Thursday, November 09, 2017


The quickest way to get you into the world I inhabited in the Sixties is to give you this url link, though it's a bit too modern.  

Western (“cowboys and Indians”) art was embryonic in those days and so was the enormous wealth that has captured it.  A few men hung Charlie Russell paintings in their board rooms and Buffalo Bill had a “lodge” that was pretty nice, but particularly in the northern West of the prairie, things were still basic.  The lifestyle business — as invented by Hugh Hefner — hadn’t developed, but it was beginning.  

In those days the wheeler/dealers traveled in heavy cars, the kind that rodeo hands drive among events with saddles in the trunks.  They showed up at the studio, came in slow and lazy, had a little coffee, told a few stories, and — after planting some teasers — ushered us out to take a look at the paintings in their trunks, treasures left in chicken houses because no one valued them.  

It occurs to me now that many of these fellows (always male) were gay, partly because the pill hadn’t been invented yet and same/same was safe/safe without pregnancies and the love-smitten.  Anyway, the point wasn’t flesh, it was merch.  Still, human patterns of trade persist across the aeons and the combination of roadways with trading posts goes back to the Silk Roads, the Mississippi River and before.  

Gradually, here and there but mostly in the SW, the traveling dealer managed to start galleries.  Historical societies and big shots recognized that art could signal importance, wealth, and culture.  The farthest south our “range” went was Cody, where the “Buffalo Bill” was emerging from rich East Coast people who had hobby ranches.  Like the Vanderbilts.  The farthest north we ranged was Calgary, where Colonel Harvie was just assembling the Glenbow Foundation.  We weren't in the real profit belt.

It’s two generations after those early days who now subscribe to this magazine.  In the early days of Western art, it was local and middle class, so that art was sentimental and congratulatory of the founders and pioneers.  A certain amount of guilt crept into that as social reformation movements pointed out that all those pretty paintings of indigenous people did not lift them out of poverty and hanging their traditional clothes and containers on the wall didn’t actually honor them. 

Let's look at the articles portraying artists.  Bill Anton ( is a fundamentalist.  “I knew instinctively that civilization was not built on subjective pseudo-intellectual dreck but on hard work that harkened back to the past. It was obvious to me that the current art trends were bankrupt, no matter what the museum elites said,” he explains.

So these stories and gorgeous photos now have a “spiritual” dimension and protestations of high culture in the European representational context.  They still have nothing to do with rez life or economic struggles to survive.  I smiled at the rhetoric of Anton whose chronicler declares grandly that he taught “his mind’s eye to recognize the spontaneous elemental energy flowing through a scene. A born-again Christian, he says his life has been divinely directed, but his quest to get at the truth of his subject is an ongoing mortal struggle for which there are no shortcuts.”

These fabulous houses made of sheets of glass and corten steel, timbers and stone, are sometimes described as “temples” which is a dog-whistle when you’re speaking of wealth.  Rather like today’s churches, they stand empty most of the year, inhabited only by caretakers, which is a great job if you can get it.  It’s a form of luxury island culture based on sliding around in snow with skiis or — these days — roaring on snowmobiles.  The several-car garage is augmented with a helipad.  The model is “Downton Abbey.”  Maybe some things are post-colonial, but this lifestyle is not.

I would not be able to write about this world because I knew it too early.  Even the engineers who became Croesus are not scrutable to me, nor would my descriptions mean anything to them.  The Millennials don’t want to hear about how Rungius learned to paint a moose by shooting one and hanging it up where he could study the light moving over its corpse.  Bob was a member of the Salmagundi Club but when we visited we only stood in the foyer because in 1965 it was “Duchess of Duke Street,” “Out of Africa,” no women allowed.  It was before he began to travel alone.

Most of the artists in these stories are young enough to be my grandchildren and some of the seasoned sages are my age.  Ned Jacob for an instance who began his art life here.  Charlie Fritz is more than ten years younger than me and showed up on the art scene just as I was leaving in the 1970’s.  I fuss about age and time-lines too much, but they apply to art and architecture as much as anything else.  Both boil down to technology subtly shifting the art, and economic patterns dictating the buying.  Then the museum elites hustle around to clothe everything in fine words, near ecclesiastical.  Much Western art still clings to the PBS crowd.

But wait!  California is part of the West, so Bradford Overton is a 7th generation Californian who lives in Utah.  He chimes this way:  “influenced by a long line of hardworking, entrepreneurial people. People who pushed through adversity to achieve their personal best.”  He sings opera, he writes poetry, he understands mystery and weaves spells of beauty and narrative.  He paints portraits of those little toy plastic Indians that could be clipped onto a plastic horse.  “Rider on the Storm” is one title.  Googling takes you to “The Doors.”  Going to gives you access to a lot of very fancy ladies in addition to the toys— and a strict warning about reproducing images.  He’s New Age: skateboard, motorcycle, death makeup and Edwardian floral wallpaper.

Thus does the magazine fulfill its announced range from traditional to contemporary.  But here’s the real key to the magazine:  “While sales of Western works and American art so far for 2017 have buoyed expectations among auction officials and gallerists, several experts said they are still seeking to crack the code that will boost the number of international buyers. Christie’s Haydock says the auction house is making a concerted effort to expand the market in Asia, widening the narrow base of American artists — including Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper — with name and brand recognition.”  Laura Zuckerman, who wrote this and many other articles on the subject, seems to attend every auction, no matter where.  is one of her insightful articles.  She speaks of “the growing appeal of a niche travel market that celebrates artists, galleries, museums and private art collections across the western United States.”  “Seasoned collectors approached [the expert] early on to say they were seeking more exclusive and extensive views into the art and figures of a given region."

“They wanted to go behind closed doors, to experience artists’ studios and private collections,” says Hopkins.  “The two branding mechanisms that will bridge baby boomers, Gen X and Millennials are experiential and authentic,” says Seibert, of the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos.  He means travel and study, solid middle-class PBS.  

“Pilgrimage” and “retreats” you might say.  “Branding mechanisms”  -- UU’s know about them:  Seabeck, Leadership School.  I had thought they might be keys to the “religious” world but they were another institutional world, built on cliques and bureaucracy, which is how Western art has developed, and not that different from what publishing used to be.  So far, “Western Art and Architecture” is succeeding on both publishing and art merchandizing fronts by accepting and using the Internet.  Their key is celebratory writing that has an eye on wealth.  Middle class pretending to be elite, too tasteful for gilt and red plush.

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