Saturday, January 17, 2009


I’ve slacked way off on reviewing the Western Art magazines, partly because of being busy with other things, but also because “Bronze Inside and Out” is finished, published and as far as I personally can go with it for now. Certain political forces have blocked me, most notably the Montana Historical Society officials who acquired Bob’s estate but do nothing with it and refuse to discuss the matter. Also, Western art has been uncomfortably associated with Bush/Cheney, at least from my point of view. (Cheney was on the board of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.) I thought I’d give it a rest.

But now that I’m invited to sign “Bronze Inside and Out” at the big Russell Auction in Great Falls in March, the beginning of the real auction season, I thought I’d swing back into some old tracks. The issue of “Western Art Collector” shown above is October, 2008, but some of the things I want to talk about will continue through the spring of 2009. This magazine is frankly for aficionadoes, supplies likely prices, and mixes auctions with galleries with museums. Given the dark streak of opportunism that always runs through everything Western, this means the mag is not so ladylike as the others and, indeed, the editor is male and the headquarters are in rough and tumble Scottsdale, the heart of the fever. There are fewer arias about how “American” cowboys are and more serious curatorial writing.

There’s a website: “Searching” for Bob Scriver will get you nothing at this magazine. He was not a figure in the Southwest pantheon and his best work is not circulating anyway. There are small “collectibles” at auctions and illegal castings of early work, but the bronzes that anchored his reputation do not circulate publicly. Aside from that, the website should keep those interested supplied with lots of information and ideas as we trace out what the current economic straits might mean to Western art.

Naturally, most of the work included in this context is the same old 19th century Plains Indian images or working cowboys, with a certain attention to landscape. There are few wildlife portraits and a little architecture. The level of expertise and the willingness to experiment with style continue to bloom, but the classic names and styles always persist: Russell, Cowboy Artists of America, the quickly established Chinese painters of the West, and the Taos Seven. One of the strongest names has always been Maynard Dixon.

Asthmatic and slender, Dixon went to the dry Southwest in part for his lungs but once there, like so many others, he was seized by what can only be called a spiritual attachment, purification/redemption/inspiration. One of the articles in this issue is an “event preview” about a show at the Tucson Museum of Art focusing on Dixon’s Arizona work. It continues to February 15, 2009. The article by Thomas Smith (the curator of the museum) includes a number of excellent quotes.

“A vast and lovely land saturated with the inexhaustible sunlight and astounding color, visible and unbelievable distinctiveness, and overspread with intense and infinite blue.” “My objective has always been to get close to the real nature of my subject as possible -- people, animals and contry. The melodramatic Wild West idea is not for me the big possibility. The nobler and more lasting qualities are in the quiet and most broadly human aspects of Western life. I am to interpret for the most part, the poetry and pathos of the life of Western people seen amid a grandeur, sternness and loneliness of their country.”
He painted sandstone, Hopi, adobe, and saguaro: all realistic but somehow a little“realer than real,” composed, and delineated.

In this same issue, separated from the museum section, is an article about a gallery show. This is the url, which I’ll try to link:
Take a look at THESE paintings! They are quite shocking, partly because they are so unexpectedly different from Dixon’s style and partly because they are abstract, erotic and haunted by an almost-Russian hirsute face, vivid as a parrot. It turns out that Dixon was painting these all along, using Nvorczk (an even crazier name than Nasdijj) to keep them separated from his more conventional work. The secret was kept until recently. It’s not impossible to see the relationship between the two styles -- the public one so very controlled and the private other in a sort of cosmic dream -- esp. if one watches the skies, the clouds, the rising moons, the shapes and colors of the nudes against the warm geological monuments of Navajo country. This show will stay until March.

It’s hard to know whether to blame consumers who aren’t sophisticated enough to accept different styles in the work of the same artist or to blame the purveyors who insist on creating “brands” of work and more or less force the artists to stay within those bounds. That’s been happening since Nancy Russell saw what sold and nagged Charlie to paint what was virtually the same painting over and over. (He still managed to sneak in a few nudes here and there, but never abstract expressionism that I know of.)

Rex Rieke, a very low-key and excellent artist (and musician) has always been a fan of Maynard Dixon, but at the Russell Auction a couple of years ago he said he’d moved to trying abstract work. I don’t know whether he knew about “Nvorcsk” but I wouldn’t be surprised. Marshall Noice, the fine photographer who took the photos for Bob Scriver’s book about his Blackfeet artifact collection, has also been doing abstract sort of “fauvist” landscapes these past few years. The Blackfeet themselves, of course, have been doing abstract easel art, often iconic, for decades -- not counting the millennia of color patterning on every surface from lodge to horse.

Or maybe there’s something in the temperament of the whole country that sometimes gets obsessed with what is “right” and wants to be true believers of “one big thing.” Hopefully we’re coming out of that period and can honestly celebrate plurality in many ways. I’ll be fascinated to see what happens at the CMR Auction in mid-March.

1 comment:

Dona Stebbins said...

I am glad that you will be at the Russell Auction, too. Once again, I will be announcing the art in the evenings, and hope to have a chance to visit with you.
Everyone should read your wonderful book - I find myself picking it up and re-reading sections of it. There are many "aha!" moments in it, and I have enjoyed it tremendously!