Western Expansion

It's an unexpected stroke of luck to find three of the most important cultural institutions in the mountain West conveniently lined up in a row along Denver's Civic Center complex. And you could hardly miss the Colorado History Museum, the Denver Public Library and the Denver Art Museum, housed as they are in architecturally distinguished buildings that clearly express their ceremonial roles as public institutions.

The three institutions variously date back a century or so, yet they've never come together to present a single event--until now. The result of that unprecedented act of cooperation is the riveting, over-the-top blockbuster The Real West.

If you're interested in paintings, prints, photographs, artifacts, documents, weaponry or a dozen other different categories, this is a show you'll want to see again and again. In fact, it's only through repeated viewing that a person could even hope to absorb and appreciate the divine glut that's inevitably created when 1,700 catalogued articles are brought together in spaces that combined cover more than 20,000 square feet. The Real West is quite simply the largest exhibition ever mounted anywhere, ever, on the topic.

Project director Andy Masich, vice-president of the Colorado Historical Society, says the show was four years in the making and took an army of more than 100 historians, art historians, curators, archivists, designers and experts of various stripes, culled both from the staff ranks of each institution and from outside consultants. Viewers can decide for themselves how best to approach the vastness of the show. My advice: Go west. Start at the history museum, proceed to the library and wind up at the art museum.

The Real West has been subdivided into eight distinct topics, which have been distributed among the three locations. The team leader for the history museum's presentation, titled "The Search for Wealth and Community," is longtime CHM decorative and fine-arts curator Georgiana Contiguglia. Her team's contribution includes some 900 articles divided into four themes: "Cowboy," about ranching and the wild West; "Windmill," which addresses farming, the difficult search for water and the role of women in pioneer life; "Gold," which represents the mineral wealth of the region and its exploitation; and, finally, "Main Street," which focuses on urban growth.

At the bottom of the CHM's grand staircase, in the cavernous galleries on the history museum's lower level, Contiguglia starts off with a shorthand glimpse of the exhibit beyond. There's an incredibly glitzy pair of brand-new women's cowboy boots by Dan Post that feature both traditional flame stitching and untraditional rainbow dyeing. There's a quilt in the windmill or pinwheel pattern dating from 1920-1930. There's a large mineral sample of pyrite--"fool's gold." And there's a 1983 oil-on-canvas that depicts a scene of downtown Denver: Bruce Cody's "View From Diamond Hill." The shorthand introduction makes sense, since once we're in the show, the four themes merge and intertwine--just as history itself does.

Entering the first of the principal spaces, you're confronted by the tail end of an 1824 "Conestoga-style Wagon" made by A. Hirsh in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Logically, this is the place to start our journey through The Real West. The wagon has been fitted out with a historically correct assortment of ironstone jugs, homespun comforters and spatter-ware pots. Theatrical lighting has been projected onto the restored canvas top of the prairie schooner to suggest the setting sun filtered through cottonwood leaves. Thanks to more theatrical lighting, projections of the wagon-wheel ruts on the floor link up to railroad tracks --and then are transformed into tire tracks, leading us on through the past 200 years.

The chain of events represented by the wagon, the train and the car has to do with inward migration. Other major topics tackled include the minting of coins by Clark and Gruber, a Denver outfit that was the only private mint chartered by the federal government; the Ludlow massacre of 1914; the all-black Bill Pickett rodeo; life on the prairie; life in a mining town; and the building up and tearing down of our cities. Even Baby Doe Tabor's ample red flannel undies from the nineteenth century get an airing.

Most of the best things at the history museum fall under the "Cowboy" portion of the show. The exhibit would be worth seeing if only for the unfinished 1928 cubist oil on canvas "Portrait of a Cowboy," by the great early modernist Andrew Dasburg--or for Fletcher Martin's 1940 oil-on-canvas scene of rodeo clowns, titled "July 4th, 5th and 6th." Also, don't miss Arthur Roy Mitchell's "Untitled" oil of a cowboy on a rearing horse from 1945. The "Cowboy" portion also includes one of the few sculptures on display at any of the three locations, a bronze model finished in a magnificent black patina for the 1918 "Bucking Broncho" sculpture at the Civic Center, by Alexander Phimister-Proctor.

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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