Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on March 28, 2008 with the permission of the Denver Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Denver Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
How the West was Collected
by Ann Scarlett Daley
Once, an artist broke into the Denver Art Museum not to steal a painting, but to leave his own painting there. He wanted to be able to say his work was in the Denver Art Museum. Following his arrest, he and his painting were removed from the museum. Some years later, a contingent of museum patrons also took matters into their own hands -- and found a way to place art in the museum far short of illegal means.
The Contemporary Realism Group of the Denver Art Museum was formed in the early 1990s at the urging of James Wallace, a member of the museum's board of trustees who lamented that contemporary realist art did not have a place at the museum. By organizing a band of like-minded supporters who would fund the purchase of realistic art by living artists, Wallace sought to remedy the situation. Thanks to this small but dedicated group, the collection has taken shape and grown to include fifty objects as of September 2006. The visual legacy of Jim Wallace's affectionate leadership and the group's progress can be seen in the Dietler Gallery of Western Art in the museum's new Frederic C. Hamilton Building, which opened in the fall of 2006.
Wallace's interest in art began with a childhood fondness for the paintings his grandmother made in southern California, where he was raised. An oil industry entrepreneur, Wallace served in the Marine Corps after college, then moved to Texas where he met his wife, Lucy. In 1974, he and his partners formed an oil and gas company in Denver called Brownlie, Wallace, Armstrong and Bander Exploration. Jim and Lucy have been avid collectors and the consistent center of the Contemporary Realism Group from the start.
Denver Art Museum director Lewis I. Sharp has acknowledged and supported the interests of the contemporary realism community since moving to Denver in 1989. He agreed with Wallace that this area of collecting would resonate with the public and had been neglected by the museum, so he welcomed the new initiative. Sharp wrote appreciatively that "this group has committed to help the institution build a collection of art created in a realistic manner. In addition to financial support, they play an active role with the professional staff of the museum in selecting the material for the collection."
It is no surprise that realistic art is highly appropriate for a western art department located in the largest art museum between Kansas City and the West Coast. Some scholars believe that realism suits the American tradition because it is a democratic art form, accessible to everyone and untainted by elitism. "American attitudes were for a long time strongly pragmatic, in cultural matters as well as in purely practical ones," noted Edward Lucie-Smith in his 1994 book, American Realism. However, as Peter Hassrick has observed in the introduction to this volume, other scholars consider abstract expressionism to be a purely American art form, one elevated above the connotations of subject. It is noteworthy that a number of the artists in the contemporary realism collection -- Harry Jackson and Don Coen, for example -- were trained in the 1950s and 1960s in the prevailing style of abstract expressionism and later found their way back to realistic subjects.
Institutionally, the Contemporary Realism Group is led by the museum's Institute of Western American Art; however, the history of the group's acquisitions reflects the diversity of museum leadership over the years. Former curator of modern and contemporary art Dianne Vanderlip led the way with the first purchase, Daniel Sprick's My Metaphysical Adventure. Additional acquisitions of work by highly regarded Colorado artists followed: Scott Fraser's Three Fishermen and Don Coen's Prairie Encounter. [fig. 1] Curator of American art Lauretta Dimmick oversaw the acquisition of several additional objects. I have served as the principal curatorial advisor to the Contemporary Realism Group since 1997 and as associate curator of the Institute of Western American Art since its inception in 2001. Joan Carpenter Troccoli, the institute's senior scholar, has worked with the group since 1996, and Peter H. Hassrick has been a champion of its activities since becoming director of the institute in 2005.
At quarterly dinner meetings, curators present new works for discussion and potential purchase and keep the Contemporary Realism Group members up to date on trends in western art by its best practitioners. Informal in tone, the meetings often feature talks by artists. For example, in the spring of 2006, sculptor Dan Ostermiller (born 1956) captured the group's attention by detailing the process of creating the monumental bronzes that now reside at the southern end of the Hamilton Building, Scottish Angus Cow and Calf, a gift of Leo J. Hindery Jr. [fig. 2] A gift of this magnitude might not have found its way to the museum without the motivating force of the strong collection of contemporary realist art begun by Wallace and his devoted supporters.
One key to the longevity of the Contemporary Realism Group is the opportunity it offers its members for education, direct acquaintance with artists, and rewarding relationships with museum staff. As members have moved on, either to warmer climates or to other interests, the composition of the group has evolved. At present, there is a roster of twenty couples, and the expanding ranks of realist artists have provided the group with new sources of interest and acquisitions.
How are specific works added to the collection? The job of the curatorial staff is to stay informed about artists whose work is sufficiently mature and technically accomplished to add significantly to the museum's holdings. The curators then discuss those artists with the group. Often, choices are considered and prioritized at the quarterly meetings. Together, curatorial staff and members select the specific pieces that best enhance the collection. This process is exemplified by the purchase of George Carlson's sculpture, Of One Heart. Carlson is an award-winning artist whose work was identified by group members and museum staff for consideration because of its strong compositions and emotional content. His bronzes, especially his images of horses, rank him among the best animal sculptors today. Connoisseurs consider Of One Heart to be one of Carlson's finest sculptures because of its imposing scale and the sympathetic treatment of its subject. The spirit, strength, and power of the two Belgian draft horses is amplified by Carlson's synergistic placement of the two bodies and heads pulling together in the same direction. Wallace and his compatriot Bill Winn brought the bronze to my and Troccoli's attention, and we formally recommended its purchase at one of the group's quarterly meetings. Of One Heart became part of the collection in 1999 and has been on display in the western galleries ever since. It is a highlight of the special exhibition of Carlson's work at the Denver Art Museum that is commemorated in this publication.
