JERRY GOROSKI is the consultant appraisar to whom I refer inquiries about Scriver bronzes. He is formally trained and certified to do assessments and knew Bob Scriver as well as working for the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls. His gallery is called "Open Range Art."


Sunday, August 28, 2005

Bob Scriver & Ace Powell

Well, these two guys ain't Picasso and Matisse, but that's not their fault. Both pairs were creatures of their time and place.

Bob Scriver and Ace Powell were buddies from high school and collaborated on the school yearbook in the early Thirties-- that would be the Browning High School "Etaikasi." They drew and modeled all the time with whatever materials they could find, including clay dug from river banks. Ace hung around Charlie Russell at Apgar where Ace's family worked. Bob hung around Charlie when he came to visit the Blackfeet.

The photo was taken at the Moiese, Montana, National Bison Range, just a bit north of Missoula in the Flathead Valley. C.J. Henry, the manager of the range and a darned good photographer, caught his two friends in their characteristic roles, Bob listening sceptically and Ace gesturing his way through some major principle about art in Montana in the 1960's. The two (along with Nancy McLaughlin, Ace's wife) were helping with the annual fall roundup, when all the buffs were run into sorting chutes for inspection and inoculation. Some were selected out for slaughter and others were sold as yearlings for others to raise.

Bob was a doer and Ace was a talker, though the latter was a multi-tasker -- he could talk while he did anything at all! And he never let his cigarette go out, either, though it's Bob who's holding one in this photo. They were very different men and yet they shared deeply what they believed. And they believed in art.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

"American Art Review" (July/Aug 2005)

“American Art Review” (July/Aug 2005) is not a cowboy art magazine, but includes most kinds of representational art -- impressionist, plein aire, and so on. The articles included are scholarly, usually having been written by curators to accompany exhibits.

This issue warms the cockles of my heart (what are cockles anyway?) because it includes two articles from out here where some people think there is “nothing.” One is from the Winold Reiss show in Kalispell this summer and the other, rather surprisingly about The Taos Society of Artists, is from Spokane.

But first want to mention my hobbyhorse about cafe art. On p. 51 is a wonderfully atmospheric nighttime portrait of a little sidewalk cafe in Rome called “St. Marks Mozart,” by Marilyn Simandle. The musicians in question are under a glowing marquee while the clientele seems to be largely missing, maybe because of rain. The cathedral takes up one-fourth of the painting, which is impressionistic.

Another favorite subject sub-genre of mine is doorways. In this issue is a very geometric and white (p. 57) entry to “French Quarter Gallery” by Dean Mitchell. An excellent example of the “golden proportion” of one-fifth to four-fifths, a strict watercolor, and yet evocative. On p. 64 is another near example of the proportion, but this time it is a series of entries on both sides of a street -- one white in the sun, one red in the shade. “Ancient Colors” by Lisa Bloomingdale Bell.

Another red entry way on p. 72. “Work Detail” by Aline E. Ordmann puts a janitor under a noble arch. On page 80 a white entryway, the Best of Show in the Paint Annapolis 2005 plein air event in which the artists do exactly that: go out to paint scenes in Annapolis for the day, then re-convene for sales and awards. The porch in question is “Front Porch Geraniums” by Robert Barber. Only one plant sports a red bloom.

One that really apeals to me is historical: Frederick Childe Hassam’s “The Stairs” 1888. P. 119. A mother and child at the top of sunny stairs that evidently open into a home. A calico cat is crouched on one stair. I’m especially fond of Hassam because he painted in Portland, OR, where I grew up, and I’ve seen a lot of his work. He seems to me “the way a painter ought to paint.” Another master is on page 120: John Singer Sargent’s painting of the stairs to “Scuola di San Rocco.” There’s another next to it on the same page, “Street Scene at Capri” 1899 by Elihu Veder. It’s too small to tell very much, but could be interesting.

The captions in this magazine, like the captions in the National Sculpture Society magazine, always bug me because I can’t separate them from the text. There are lines, but I can’t see them very well -- old I am and wearing varifocal lenses. The captions are grouped in the middle -- one would think I’d learn that -- but sometimes they’re NOT. And my eye has to go back and forth, searching, while I try to figure out what I’m looking at. Maybe a pastel color block background?

Anyway, “Enchanted Visions: The Taos Society of Artists and Ancient Cultures” includes a photo of the culprits ( no women) who could be said to have invented Western art, at least in the SW. The museum has a website: There is a 44 page catalogue booklet. Show lasts thru 9/25/05.

Much of the essay is about the models, how they were posed and paid. This is fair enough since so many of these paintings were portraits. Couse painted so many, so idealized and so typical, that a certain kind of subject is called a “Cousing Indian.”

The paintings shown are:

By Bert Geer Phillips:
“Watergrass” . (Title painted on the painting.)
“Spectators at Winter Ceremonial, Taos Pueblo”

By Oscar Berninghaus
“Racers at the Pueblo”
“Pueblo Indian Life”

By E. Martin Hennings
“Indian Hunters Among the Aspens”

By Walter Ufer
“The Entertainer”
“The Listeners” 1920

By (William) Victor Higgins
“Apaches” c. 1918
(In regards to this one, compare with the Kenneth Riley “Plains Motif” on p. 37 in the September “Southwest Art.” The intersection of reality and abstraction is similar as well as the palette, though Higgins does an interesting thing by putting his foreground figures in shadow, even a hawk.)

By Joseph Henry Sharp
“Sage and Thistle”
“Studio Visitors”
On p. 20 is a good Sharp painting of Blackfeet or Crow lodges. Sharp is also considered a “cowboy artist.”

By William Herbert “Buck” Dunton
“The Hostiles” 1915
Dunton is included in the “cowboy artist” canon as well. On p. 35 is a fine example of “night” painting: “Above the Bed Ground”

By Ernest Blumenschein
“Indians Entertaining the Cheyenne”
Not hard to figure out that the cold climate prairie Cheyenne are wearing dark clothes and cowboy hats, which the SW Indians dress in white. Look at the proportion of light to dark in the figures: one-fifth to four-fifths?

“Winold Reiss: Artist for the Great Northern” will be on view through 10/18/05. 24 page catalogue for $25 and worth it. This article is by the same author, Scott J. Tanner, who is joined by Linda Engh-Grady. The opening was attended by Renate Reiss, widow of Tjark Reiss, Winold’s son. She and other members of the family maintain the key website from the Reiss’ family estate in New York.

The paintings, all portraits, include:
“Bull Boy--Blackfeet, 1943”
“Calling First” 1935
“Under Owl Woman with Child” (Julia Wades in the Water and granddaughter.)
“Heavy Head” 1935
“Heavy Shield” (version 1)1927
“Snowbird, Papoose” 1931
“Roasting Stick” 1944
“Mudhead, Bear Society-Piegan” 1943

There are two photos of Reiss at work, one indoors and one outdoors. I presume the boy in the outdoor one was Tjark, who was the same age as Bob Scriver (b. 1914). I don’t know who put that lodge up, but they sure did a bad job! Must not have been any grandmothers around!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Western Rendezvous of Art, 2005

The Western Rendezvous of Art is a benefit for the Montana Historical Society and the Helena Civic Center Board. Proceeds from the event are split between the two nonprofit organizations. For a formal newspaper story go to txt

For the website of the show, go to Selected art is posted there. Anyway, it’s always a pleasure to look at Stan Lynde wearing his cowboy hat with the porcupine quill band. He’s just a heckuva handsome guy!

Total sales exceeded $492,000
compared to some $324,000 last year
and previous record of $400,000 raised in 2003 at the 25th anniversary of the Rendezvous.
(These figures are modest compared to the big time auctions but still pretty healthy for a small pleasant show without stellar or historic artists.)

I didn’t go to the show this year (gas is way too high) but the following paintings were on the website:

Matt Smith, "Runoff in Flat Tire Canyon," is a very nice piece of scenery.
George Strickland, "When Mountains Are Gold," is reminiscent of the style of Maynard Dixon, at least when digitized.

The Heritage Award was given to Don Prechtel for his "Punitive Expedition." This is an excellently done composition of cavalry in the SW -- I’m guessing showing the use of Apache scouts to hunt down Apaches when Geronimo left the rez everytime he was double-crossed, which was often.

