Review: The Western Is the Reel Thing at the Denver Art Museum

"Emigrants Crossing the Plains,"by  Albert Bierstadt, oil on canvas.
"Emigrants Crossing the Plains,"by Albert Bierstadt, oil on canvas. Courtesy the Dickinson Research Center
The Denver Art Museum has had a long love/hate relationship with Western art, hating it for most of the museum’s history, then loving it for the past twenty years or so. The DAM’s early distaste for this material explains how the Denver Public Library could wind up with a masterpiece like Albert Bierstadt’s “Estes Park,” and how Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz was able to collect so many first-rate pieces that he could open his own American Museum of Western Art, right across from the Brown Palace Hotel. But attitudes have changed at the DAM (and in the art world at large) in the 21st century, so much so that this summer’s museum blockbuster is The Western: An Epic in Art and Film, on level two of the Hamilton Building.

The exhibit was curated by Thomas Brent Smith, director of the DAM’s Petrie Institute of Western American Art, together with Mary Dailey Desmarais, curator of international modern art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; after the show closes here, it will travel to Montreal for an early 2018 run. For Denver, the exhibition was brilliantly designed by Nathalie Crinière and Maud Martinot, with dark walls against which shiny gold frames gleam in the low lights (the galleries have been dimmed to allow for the projection of films on the walls). The Western is the first major exhibit anywhere to examine how Western paintings and sculptures from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century provided the prototypes for the visuals in the Western movies that followed, not only in the early 1900s, but right up until today. I’d never considered that the imagery used in the films was inspired by the artworks, but The Western proves the point beyond any shadow of a doubt — and does so as soon as you enter.

click to enlarge "A Dash for the Timber," by Frederic Remington, oil on canvas. - AMON G. CARTER COLLECTION
"A Dash for the Timber," by Frederic Remington, oil on canvas.
Amon G. Carter Collection
Ahead and to the left is Frederic Remington’s “A Dash for the Timber,” a magisterial view of mounted cowboys galloping toward the viewer. To the right is a film loop of cowboys riding toward us, taken from a range of movies including The Wild Bunch, Silverado and Tombstone, among others. Not only is the vantage of the viewer the same for both the painting and the film loop, but so is the subject — and the Remington’s composition is essentially identical to that of the film clips. To varying degrees, major directors of Westerns were clearly aware of the history of Western art.

click to enlarge "Bucking Broadway,"  directed by John Ford, film still. - COLLECTION CENTRE NATIONAL DU CINÉMA ET DE L’IMAGE ANIMÉE
"Bucking Broadway," directed by John Ford, film still.
Collection Centre National du Cinéma et de l’image animée
After that initial moment, viewers pass through an entryway with dark velvet drapes on either side. The setup conveys the impression of entering a movie theater, but such drapery was also used when art was displayed in the nineteenth century, explained co-curator Smith, who walked me through the show. Just beyond, a section lays out the various ways in which art inspired standard features of Westerns; there are also support materials in the form of books, magazines, newspapers and posters that anticipate the movies.

“The Set” includes iconographic views of scenery that conveyed the idea of the West to the rest of the world, including Bierstadt’s remarkable “Emigrants Crossing the Plains,” which has a frame that’s a work of art in itself, and Thomas Moran’s “Sunset, Green River Butte,” a subject the artist returned to over and over again. In “The Cast,” we see various stock Western characters, notably the cowboy, with Remington’s iconic “A Buck-Jumper” depicting a rider on a bucking bronco, and the Native American, as portrayed in Alexander Phimister Proctor’s “Indian Warrior,” a bronze of an Indian in full headdress on a striding horse. Other stock Western characters include the soldier, the trapper and the pioneer woman. Finally, in “The Drama,” we see perilous situations associated with the West. The disturbing “Captive,” by E. Irving Couse, shows an Indian sitting cross-legged behind a prone woman who has been tortured; there’s also a loop from the first American film to tell a story, Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, made in 1903.

click to enlarge Gallery devoted to the films of Sergio Leone. - COURTESY DENVER ART MUSEUM
Gallery devoted to the films of Sergio Leone.
Courtesy Denver Art Museum
At this point in the show, the curators shifted the main focus from art to film. The first of these sections,“John Ford,” uses the director renowned as the king of the Westerns as a touchstone, with clips from various Ford movies and the paintings that anticipated them — because Ford had studied them. A scene in Ford’s Stagecoach, for example, is identical to Remington’s “Downing the Nigh Leader,” which depicts an Indian attack on a stagecoach. The section beyond, “The Post War Western,” includes one of the strangest comparisons I’ve seen in an exhibit. On the wall facing the viewers is a magnificent Franz Kline — all slashes of black against a white field — and adjacent to it is a wall-sized projection of Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which the night shadows against the ground look similar to the composition in the Kline. While this may be a stretch, it’s still very cool.

click to enlarge “Captain America” motorcycle from Easy Rider, gallery installation. - COURTESY DENVER ART MUSEUM
“Captain America” motorcycle from Easy Rider, gallery installation.
Courtesy Denver Art Museum
With the next section, “Sergio Leone,” the show returns to a director. At one point, Italy was producing around a hundred Westerns a year, Smith noted, but Sergio Leone’s name is essentially synonymous with the “spaghetti Western.” Leone emerged as the genius of the movement, crossing the traditions of the American Western with the art-film sensibility of Italian cinema. Here, three curved projection screens face one another, with close-ups of Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach in the title roles, respectively, of Leone’s masterpiece, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly; the experience is made complete by the strains of Ennio Morricone’s famous score. The viewer then moves on to “The Counterculture,” which highlights what I’d call “post-Westerns” — films that Leone’s work presaged — including a clip from Easy Rider accompanied by the “Captain America” motorcycle, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, with the Bob Dylan score playing softly in the background. This section is paired with period posters and paintings such as Andy Warhol’s “The American Indian (Russell Means),” which depicts the activist in traditional dress.

click to enlarge "Russell Means," by Andy Warhol, acrylic on canvas; "Indian Power," by Fritz Scholder, oil on canvas. - COURTESY DENVER ART MUSEUM
"Russell Means," by Andy Warhol, acrylic on canvas; "Indian Power," by Fritz Scholder, oil on canvas.
Courtesy Denver Art Museum
The last section, “The Western Revisited,” brings the viewer to the present with objects like Richard Prince’s appropriated images and clips from such recent films as Brokeback Mountain and The Hateful 8. There’s a lot of intriguing stuff here, including the provocative “el bueno, el malo y el feo” (the good, the bad and the ugly) by Mexican artist Daniel Guzmán, in which “the ugly” is played by a Mexican stereotype. This piece points up the fact that Latinos were largely left out of the American Western narrative except for negative stereotypes, such as being ugly and lazy.

I usually hate exhibits filled with tricks and treats, and The Western has plenty of them. But when the curators are so knowledgeable and the quality of the material is so high, even gimmicks can’t detract from a great show.

The Western through September 10 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000,

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia