemer of industrial man.


Copyright by Don Gray


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