This organization puts emphasis on peaceful plein aire paintings. Almost all the samples are landscapes or portraits of animals or colorful people -- that’s pretty typical. What caught my eye on the website were the following:

A ghostly portrait of the inside of “The Old Bodie Saloon” by Gerald Fritzler is done in watercolor, which is the right medium for this fading scene with its rococo pool table.

Newman Myrah’s “Trail Hounds,” is a gentle painting of a packer, his horses and hounds. Myrah is an long-time expert in the CAA crowd.

Steve Seltzer’s “Square Butte Camp” is a classic scene of Blackfeet lodges near the famous butte his grandfather and Charlie Russell painted many times -- but at least in this digital rendering -- much more in the style of Sharp, soft on a cloudy day.

Among the bronzes, I admire (as usual) Joe Halko’s pair of mountain sheep, “Pride of the Rockies.” He likes to portrait animals in small groups and he is especially fond of animals that have knuckly, gnarly, curly parts like rear ends, horns, nostrils and ears that give him an excuse to make them so appealing that I can’t keep my hands off them.

Bob Morgan has from the beginning been a quiet force for order and persistence and it has paid off for everyone.

"Southwest Art" magazine: September, 2005 Issue

To get the benefit of this piece you will need the September, 2005 issue of “Southwest Art.” The trick I’m going to try to perform here is to give you a conversation as I page through the magazine. Gotcher ‘zine? Okay.

This is the annual “Emerging Artists” issue. The cover is a baby on the knee of a mom : “Mother’s Love” by Tony Pro, the dad. Baby cried loudly while his dad was winning “Best of Show” at the Oil Painters of America show, which nearly brought dad to tears. There’s a whole article about Pro.

“Southwest Art” doesn’t stick to cowboy art. I love a painting in an ad on page one: Yingzhao Liu (Chinese, I presume) creates a young female musician in traditional Chinese dress, looking poised next to a traditional Chinese chair, while all around around fly sheets of music and on the chair rests her instrument. A saxophone!

On page 4 is one of those “yellow slicker” paintings that show up in CAA circles all the time. The author, Tom Ryan, is one of the best of the circle. Name of painting: “Red Dirt Country.” Two older guys, looking competent, lead the herd through Texas bluebonnets. (Compare with p. 65, James Bama -- also CAA -- “Bittin’ Up, Rimrock Ranch” -- focused young guy in a slicker that’s not yellow. Probably not new either. Check the britches.)

Birds show up all the time. I like the crows (“No Parking” by Krystii Melaine on p. 6) and the magpies on p. 98 by Sid Frissell. Corvu are supposed to be the most intelligent of birds, though parrots might argue. on page 140, three ?? finches, maybe? The title, “Onward and Upward,” is painted right into the picture. The artist, Andrew Denman, is pictured with small parrots on him.

It’s clear that some guys think of cars as fondly as horses. Check p. 66, Charles Pyle’s old yellow pickup. (Variation on yellow slickers.) Another on p. 70 by Timothy Horn.

Two interesting examples of underplayed bronzes: origami cranes “unfolding” in the manner of the waterfowl portraits supported by touching wingtips (by Kevin Box) and a “Papoose” (politically dubious title) which is actual size on the page (45), a strict frame with a baby swaddled rather than in an Indian carrier by the look of it. Very rough but tender. By LeRoy Transfield.

There’s a beautiful human figure on p. 102, a nude woman, evidently bald and with an abstract face, folded into curves and angles with a warm rough surface. By Aiko. I could look at it a long time and long to put gentle hands on it.

On p. 123 is an exception to the rule: a painter of industrial scenes -- factories, billboards, refineries and other things we normally find ugly -- revealed as beautiful by Rick Dula.

I keep a close watch for restaurant/cafe paintings. We’re a food society. A gorgeous one on p. 132: “Table Setting at the Grand Hotel, Paris.” by Lindsay Goodwin. No people. On p. 162, “Brunch” by Pam Powell is another beauty with people, therefore story. They’re in ads, therefore too small to see much.

Normally I’ll try to avoid being nasty about stuff I don’t like, but here’s a peeve that maybe ought not to have. But I’m entitled to an opinion, right? It’s a cheesecake male nude, from the back, very “tasteful,” called “The Naked Apache”. If someone puts up a Marilyn Monroe naked calendar and you want to fight back, here you go. Anyway, long hair and a feather do not an Apache make.

Nor do I like the “belly worship” on p. 176, though I’m told that Americans have finally given up their fixation on breasts in order to value the belly because we’re in a time when many women can’t get pregnant. They put it off too long, they’ve had too many partners, their hormones are wrecked by stress or drugs, the environment is poisoned -- who knows? Thus the craze for low-rider pants with chopped off tops.

You see that photo of Carly Kipp on page 178? She’s from here. We’re proud of her.

It’s been a puzzle how to use the many fine bust photos of old-time chiefs. In the Sixties we just tried to paint them as accurately as we could. Tom Gilleon has been more ingenious in his 9-square canvas called “War and Peace.” The painting is actually 60” by 60.” There are five chiefs and I should be able to name them but not this late at night. The other squares are a lodge, a shield, a dog and a man on horseback in parade gear. The horse is painted. The painting itself is excellent -- rich color, symbolic birds crossing the grid lines, the dog merely an intelligent head with a suggested body. Compare with “Poppies” by Andrew Paquette on p. 51. Much the same colors, the grid provided by a wire fence. Print available for $600.

Another interesting take-off on the Indian theme is on p. 37. A near-abstract Indian man in a horned headdress holds a stylized eagle staff and shield in front of a lodge with a pronghorn on it in the Blackfeet style, but the circle and line on the animal -- which would normally point out the heart and kidneys -- go from eye to tail. This is by Kenneth Riley, is called “Plains Motif,” and recently sold from an Altermann Galleries auction for $112,500.

Now go to bed and dream!

Monday, August 22, 2005

Picturing the West

(This was written for an anthology whose editors rejected it as "not scholarly enough" so be warned.)

For the sake of this discussion, let us divide “Western” artists into two groups: those who “belong” to the Old West and those who “belong” to the New West, and who have perhaps helped to create the whole idea of “The West” by raising up the work of the earlier group. This essay will discuss the relationship between the earlier group, who came by horseback, steamship and railroad; and the more recent artists, who might have come in a moving van or might be able to claim roots in the West.

If one says “Old West,” the immediate mental tag most people produce is the R & R boys -- Remington (1861 - 1909) and Russell (18 - 1934)-- who, in fact, had little or no interaction and whose works have very little relationship in style or subject. Remington was a man with one foot in the military West and one foot still back East -- the latter being the foot that carried his considerable weight. He was a creature of the New York City art scene, at home in the world of fine food and good cigars. But he made a living basically as a war correspondent in the days before photography. His bronzes still appear behind the President of the United States in the Oval Office. Russell was a man of the West, a natural man who painted what he lived. He had witnessed the death of the world he loved and tried to bring it back in his work. An humble man, with a mordant wit rather like that of his friend Will Rogers, he never dreamed his little painting cabin would become a mighty shrine.

The “New West” is harder to sum up by naming a few artists, but maybe the Cowboy Artists of American typify the assortment if it is defined narrowly. Perhaps inspired by the Taos artists, who banded together to promote their work, the Cowboy Artists protest that they were just a couple of good ole boys hanging around the tavern (now famous and advertised in Cowboys and Indians magazine as the place to go) when they had a brainstorm. The reality has much to do with the leadership of Dean Krakel, a museum curator at the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.

Parallel to narrative paintings of the invaders of the West and the reluctant indigenous occupants, is art of the landscape. Moran and Beirstadt might be the early exemplars, closely linked to the origins of the National Parks and the promotion of the cross-continental railroads. More recent folks might be Clyde Aspevig or Russell Chatham, who sustain their work in the Valley of the Rich Movie Stars near Livingston, Montana.

Through the Hollywood Westerns, the Old West is seemingly brought back to life, now framing the fabulous vistas of Navajo County and again referencing famous paintings for the composition of scenes. An army of researchers and experts on period clothing and horse tack, a fleet of amateur anthropologists who can put up a tipi , try to get those movies looking authentic. (In the early days of the backlot, the experts often WERE real cowboys or Indians looking for work over the winter in a climate kind to bones broken in rodeos.)

