Pilgrims' Progress

Philip Anschutz's collection of blue-chip Western art is put through a torturous ride at the DAM.

It's a shame, but it's true: Only a fraction of the crowds that came out for the Denver Art Museum shows featuring Toulouse-Lautrec, Impressionism and Matisse will bother to see Painters and the American West. And that's too bad, because the exhibit holds its own in comparison with those popular blockbusters.

I think there are several reasons for the limited appeal of American West. The most obvious is a well-established prejudice against Western art (an attitude shared by the DAM itself until recent years). This feeling has been further exacerbated by the scores of contemporary artists who crank out one pseudo-Frederic Remington after another -- the type of thing many people think of when the term "Western art" is used.

However, I assure you that American West, on display through the holidays, has nothing whatsoever to do with ersatz Remingtons. This show has real ones, as well as major works by other Old West masters and some compelling pieces by impressionists, expressionists and full-blown modernists. The selection is made up of some of the finest Western art in private hands -- the collection of local conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz. (Through his foundation, he funds a panoply of right-wing groups and causes.)

"Blue Sky, Mountain Aspens and the Roaring Hondo," by John Marin, oil on canvas.
"Blue Sky, Mountain Aspens and the Roaring Hondo," by John Marin, oil on canvas.
"Indian Festival in Arizona," by Jan Matulka, oil on canvas.
"Indian Festival in Arizona," by Jan Matulka, oil on canvas.

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Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway

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Working with a series of curators over the last quarter century, Anschutz has shown real courage in his collecting choices, and he has the big bucks to back up his taste. Truthfully, though, it must have been as easy as shooting fish in a barrel for him because Western art is so undervalued these days. Surely, there's nothing in the field, no matter how expensive, that Anschutz couldn't buy without a moment's hesitation. And there never has been.

But how personally involved could Anschutz himself have been in the creation of the collection? Isn't the modern-day mogul too busy buying and selling railroads, oil fields and telecommunication firms to be looking at pictures? According to DAM deputy director Joan Carpenter Troccoli, who put this show together, the answer is no. (I couldn't ask Anschutz because he was unavailable to the press.)

"Philip is focused, he knows what he wants and he's not reluctant to trade up," she says. "The collection is him; it's really him. Dealers obviously find things, but he knows his stuff, and he's very well read."

The result, only a fraction of which is displayed in American West, is a collection that spans more than a hundred years of American art history and includes the works of scores of major artists painting in dozens of styles.

It must have been this tremendous historic and stylistic breadth that gave Troccoli so many headaches while organizing the show. An administrator at the DAM since 1996, Troccoli has considerable experience as a curator and an art historian. In the early '80s she received a Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, and in the early '90s she was curator of art at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa. The collection at the Gilcrease, like the Anschutz collection, is made up of Western art gathered by a single wealthy individual.

However, despite this experience, Troccoli has laid out American West in such a way that if you haven't been thoroughly confused by the end you haven't been paying attention. The accompanying catalogue, which focuses on the collection rather than the show, isn't arranged in the same way, and somehow it's even more confusing.

Troccoli does get off to a good start in the first three galleries, where the oldest material has been arranged chronologically and in a cogent stylistic progression. The paintings, dating from the early to the late nineteenth century, are obviously Troccoli's favorites. It's in the latter galleries that things fall apart.

The show begins with a gallery devoted to the oldest pieces in the Anschutz collection: the nineteenth-century representational paintings by the likes of George Caleb Bingham and George Catlin. Their subtle appeal and quiet charm will prove to be the most difficult part of the show for fans of more colorful modern and contemporary art, and some may want to fast-forward to the second gallery, where the more easily accessible artists of the Hudson River School hold sway.

It's in this second gallery that we really hit the visual jackpot with the majestic and monumental "Wind River, Wyoming," by Albert Bierstadt, circa 1870. The enormous horizontal landscape, in a gorgeous old gilt frame, shows off Bierstadt's remarkable ability to record the effects of reflected light on the atmosphere. The dark foreground -- all browns and ochers -- gives way to a remarkably overlit background in which distant mountains and clouds are rendered in soft blues and pinks. Hung nearby is another spectacular painting that also captures theatrical atmospheric conditions, Thomas Moran's "Children of the Mountains," from 1866, which Troccoli describes as "the first great Moran."

Both Bierstadt and Moran were East Coast artists who came out West on summer sketching trips and then returned to their studios, where they painted these and many other paintings. Although artists would soon begin living in the West year round, the tradition of seasonal Western artists continued well into the twentieth century.

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