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Go West! Representations of the American Frontier

January 14 - September 23, 2012

 

The exhibition Go West! Representations of the American Frontier explores the pioneering American West as both a physical terrain and an idea deeply rooted in the American psyche. On view January 14 through September 23, 2012 at the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin, the exhibition features paintings, sculptures and works on paper made in, and about, the American West by Henry Farny, Charles Russell, Maynard Dixon, and other artists from The Blanton's celebrated C.R. Smith Collection of Art of the American West, in the largest installation of this collection in over a decade. (right: William Robinson Leigh, The Roping, 1914, Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 1/4 inches. Gift of C.R. Smith)

Works of related content from the museum's holdings by Jerry Bywaters, Frederic Remington and others, and a selection of late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century American prints supplement the installation, along with borrowed works from the university's Harry Ransom Center and Briscoe Center for American History.

"Go West! presents works from The Blanton's collection by some of the most illustrious artists of the period such as Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Remington," said Blanton Director Simone Wicha. "Visitors will learn about their lives, their artistic styles, the historical moments and subjects they depict, and come away with an appreciation of the rich heritage of the great American West."

Go West! is organized thematically and chronologically, with investigations of the country's westward expansion in the nineteenth century, including: contested territories and the ensuing battles of the U.S. Army cavalry, representations of Native Americans, cowboys and ranchers, ideas of Manifest Destiny, the industrialization and urbanization of the land, and the ever-changing American landscape as witnessed and portrayed by artists living and working in the Western United States.

As a special counterpart to the nineteenth-century works on view, The Blanton has organized The Contemporary West, an exhibition that provides a twentieth and twenty-first century response to and interpretation of the Western genre. Opening late April 2012, the presentation includes works in multiple mediums by Jeremy Blake, Ed Ruscha, Lordy Rodriquez and Luis Jimenez among others.

 

Gallery Talk: Two Views of Western Iconography

 

Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, The Blanton's deputy director for art and programs, and Dr. Pauline Strong, University of Texas at Austin anthropology professor and director of the university's Humanities Institute, discuss their approaches to two works of art in the exhibition, Go West! Representations of the American Frontier.

 

Annette Carlozzi: The CR Smith Collection of Art of the American West is one of the treasures of the Blanton Museum of Art. We will examine two phenomenally iconic characters in paintings by William Robinson Leigh and William Gilbert Gaul, both featured in the Go West! exhibition. We'll compare what we see as a curator and anthropologist, respectively, and explore where those conversations overlap and where they differ.

As a curator I share what I see, informed by my knowledge of the history of art, and my specific experience as an art historian specializing in American art. I chose that field because I am fascinated, endlessly fascinated, with aspects of the American character, and with the ways in which artists' works can reveal those to us. I'm especially interested in cultural values and how works of art may reflect them. So I try to point out details to museum visitors as well as the larger ideas that inform the artists, and I encourage visitors to find a relationship between the work of art and their own lives and experiences. To me that's the spark of the conversation that we want to see begin here at the museum. I try to do less telling and a little more speculating so I can get people to ask questions, to wonder a little bit more. Now I'm an art historian, and a curator, but I don't think that's all that different from how Pauline approaches a work of art, either with students or when she comes to the museum on her own. How would you describe your own approach, Pauline?

 

Pauline Strong: I ask very similar questions of a work of art, and of students who I'm looking at art with. I'm very concerned with issues such as, "Why do we love these works of art? Why do we return to them? What do they mean to us today?" And in discussing these particular works with students one thing I would ask is, "What time periods are represented here?"

With these two paintings there are at least three: they were both created in the early 20th century when the U.S. was moving towards an industrialized society and there was a lot of concern about what was being lost in the process of industrialization. The Leigh painting represents a nostalgic look back at the frontier period, at the rugged cowboy. It is a very masculine image. We would look at the way it's gendered. There's a wildness, a ruggedness to this image. The cowboy is controlling nature. And then we would look at the Gaul painting of the Native American, which is a much more passive image. We have a Native person standing high in, again, a rugged snowy landscape, mournfully looking towards the west, the west standing for the setting of the sun, the ending of a way of life. And so there's a nostalgic sense of mournfulness of what has been lost in the process of conquest, colonization and industrialization. Then finally there is the present - 2012 - and what we bring to these paintings.

Also, what is added when we think about CR Smith as CEO of an airline company and as secretary of commerce? What kind of continuities are there between the frontier depicted here and the exploration of air space? What about commerce, international commerce? We'd look at those issues. We'd look at this Native American and we'd say, "Today we can realize that this is a representation of a Native American from outside." It's not by a Native American. It's representing views about Native Americans as silent, as stoic, as noble, as part of the past. And we can question -- knowing that Native Americans have continued into the present -- we can say, "Well, how might Native Americans represent this reality? How might it be different from this particular painting?" And we could look at contemporary Native art, compare it to this work.

 

AC: "The Roping" by William Leigh, was made when he was 40 years old. He'd been an illustrator based in New York City for many years. On his trips west, Leigh was taken with the dynamism of how the country was expanding, and the newer narratives that were available to us as Americans at that time. Both paintings have a central figure in common. The figures are extremely detailed. Each artist took pains to describe, exactly in this case, how the chaps looked, what the accoutrements of the horse looked like, the details of costume. They're very specifically drawn because the artists want to convey a time and a place to us. Same with the Native American woman. She is Sioux. Gaul spent time with the Sioux tribes. Each of these artists spent time in the west, authentically interested in the lifestyle of Native Americans, each of them in their own way affected by what they saw as the passage of a way of life. They were trying to record details of that life, and yet behind each character, each figure, is a more abstracted landscape. Here in the Leigh painting it's an unexpected landscape. Leigh was not a big fan of European Impressionism, the new artistic movement of his day. He was a little dismissive of it, and yet you find in an image like this that he's using a kind of Impressionistic brushstroke and the colors - bright, pastel, light-filled colors - that we associate with Impressionism. He does it to convey energy, a kind of movement behind this really dynamic figure. And here Gaul does the same, yet it's a ghostly landscape, a winter landscape, also poetically signaling the end of the season rather than the beginning. So a sad picture, on the one hand, a really dynamic picture, on the other. I was really taken with your comment about the genders of each work -- a stereotypical male figure and stereotypical female character.

 

PS: Well, and to present Native Americans as stereotypically female is to present a particular kind of narrative about the active conquering the passive. It embodies certain points of view that Native Americans would not necessarily agree with.

 

AC: It's a rare picture too because usually that kind of figure, the figure looking mournfully out over the land, is male. I think many of us have seen photographs of the lone Native American man looking out over the landscape. Yet in this case the work is illustrative of Sioux funerary traditions: women who have lost their husbands in battle would go to the highest place around and stand and be silent in the height of that place and feel all the emotions and release them into the space. So this is Gaul's interpretation of that moment, Leigh's interpretation of a very different kind of moment, with an anthropologist's and a curator's ways of seeing intersecting in the center.

 

(above: William Gilbert Gaul, The Land of the Free, c. 1900, Oil on canvas, 37 1/4 x 31 1/2 inches. Gift of C.R. Smith)

 

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