Then the artists, many of an age to have been imprinted by the great Cowboy Era on television (Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Rawhide, Paladin, pattern their paintings after movie icons. (A few are even old enough to remember the great Saturday afternoon movies: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix.) Actors come to the West to appear in shoots on location and then return to buy ranches and furnish them with fine Western art.

Suddenly, the American West is a “lifestyle” with an interior decoration theme of furniture by Molesworth (leather fringe, brass tacks), chandeliers of wagon wheels or enmeshed deer antlers, and artifacts of both cowboy and Indian provenance: fringed tobacco bags, elaborate spurs, buffalo robes and Pendleton blankets. What was once accidental accretions in old ranch buildings now becomes carefully calculated (and expensive) arrangements worthy of depiction in high-end shelter magazines. The art work takes it place in trophy houses of logs and stones, often places occupied only by caretakers most of the year. They proliferate around resort towns with enough wealthy tourists to support fine shops and elegant restaurants, so that Montana -- where one must plan ahead to get to a small town with a cafe at meal-time -- has two five-star French restaurants, one at Chico Hot Springs and the other at Hamilton.

But wealthy immigrants are not the only ones gripping the dream of the Old West, for the fifth and sixth generations of Western settlers -- desperate for a way to make a living in hard times -- have turned to paint and bronze to try to strike it rich, rather in the spirit of a bronc rider who hopes to end up in enough money to save the home ranch. Those who can’t paint might take up a pen or become cowboy poets with a guitar on hand.

A third group of folks enjoying a New West bonanza might be the fine Eastern illustrators of books and magazines -- the compatriots of N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell -- who lost their markets when the slick magazines like the Saturday Evening Post went out of business. Many of them migrated to the Southwest where they found a congenial lifestyle, supportive galleries, and wonderful subject matter. In fact, a few like John Clymer were returning home. They made common cause with the Cowboy Artists of America and soon the result was a fabulous collection of images worthy of admiration.

Perhaps the best thing about this Western art was that no one had to have a university education to understand it. The New York scene was alive with people like Rothko or Pollock, and soon Rauschenberg and Warhol. But guys out West with extraction industry or ranch incomes big enough to buy fine art couldn’t get the point of it. Better to have a soup can you could open and eat out of. Yet, they wanted to have fine houses, well-furnished, and they acquired wives from back East with Culture. To acquire a fine Maynard Dixon painting was to arrive at a true compromise: it both stood as an abstraction and told a good story. Lately, some have gotten a little bored with the usual cowboy in a yellow slicker and have begun to produce explosions of color with a recognizable bucking horse at the center.

Still, Western art didn’t “get no respect” until the big bucks began to roll in. Perhaps the clincher was the sale of A Reconnaisance by Frederic Remington for $5,172,000 at Christie’s on May 26, 1999. It has always been true that the ultimate measure of art is money: whether it’s Van Gogh or Rembrandt, it’s the big money that will get the story into Time magazine.

For a true movement to form -- like that of art of the New West -- it is necessary for certain forces to be present: the subject, the artist, the audience, the means of creation (including enough money for the artist to live on until the reputation cashes in), and the machinery of distribution: the dealers and galleries. In the case of Cowboy Art, major nonprofit museums lent themselves as galleries and the high-prestige location for shows and auctions. The Whitney Gallery of Western Art (created by a sibling from the same fortune that created The Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York), the Gilcrease, the Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Amon Carter, and more recently the Autry Museum in Los Angeles have become the Guggenheim, of Western art.

A system of shows, galleries auctions, websites, magazines, and individual dealers supports and promotes the Art of the New West. Perhaps because of the commodities-based fortunes of the buyers, there is a definite feel of the stockmarket about buying art. A recent article by Jeffrey Hogrefe in Cowboys & Indiansis frankly entitled, “Investing in Western & Native American Art.” Many of the slick specialty magazines list the auction prices of specific works and the dealers publish these prices both on their websites as updates and in their catalogues after the auction.

Yet, at a recent seminar accompanying the annual Western Rendezvous of Art, which announces its specialty as “plein air” painting, a panel of experts -- none of them artists and several of them dealers -- emphasized over and over that one must not buy art as an investment but rather because they have a strong emotional reaction to it -- they “love” it. The collectors on the panel spoke of having “tears in their eyes” when they first saw some certain painting, and valuing it beyond the house in which it is hung now. Clearly, one of the forces propelling the movement is a deep response to the mythology of cowboys, Indians, and the vistas over which they move.

Nevertheless, the point of the seminar was to deal with art as a commodity, though the term they used was “investment.” Matters such as how to get the value out of a painting on short notice, how to judge value in an art work, what sort of arrangements as to payment might be made, and so on were the real point of the panel.

In a promotional film about the work of Howard Terpning, a fine painter, he is explaining a composition showing Chief Joseph just after his surrender when he suddenly chokes up and says, “Sorry, boys. I can’t go on.” Clearly, the artist as well as the purchaser is filled with emotion by the subject matter. Yet the film is in part to encourage the sales of prints made of Terpning’s paintings. The paintings themselves sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the prints of the same paintings might sell for hundreds. These are not prints in the sense of a hand-made direct etching or lithograph, but rather a high-tech version of offset or inkjet printing called giclee.

Modern plastics and resins have made it possible to produce sculpture in cheap versions that look very much like bronze. But technology has also made possible a relatively cheap bronze casting method based on ceramic shells rather than investment -- and anyway modern plastic mold materials are far easier to use for the labor intensive process of casting. A Remingon bronze, once cast in an art foundry by skilled Italians and sold for thousands of dollars, can now be bought as a knockoff for as little as as $750.

Such changes are so complex and so threatening in their implications, that many customers have shifted their attention to the artists, who sometimes will provide certificates of authenticity or maintain registration lists. Informed customers may require a provenance for an expensive work of art -- rather like a title for a piece of land -- and, in fact, who has owned a particular work may affect the price, just as Elvis’ car is worth far more than one exactly like it that only belonged to a nobody. Thus, artists have no choice but to provide a little color and sense of glamour if they hope for their sales to go well.

The value of Western art was not always so high. Many of the original masters were poor all their lives, but people are used to the stories of starving European artists, and it all adds to the excitement of something once seen as cheap becoming very expensive and desirable. There is a constant atmosphere of horse-trading or searching for gold, because many artists sold or gave away their work whereever they were, maybe to pay for lodging or a bar bill.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

About Western Art

Talk about American Western Sculpture

1. Defined by subject matter

“Oh, you know. It’s that sculpture about cowboys and Indians.” Cowboys and Indians -- that’s a game little kids play. For some folks the whole field of American Western sculpture is dead right there. To others Western art has souvenir status, because of vacations in the West.

But if you’re a grownup who still admires the culture of the American West, then this art defined by the subject matter and most associated with the prairie frontier in the 19th century. It is almost always naturalistic, narrative, and figurative. That is, the viewer can tell what it is, realizes that some kind of story is involved, and (always in the case of sculpture, which cannot depict landscape) portrays a figure, human or animal. The sculptures that group several figures often depict a moment of high suspense, a crisis, and to some people this is the essence of the Western American bronze -- conflict, violence, impending disaster. Thus the subject is related to the theme of the American Frontier, which is seen as a dangerous place that teaches us about endurance, striving, and cleverness. But many Western American bronzes are about character, a moment of peace, or even safety. This is particularly true of animal portraits.

Today American Western bronzes, as they appear in magazines such as Southwest Art or Art of the West might be about other subjects than cowboys or Indians, Cavalry or fur trappers. The single consistent principle seems to be that they not be about anything industrial (with the possible exception of railroads). Even if the time period is Post-Industrial, the subject should be non-machine, non-factory, non-engine. Western artists love to go to Africa or peasant Europe or Mexico to find subject matter -- donkey carts and peasants -- and it works so long as the rule above is obeyed. No industrial subjects. Lately there have been chickens and even eggs.

When they choose their subjects, artists reveal their inner worlds , unless they are simply working for the market. That, which is not dishonorable is more determined by circumstances than anyone might think. Remington survived by illustrating news or fiction in newspapers and magazines. He was primarily a draftsman and since his access to the frontier was through traveling with the cavalry, much of his work is drawings of soldiers.

2. Who are the Western artists?

If a person tries to find the “first cowboy artist,” it would not turn out to be a European. It’s an ironic fact that the first American equestrian paintings were made on the east coast by 16th century Tlaxcala Indians who attempted to explain to their king about the animals that came from the bellies of huge canoes on the ocean -- animals that appeared to be half-man, half-beast. (Little did they know what a beast Cortez was!) When these double beasts were killed, however, they came apart into a man and a creature. Just for insurance, the Indians hung the heads of the horses alongside the heads of the men.

Probably as soon as the living horses managed to separate themselves from their Spanish riders and escape to the plains, another Indian somewhere whittled from a stick a little horse for his child to play with -- that would have been the first “Indian” sculpture. ({Perhaps culminating in Deborah Butterfield’s life-size horses made of sticks.)

Whether an artist is considered “good” or not may rest on the observer’s appetite for certain kinds of subject. For a while people felt that “originality” -- a subject never “done” before -- was the key to value, but this attitude led to such disasters as bronzes of Indian women giving birth with the head of the infant emerging -- not normally what people want to keep on their coffee table. (Notice the mother was not white.) Some subjects have never been done before because the subject is just a bad idea.

When they choose their subjects, artists reveal their inner worlds , unless they are simply working for the market. Charlie Russell showed a clear preference for peaceful subjects while Remington gravitated towards action. Bob Scriver never did a sculpture of a drunken Indian or of a white man fighting an Indian. Neither was he very interested in contemporary Indians. His white men were mostly rodeo hands, but sometimes oldtimer cowboys, the kind he knew as a kid.

Most people untrained in art begin talking about it by sticking to what the subject matter is. Luckily in American Western sculpture one can always tell what the subject matter is, which is one of the reasons inexperienced connoiseurs like it. Most people can recognize a buffalo or a pack train. Some people will have enough expertise to discuss the accuracy of a particular saddle or gun and others will be expert enough in history to point out whether a sculpture group is staying within the constraints of a particular period. They may know the story the group illustrates and offer contradictions or improvements. This is part of the fun.

Especially in the context of museums and historical societies, the value of American Western bronzes is promoted as a record of a world that is “disappearing,” especially in earlier decades when it was thought that Indians were dying out and that the West would soon be made into a bucolic scene of small farms and towns. Some of this attitude must come from the time when newspapers were unable to print photos and therefore provided illustrations that were drawn, presumably from the actual event, by an artist/journalist. Since much of the reporting was about battles and the hunting of large animals, a bias towards action also became attached to the genre.

A sculpture is much more limited in subject matter than is a painting. One cannot sculpt a mountain or snow falling. The figures are three-dimensional fabrications, usually created either by modeling (putting clay or wax together) or by carving (cutting into a solid substance like wood or stone). Most contemporary Western sculpture is cast in bronze. Usually the bronze is attached to a wooden base, which is friendlier to furniture. It is more usually Indians who carve, either in stone or wood. Perhaps this is because it is considered more “organic” and close to the earth, or perhaps Indians are less likely to have the money for bronze casting.


The point of this blog is to share ideas about art of the American West by using my experience with Robert Macfie Scriver, a sculptor from the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, as a point of reference.

I will reflect on history of art issues, how art is evaluated, and maybe even review auctions and institutions. As Western art becomes more valuable (now reaching into the millions, but not quite touching the tens of millions), the pressure to promote and even exploit both works and artists increases.

Art of the American West is still looked down on as "lesser" by the fanciest New York galleries and writers, possibly because they just don't know that much about it. The slick Western art magazines cannot become very critical for fear of losing important advertising income. Individuals with talent still hope that they can "save the ranch" by becoming a famous artist. There are many fascinating angles to explore.

As well, I intend to develop short pieces about the work of Bob Scriver and the context in which he became an artist. From the SW center of the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel, he is an outlier. From the northern prairie bi-national context, he is a central figure. I would like to spend time considering individual works of art, not because they are for sale but because they are interesting and valuable.

I invite comment. If this blog won't accept it, contact me directly. I think it's long past time to discuss many of these issues.

Mary Scriver