"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.

Pilgrims' Progress

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.)


Painters and the American West

Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway

Through January 21, 303-640-4433

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.

In the next gallery are the Remingtons, including "Return of a Blackfoot War Party" from 1887. According to Troccoli, this is Remington's seminal painting because it was the first one he exhibited at the National Academy. The other two Remingtons, "The Apache Trail," from 1901, and "A Cold Morning on the Range," circa 1904, are perhaps less historically significant, but they are equally as strong and even more accomplished technically.

At this point we arrive at the horrible salon room, where Troccoli abandons the chronological format seen thus far and replaces it with a free-association approach. The way in which the paintings have been assembled in the salon room, and in several sections beyond, reveals that she has no love for twentieth-century art -- and no understanding of it either.

Every section has a title; this one's called "Jostling for Attention," and that's an understatement -- more than thirty paintings have been crammed into a space that should only accommodate ten or twelve. As if the overcrowding weren't enough visual clutter, a faux bois paint job is used to suggest hardwood paneling below the chair rail. Unfortunately, it looks like wood-grained plastic Contact paper. The worst thing about this room, though, is the way the paintings interact, causing a jarring disconnection in which the works aesthetically destroy one another.

A good example of this -- though many could be cited -- is the comparison between the small and immediate "Eagle Dance," from 1934, by Emil Bisttram, and "The Death of Minnehaha," an academic-style painting done nearly a half-century earlier, in 1885, by William de Leftwich Dodge, which is hung next to it. "Eagle Dance" is an abstract depiction of conventionalized Indian dancers; Bisttram has simplified the dancers into overlapping, hard-edged shapes which have been assembled into a circle suggesting the rhythmic movements of the Indians. Light and airy, it's the stylistic opposite of "The Death of Minnehaha," which is dark and brooding. That piece, in which Minnehaha, who has been meticulously depicted, is laid out on a divan and attended to by a pair of semi-nude male mourners, suggests a locale on the outskirts of Rome instead of in the American West. This neo-classical feeling is underscored by the severe, Roman-style gold frame.

The problem? From the perspective of the Bisttram, the Dodge looks like a mural in an over-the-top Italian restaurant. Conversely, if the Dodge is our starting point, the Bisttram looks like a child's drawing.

You may want to flee the salon as quickly as possible, but there are so many wonderful paintings here that it's worth forcing yourself to stay and take a good look.

Some of the standouts include an exquisite little painting by Ernest Lawson and a related work by Leon Gaspard. Too bad they're hanging across the room from one another; they would have looked so good if they'd been hung side by side. The same opportunity is missed with the Frank Mechau and the Andrew Dasburg paintings. Both explore the same kind of figural abstraction, not to mention that the two paintings are among the top modern pieces in the entire collection.

Surely it's the fault of the museum's education department -- and not Troccoli -- that this section also has a vulgar ballot box, in which visitors are asked to vote for their favorite paintings. As is not the case with other recent races, I really don't care who wins this meaningless popularity contest.

After the salon room, American West never gets back on track, although some of the best pieces are in the last part of the show. Thus, it may be hard to appreciate the roomful of California genre paintings from the mid-nineteenth century that follows. These lovely European-inspired paintings, such as Charles Christian Nahl's "Vaqueros Roping a Steer," from 1866, should have been near the beginning, closer to their stylistic cousins up front.

Then there's a gallery that would have looked great right after the Hudson River school group. It consists of a handful of stunning impressionist-style paintings, including John Henry Twachtman's "Canyon in the Yellowstone," circa 1895, and the very Monet-esque "Sand Springs Butte," a 1904 work by Childe Hassam. Troccoli highlights Monet's influence by placing a small Monet reproduction near the Hassam. The same device is seen throughout the show with various European prototypes illustrated. But it's needlessly defensive. Is it really necessary to call upon Europe to justify our own culture?

The last leg of the show is made up of several galleries given over to the marvelous paintings by the masters of Taos and Santa Fe. It's almost a stand-alone exhibit, and with so many significant paintings, it gives Anschutz bragging rights in the territory.

The first of these galleries features several of the Taos art colony founders, and there's such a bounty of beautiful paintings that it's overwhelming; they include works by Walter Ufer, Robert Henri, Oscar Blumenschein and E. Martin Hennings. Unforgettable is Nicolai Fechin's "Portrait of Mabel Dodge Luhan," from 1927, which illustrates the artist's classic expressionism. Following this group are the modernists, installed in a dispirited way in the last two galleries. Jan Matulka's "Indian Festival in Arizona," circa 1918, and Howard Cook's "Koshari -- Santo Domingo Corn Dance," from 1948, are both efforts to reconcile modernist abstraction with traditional Western subject matter. Their shared topic is the life of the Indians. In the smallish last room are quite a few artists doing the same kind of thing as Matulka and Cook, but they've chosen the landscape for abstraction. The two John Marin paintings from 1930, "Blue Sky, Mountain Aspens and the Roaring Hondo" and "Canyon of the Hondo," are first-rate examples of his work. The Stuart Davis and the Marsden Hartley are also choice. Shouldn't the Mechau and Dasburg be nearby?

Although Troccoli says she selected "the finest paintings in the collection" for this show, we must necessarily doubt her when it comes to the later pieces because of her antipathy toward newer work. When I asked her why she had left out, for example, paintings by Broadmoor Academy masters John Carlson and Birger Sandzén done in the 1920s in Colorado Springs, she responded that "strictly speaking, I took all the best paintings, and they didn't make the cut." (Silently contradicting her was a half-hearted Fritz Scholder painting she had selected that was hanging nearby.)

By skipping artists like Carlson and Sandzén -- though several Broadmoor Academy artists are in the show, they are not identified as such -- Troccoli missed the opportunity to use American West to make a contribution to the art history of Colorado.

Minimizing Colorado's part of the equation has become a longstanding tradition at the DAM, but giving the state short shrift in a regional show spotlighting a local collection filled with local material does set a new low standard.

Nevertheless, Troccoli's confusing curatorial approach hasn't overshadowed Anschutz's remarkable vision and accomplishment (although it's somewhat ironic to slowly realize, as you walk through the show, that the ruthless capitalist is more of a connoisseur than is the studious curator). So I do agree with Troccoli when she says: "This is a significant private collection that has never been exhibited in Denver before, so people need to take the opportunity to see it."


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