"Estes Park, Colorado," by Albert Bierstadt, oil on 
"Estes Park, Colorado," by Albert Bierstadt, oil on canvas.

Western Culture

It was at the end of the nineteenth century that the worldwide romance with the American West first got off the ground. This happened because, even as the earliest settlers were making their way here, the dramatic scenery of the region was attracting artists, particularly photographers and painters. These artists recorded the people and places in the West and then had their images published in magazines, books and portfolios. Those incredible pictures of the rugged scenery then attracted more settlers to the area, especially with the coming of the railroads in the 1860s and 1870s. By the early twentieth century, it was very easy to get here by train, and as a result, thousands did. In only fifty years, the West had gone from a wild frontier to a tourist destination.

This chain of events is the collective topic of three exhibits now on display at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. One examines photographs of the West done in the nineteenth century; another explores paintings from approximately the same time; and the final show looks at art and artifacts related to tourism.

The first exhibit, in the Garden Gallery, is A Moment in Time: Photographs of the Early American West, which former CSFAC director David Turner organized. The show is jammed into the smallish gallery, though it could easily fill twice as much space. But this is the thinnest of complaints -- "more" emphatically means more in this case. The overall impact of the show is not that it's too crowded -- even if it is -- but that it's an embarrassment of riches.


A Moment in Time: Photographs of the Early American West, Discovering America: Art of the Early American West and The Way West: Tourism and the Marketing of the West

A Moment in Time: Photographs of the Early American West
Through February 1

Discovering America: Art of the Early American West
Through January 4

The Way West: Tourism and the Marketing of the West
Through December 31
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 West Dale Street, Colorado Springs

And what riches there are, in the form of dozens of nineteenth-century photos, mostly albumen prints, done by the biggest names in photographic history. The exhibit is subdivided into various sections, including "First Explorations of the West," which refers to photographs taken during the initial federal surveys, and "Indigenous People and Land," which takes up the depiction of American Indians.

There are many wonderful photos here, especially the landscapes, which look astoundingly modern -- keeping in mind, of course, that the pristine vistas that they captured are despoiled today. In this group are several stunning shots by Timothy O'Sullivan, one of the greatest photographers of all time. His "Black Canyon" and "Canyon de Chelle," both from the 1870s, are flawlessly composed and meticulously printed. Other nineteenth-century landscape photos are also gorgeous, notably "Cathedral Rock," by Carleton Watkins, "River and Rapids," by F. J. Haynes, and "Mines at Eagle River," by William Henry Jackson.

Turner secured these rare images from local private collections and from public repositories, including the Colorado History Museum's formidable cache. However, he was unable to secure loans from the Denver Art Museum's world-famous collection of photos of the Old West, because the DAM has suspended all loans until its new addition is completed.

Cathy Wright, director and curator of the CSFAC's Taylor Museum, also had to put together her show, Discovering America: Art of the Early American West, without loans from the DAM. She relied on some of the same sources as Turner, as well as turning to the Denver Public Library to borrow, among other things, the key piece in the exhibit: Albert Bierstadt's "Estes Park, Colorado," a certified masterpiece in oil on canvas from 1877. The display, which is in the North Gallery and in the East Gallery I, lays out, more or less chronologically, the reaction of artists such as Bierstadt to the people and places in the West.

Discovering America includes all the big guns from the period, such as Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, Thomas Moran and Alfred Jacob Miller, but lesser-known Colorado artists, such as Charles Partridge Adams, William Bancroft and Harvey Young, hold their own. There's a lot worth looking at in this very solid and remarkably high-quality presentation.

On a lighter note is the third of these thematically organized shows, The Way West: Tourism and the Marketing of the West. Wright also organized this display, which is in the East Gallery II. It is presented with two distinct kinds of work: advertising memorabilia and painting. There are cool old postcards and posters, a Navajo weaving in the form of an American flag and even a music score of "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," a song Judy Garland immortalized in the film The Harvey Girls.

