In the past I’ve gone on my annual cruise through the Great Falls Auction scene in March on the busy days. This time I hit it on Thursday morning, found parking places and found time and space to talk to people, which is why I went. The shows were familiar. In fact, some of them featured the same artworks that were there last year and the year before and . . . who can tell them apart anyway?
As one woman remarked, and several older men echoed, this show is about the New West, not the original Western art scene fifty years ago when the auction began. In the early Sixties when big shot New York art folks came through (they were artists looking for inspiration and recreation -- not even the fly-fishing craze had happened yet) they would stop in at the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, which was meant to be a resource for them. They sketched the full-mounts of game animals and then Bob would draw a little map of where they might see some in the wild. Or maybe he’d hire a model or guide for them. Then he’d ask them, “Is anyone else doing sculpture like this?”
George Phippen, one of the earliest recognized Cowboy Artists of America, was one of those people. He and the few dealers (aside from Dick Flood, who was often underfoot) would say, “Only Ernie Burke and Harry Jackson.” Today there are hundreds and hundreds, all pretty good artists, some living in the rural West, and all with their laser sights on success, which they define as money. In terms of art philosophy, they are in the camp of Mamie Russell, not Charlie, which is appropriate since her estate supports the Center for the Study of Western Art, a bastion of the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel whose circled wagons include the University of Oklahoma Press and a host of client galleries and museums. Charlie wanted to paint pictures. Mamie wanted to make money.
As someone remarked, Western art today is all about the dealers. To the uninitiated, they are so interchangeable that a number of people told me that so-and-so had died, never figuring out that the person they meant was Paul Masa. The deceased was “whoever had that big center room when the Ad Club was managing things.”
I didn’t go by the CM Russell Museum, since the art was about the same everywhere. In fact, some of the nicer things (and more varied) were at the A. Hooker cafe and art gallery on Central Avenue http://www.a-hookers-gallery.com/ From the website: “Since her passing, many in the art world have reflected on the motivation of Arlene Hooker Fay, the person and the artist. Most agree, that Arlene was strongly inspired by family in particular and humanity in general. Indeed, she was also recognized for her unabashed sense of humor. A. Hooker’s Gallery, 925 Central Avenue West, is intended as a tribute not only to her life’s work and her serious side but to the memory of Arlene’s many “hookerisms”, her trademark humor among friends, both new and old.”
Arlene was a strikingly beautiful woman who had been confined to a wheelchair by childhood polio. Its recurrence killed her. It’s ironic that she had more of Charlie Russell’s spirit than most of the males wandering the scene. Her maiden name was Hooker, her husband’s name is Tom Fay, and in the Sixties I taught school with him in Browning where the family made many friends and Arlene made many portraits.
The original Ad Club Auction has probably been changed in the fifty years of its run as much by the aging of the participants as by the shift in the whole society: especially an inflow of people who could afford to live in the West. The responding “New West Lifestyle” hit art hard, emphasizing appearance and luxury, the Ralph Lauren West, the fabulous corten-sheet-metal, log-and-plate-glass homes that are inhabited only part of the year and thus can be situated in places inaccessible in winter. One buys the hides of buffalo raised for meat. One commissions a gallery to choose some proper art since one doesn’t have time to learn what it’s all about. But that boom has about crashed now. Or maybe it’s gone offshore.
The next impact that changed everything was, of course, the internet. As soon as auctions go online there is no question that the serious bidders who know their stuff won’t bother to trek to Great Falls in March for an auction. Look at the merchandise online or get your surrogate gallery to do it for you. None of the rather boozy bonhomie and maybe trips to the surrounding legendary places. (Scenery and ghost towns and where’s a really good place to eat?) Today there is no dealer room that didn’t have an open laptop. Though quite a few of those people could not bring up this blog because all they do is Google the websites that give you the auction ticker tape prices. No more depending on the guys who roamed the country with a trunk full of art, trading on their info, and maybe cutting a few sharp deals. They taught as they went, educating a generation of roadside operators about what was important and why.
I’ve long held -- usually in the face of protests -- that there is a strong connection between political style and Western art. When the Repubs are in power, the grandiose, bellicose and triumphalist works sell like flapjacks so they can hang behind the desks of the powerful. When the Dems are in power, the landscape, the animal, minorities and maybe even a little abstraction become the rage. Watch the White House Oval Office. Reagan’s Remington bronzes linger on. I have yet to spot an abstract.
Art as markers are a bourgeois thing. What I own shows who I am, and I want you to know I’m not just an ordinary person but someone with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, in this case Cowboy Artists of America, the CA mark. Which is fine. That’s about buyers and the dealers around them.
But I don’t belong to that tribe. I’m still part of the untamed, roving, wild and raving sort of artists that don’t care who buys what. They just want to push their obsessed hearts up against the world in a search for image. They crave to be imprinted, branded, with passion. These days the word “passion” is used by “mommie bloggers” who say they have a passion for cupcakes or crochet. The truly passionate are not often recognized, dead or alive. You probably won’t find them in an auction.