Mention "Western art" and people immediately think of images of cowboys and Indians. But it's much more than that. For starters, add to the cast explorers, surveyers, pioneers, urban Indians, rangehands, rodeo riders, hunters (and the hunted). And don't forget the monumental landscapes captured on canvas by talented artists. Before long, you'll realize that Western art is far more complex than you thought.
In 1960, Philip F. Anschutz began collecting art of the American West. His goal? To assemble significant examples of Western art by important painters. Today the collection consists of more than 500 paintings. (And the majority of them are not of cowboys and Indians.)Anschutz's desire to share this collection with the world resulted in a traveling exhibit that began in 1974 and has continued for 16 years. During that time, it has toured extensively throughout the United States, Europe, the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union.
This spectacular exhibition, "Masterpieces of the American West: Selections from the Anschutz Collection," is now at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA), where it will remain through Dec. 16.
After the Utah engagement, the exhibit will open at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum on Jan. 16, 1991. Last stop for the traveling show will be the Wichita Art Museum (April 14 through Aug. 11, 1991).
Strange as it may seem, the Anschutz Collection was exhibited in Salt Lake City once before - way back in 1974. At that time, the show contained only 57 paintings.
Since then, the number of works in the show has increased to 81; and many of the works in the first show have been replaced with newer ones.
The current show fills three galleries at UMFA - the Changing Exhibitions Gallery as well as the Thomas and Michael galleries. UMFA is also spotlighting some of its own Western art holdings downstairs in the Hansen Gallery.
Artists featured in the Anschutz collection are definitely among the "Who's Who of Western Art." In fact, their names are household words in the art world: Bellows, Benton, Bierstadt, Couse, Dixon, Fechin, Leigh, Marin, Moran, O'Keeffe, Pollock, Remington, Russell, Sloan and Ufer - to name a few.
Each of these artists recorded the West in his own style and media. One of the earliest, George Catlin, focused on documenting the manners, customs and characteristics of the American Indian. Others, like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, were European-trained naturalists inspired by the majestic, monumental landscapes of the West.
Charles Russell, Frederic Remington and other illustrators were commissioned by Eastern magazines to travel west for the purpose of sketching and painting scenes to be used in adventure stories of the Old West. American artists of the 20th century established colonies in West, with Santa Fe and Taos being the most notable. And during the Great Depression, federal art projects helped Frank Mechau, Fletcher Martin and other Western artists continue their painting endeavors.
After World War II, abstract expressionists came west for inspiration. Realism gave way to stylization and abstraction in paintings by Howard Cook, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Jan Matulka, Georgia O'Keeffe and Jackson Pollock.
Visitors who enter the Changing Exhibitions Gallery will be attracted immediately to Bierstadt's huge oil "Wind River, Wyoming." Painted in 1870, it measures 41/2 feet by 6 feet and vibrates with theatrical lighting.
Also hanging in this room is William R. Leigh's "Grand Canyon, 1908," a sensitive, masterful painting in which the artist accurately captures the colors of the canyon. However, when first painted, it received considerable criticism. East Coast critics complained that the colors were too bright and garish. Obviously, they had never been to the Grand Canyon!
It's thrilling to see so many works where artists capture atmospheric perspective. In other words, close objects are filled with pure colors and detail, while distant objects are lighter, grayer and less defined.
Other artists - Ernest Blumenschein, Irving Couse, William Leigh and Frank Tenney Johnson - have introduced shadows in the foreground. This clever manipulation of sunlight and shadow helps direct the viewer's eye to the center of interest.
The exhibit is a potpourri of styles. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate that is to compare two paintings in the Thomas Gallery - Nicolai Fechin's "Indian Woman with Children (1926)" and Andrew Dasburg's "Portrait of a Cowboy (1928)." In the first, Fechin vigorously attacks his canvas with a palette knife, thus creating a powerful, energetic work. Dasburg, however, tickles his canvas with a small brush, reworking areas over and over. The result is a lifeless, insipid portrait. In fact, it's not even finished. The artist took so long painting it that the cowboy got tired of modeling.
Elizabeth Cunningham, director of exhibitions for the Anschutz Collection, writes, "The styles and the media differ, but the message remains the same: The West is a beautiful, vigorous, still untamed land whose spirit of adventure speaks to all."