The Denver Art Museum looks to the West from its seventh-floor galleries

Denverites have had a long love-hate relationship with our Western heritage. We either laugh or cry about it, because maybe, just maybe, the Mile High City really is just an overgrown cowtown. All joking aside, however, the result of this syndrome has been a collective low self-esteem — and some lost opportunities.

In the arts, Western embarrassment has definitely caused problems. One of the most prominent was the Denver Art Museum's past aversion to collecting regional material. And this was really wrong-headed, since visitors expected to see Western art when they got there. Not only that, but the pieces used to be inexpensive to buy and now they're not, so time was wasted— and as we all know, time is money.

That attitude changed when Lewis Sharp took over at the DAM, in 1989. Since then, a real effort has been made to catch up. Sharp, together with various curators and department directors, including Ann Daley, Joan Carpenter Troccoli, Peter Hassrick and new hire Thomas Smith, have gone a long way toward making up for lost time.

The big change of fortune for the DAM's Western art department came in 2001, when the museum acquired the collection amassed by Jolly Rancher millionaires Dorothy and William Harmsen. Their collection was unbelievably vast, numbering into the thousands of artifacts, including not only significant works of historic Western art, but rifles and saddles and even a stagecoach. The DAM creamed off the top and created the Petrie Institute of Western American Art in 2007 (and gave most of the rest away). Hassrick, who's retiring next month, was the Petrie's first director; he and Smith have spent the past few months reinstalling this material, and also borrowed important pieces from other institutions and private collectors. The galleries were reopened in February.

Across the street, at the DAM's Hamilton building, the second-floor Western galleries mix up historic, modern and contemporary pieces to provide a new definition of Western art that includes not only scenes of the natural landscape, but also Christo erecting a curtain through it. On the seventh floor, the approach is much more traditional, with objects dating from the nineteenth century through 1950. This arrangement sidesteps the question of where Western art goes with the rise of the modern movement in art, since it ends before the issue becomes critical.

Near the elevator, there's a magnificent 1927 bronze figural group called "Pioneer Mother," by Alexander Phimister Proctor. It depicts a woman and child on horseback with a striding man leading another horse. Clearly, the themes of this initial space are the ways people traveled West, and there are a handful of nearby paintings that reinforce the narrative. For example, "Gold Rush," by Dean Cornwell, is a mural-like painting crowded with figures heading for the hills in search of treasure.

The first gallery highlights the archetypal Western characters, including Indians, Latinos and settlers. Of particular note is "Rabbit Hunt," by E. Martin Hennings, which depicts two Indians on foot and one on horseback; one is dressed in traditional tribal garb, one in Euro-American style, and one strikes a compromise in between. The painting is unbelievably beautiful, especially the cotton-candy colors, and tells the story of the assimilation of the Indians into the dominant culture. In this same theme is "The Newlyweds," an undated Frederick Mizen painting of an Indian couple on their Americanized wedding day.

The next space lays in the earliest views of the American West, including the museum's famous George Caitlin painting, "The Cutting Scene: Mandan O-kee-pa Ceremony," which shows a gruesome spiritual practice in which young men were hung from the ceiling of a structure by hooks as a test of their bravery and endurance. This luridly painted scene, dominated by orangey reds, was done in 1832 and is definitely X-rated. There are other early scenes that are less disturbing, such as the placid mountain goats in an Audubon print. An imaginative addition to the paintings and sculptures throughout the museum is the inclusion of decorative pieces with Western themes. In this space, there's a glass compote from 1876 by Jacobus with a frosted finale in the form of a kneeling Indian. It's worth noting that even before movies and pulp novels, the romantic images of the West were seeping into the popular imagination.

Mountain men dominate the next space, and there's a decorative object here, too, in the form of an easy chair made out of steer horns. It's stunning, but it's overshadowed by the spectacular 1844 painting "Long Jakes," by Charles Deas. The composition of this piece is bold, with the mountain man, Jakes, sitting high above the arching outline of his horse. Behind him is a mountain scene in the distance. It's extremely well painted, and the contrast between his bright-red coat and the dark, dusk-like shadings of his horse and the scenery beyond catches and holds the eye.

Although it's hard to believe while looking at this antique in its old gold frame, there's actually a cutting-edge aspect to it: It's been the co-star in a museum controversy about acquisition policies that went national in the last year. In exchange for a half-interest in "Cowboy Singing," a rare example of a Western-themed piece by Thomas Eakins, which is hung a few galleries away, the DAM traded a half-interest in the Deas to the Anschutz Collection (Artbeat, May 1, 2008). The ethics of the move were immediately questioned by those in the highest circles of the museum world. My own view is that given the situation the DAM is faced within the field of Western art — it doesn't have the bread to buy first-rate stuff — using the Anschutz Collection to foot the bill with a little horse trading seems perfectly fine.

Next up are paintings of mountain vistas, arguably the most signature Western imagery that exists. In this section, there's one masterpiece after another, both from the collection and on loan. In the former category are two marvelous Charles Partridge Adams paintings, notably the majestic "Moraine Park"; in the latter is Albert Bierstadt's breathtaking "Estes Park, Long's Peak," which is owned by the Denver Public Library.

Then there's a section based around Frederic Remington and Charles Russell and their generation of artists. This is where the work of some of the most important late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century artists are; the Eakins piece is also here, along with some sketches that were part of the Anschutz deal. "Cowboy Singing," from the 1890s, is dark and moody. In it, a cowboy in fringed clothes is tilted back in his chair playing a guitar. The piece is modest by Eakins standards, but its significance is based both on the rarity of Western subjects in his oeuvre and the fact that the painting was important to the artist; we know this because he kept it in his personal collection throughout his life.

Though there are some small spaces that I've skipped over, the final leg of the re-installation is a showstopper. It's a spacious gallery given over to the work of artists active in Santa Fe and Taos during the last century or so, and this stuff never gets old. Don't fail to notice "Game Hunter/Snow," the incredible Victor Higgins of an Indian archer stalking his prey in the snow. The Higgins has a modernist look to it, and one of the most interesting things about the artists in New Mexico in the first half of the twentieth century is the way they recorded in miniature the march toward modern art that was going on in Europe. There are pieces that are realist, like the pair of E. Irving Couse paintings, while some are impressionist, like "The Open Plain," by W. Herbert Dunton, and still others recall post-impressionism, like the Andrew Dasburg and the Josef Bakos. There's even a genuinely cubist work, "Cloud Forms and Mesas, No. 1," by Raymond Jonson.

Modern and contemporary may be my favorite genres, but there's something about historic Western art that's kept me interested for years. And as a cowtown, we might as well take the good with the bad. Western art, as revealed by the reinstall of the seventh-floor Western galleries at the DAM, is definitely part of the good half of the equation.

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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