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."


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.

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