Even more engaging than these collectibles are the stupendous paintings by artists who settled in Taos and Santa Fe and sold their work to the tourists attracted by the advertising. There's that creamy Victor Higgins, that dramatic Emil Bistram, that dreamy Gerald Cassidy, and those unforgettable little gems by E. L. Blumenschein and Oscar Berninghaus. It was an inspired idea to link the commercial art to the fine art, though the show itself is somewhat choppy, which could be expected, given the diversity of material in it.

A Moment in Time, Discovering America and The Way West are marvelous and completely captivating. While you're in a Western mood, take in the solo dedicated to New Mexico printmaker Gene Kloss in the CSFAC's South Gallery (see page 56) and the American Indian and Hispanic art from the Taylor Museum's collection on display in the Sacred Lands Gallery and the Talpa Chapel.

Taken together, these offerings constitute a major blockbuster, if an ad hoc one. The Western art is not as popular as the European subject matter shown in the spectacular Phillips show at the DAM, but the exhibits at the CSFAC are as good -- and in many ways, better -- than the more popular one at the DAM.

Though Michael De Marsche, the new president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, had nothing to do with what's currently on display at the institution, he's still been busy. Although he's held his post for only three months, but he's already making his presence felt. The most obvious change is the ongoing repainting of the interior walls in desert-inspired shades such as dusty yellow and sage green.

For as long as I can remember, the walls have been white, and it really looked great, even though it had gotten a little dingy. But I understand why De Marsche did what he did: With a minimum amount of expense, he's made a big difference in the look of the place.

De Marsche is planning a renovation of the 1936 landmark art moderne-style building, the greatest accomplishment of New Mexico architect John Gaw Meem. These changes include opening up the closed skylights, removing the walls in front of the Garden Gallery windows and restoring other changed features.

Such moves are encouraging, and the guy talks a good game, but I'd feel a lot better if De Marsche hired a historic-preservation consultant. The CSFAC's board has been working informally with Denver's David Owen Tryba, an architect who has lots of experience in dealing with historic buildings, but that's not the same as having a professional who's solely devoted to protecting the original building. The facility, one of the very finest in the time zone, deserves to be treated with kid gloves, and the need for a preservationist is made all the more urgent with the specter of expansion plans on the horizon, though they are on hold.

De Marsche is not only looking at changing the physical plant, but he's radically changing the CSFAC's organization and programming, as well. The biggest change so far is the new definition being given to the Taylor Museum.

Formerly, the Taylor Museum was dedicated to the collection of American Indian and Hispanic art started by CSFAC founder Alice Bemis Taylor and, appropriately enough, has occupied the galleries at the southwest corner of the building for nearly three-quarters of a century. But not for much longer, because De Marsche has merged the Taylor collection with the rest of the CSFAC's holdings and is evicting it from those spaces.

In addition to the Taylor Museum, which has its own curator, the CSFAC has a separate fine-art collection, which at one time also had a curator. But that job was empty for over a year, and it has now been eliminated in a cost-cutting move. De Marsche is using this staff cut as a rationale for redefining the Taylor Museum. Now, not only will the Taylor hold its own collection of southwestern art, but it also will have domain over the fine-art collection. Hopefully the traditional role of the Taylor won't be diluted, because the Navajo rugs and the Penitente Santos housed in it are among the CSFAC's greatest masterpieces.

In programming, De Marsche wants to take what he calls a "less is more" approach. There will be fewer separate shows, but the ones that are presented will be more significant. The slack is to be taken up by periodically rotating presentations from the permanent collection, which will occupy fully half of the galleries all the time. "We're going to display our permanent collection," De Marsche says, "like a real museum does."

De Marsche would like to see the CSFAC behave more like a museum and less like a community center. To this end, the annual festival of Christmas trees has been canceled, as have upcoming shows devoted to art by schoolchildren. I have nothing against Christmas trees or students, but I think De Marsche was right, though I also think he's going to get a lot of flak about both decisions.

Time will tell if De Marsche will be successful in his many plans to spruce up, expand and redirect the CSFAC. I just hope that, whatever happens, the fabulous building and collections will come out of it unscathed.


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