The West itself -- its land, its people, its wild and domestic creatures -- has influenced generation after generation of artists. One premise behind the installation of the institute's Dietler Gallery of Western Art is the concept that the influences exerted by the landscape upon artists have remained relatively consistent ever since the first painters encountered the West in the early 1800s. Contemporary paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photographs are juxtaposed with historic western art in a fashion that accentuates the striking similarities, as well as contrasts, between old and new. This is still very much a determinist environment. Thus a 1921 painting by Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), In the Enemy's Country, [fig. 3]may be comfortably placed across from a modern work by Don Stinson (born 1956), The Necessity for Ruins, painted in 1998. [fig. 4] Russell's canvas is a reverential depiction of times remembered; for Russell, the land and its original inhabitants were the representatives of an unspoiled West. In a similar manner, Stinson falls back on the past and human memory to extract his pictorial message of a changing West. The storied drive-in movie theater of his childhood sinks back into the topography, barely noticed by the passing motorists on the highway. It is a symbol of the persistent march of civilization in the same way that Russell's Kootenai Indian hunting party is a visual reminder of an unspoiled West. Yet the determinist imperative is ever present in the thematic calling that has compelled each artist to remember a different time and a West that once spoke to him with a sense of innocence and unblemished charm. Russell's and Stinson's works are in this sense logical companions in the museum's effort to join time and place in the narrative of this special region. [fig. 5]
Another idea governing the western installation has been to give the viewer, who perhaps has arrived in Denver from some distant place on the globe, a feel for the region. This imaginary visitor may have no chance to personally experience the marvels of the mountains, the abundance of the plains, the clarity of the air, and the luminous blue sky.
Such paintings as Wilson Hurley's The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone describe not only the topographical configuration of that dramatic canyon, but the physical and emotional sensations of standing at the edge of a precipice and surveying a vast expanse and distant waterfall. [fig. 6] Hurley's knowledge of the West comes in part from his experience as a pilot; because he has seen the shapes and forms of the land from an entirely different perspective, he is able to impart to the viewer more than a physical description of the land -- he conveys the sensations of the tangible characteristics of the canyon before him.
More than a hundred years before Hurley painted The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) was intent on showing his viewers, mostly easterners, his version of the spectacular West. Bierstadt's painting Wind River, Wyoming dramatizes the mountain peaks in the background so that they look not unlike the Swiss Alps that Bierstadt knew from his European sojourns. [fig. 7] It's not a totally unrealistic view of the mountains that Bierstadt presents, but it is perhaps a glorified one that exaggerates the grandeur that struck him when, as an artist assigned to Colonel Frederick Lander's expedition in 1859, he first encountered the Rocky Mountains. Both artists use large canvases to imply the magnitude of the vast physical space of the scenes before them; both artists use color, perspective, and fidelity to particulars to evoke a sense of place. These artists impact the consciousness of both the viewer from far away and the viewer who lives nearby.
Two portraits from different centuries continue the comparison of historic western art and contemporary art in the western art galleries. Long Jakes [fig. 8] is an image of the quintessential western man. Painted in 1844 by Charles Deas, it depicts the lone figure of a fur trapper garbed in bright red shirt, buckskin leggings, and moccasins astride a small, dark brown horse. This early rendition of the single figure in the West (implied by the view of the Rocky Mountains in the distance) was an instant sensation with eastern audiences as well as critics and was purchased by the American Art-Union in 1844. It gave shape to an icon to an audience hungry for pictures, symbols, and details about the West.
In 1980, James Bama, an artist living now in Cody, Wyoming, painted a masterful portrait of a young Plains Indian. [fig. 9] As in Long Jakes, the figure is on horseback, although in this painting the horse is nearly cropped out of the picture as if it is only a distraction from the alert countenance of the young man. This man is an icon of a different sort -- a bold, contemporary figure dressed in the traditional clothing of his ancestors, which prompts the audience to remember the past glories of the West. In the same manner, when Long Jakes glances over his shoulder, the action suggests a reverie referring to the vanishing fur trade. Deas and Bama are attentive to detail of costume, accouterment, and posture; each strap and feather is rendered with exquisite care. Each painting is both of its time and historical, conveying not only the artist's intent to provide audiences with specific data but also to establish an iconic presence. In Young Plains Indian, the modern audience, used to the rapid bombardment of television images, perhaps needs less information to perceive the identity and character of this proud individual.
In addition to realistic subject matter, the Contemporary Realism Group seeks originality of perception and interpretation. Originality is a quality that is more easily recognized than articulated. Work must be technically superior and possess the formal qualities of perspective, line, form, and balance. Of course, many highly competent artists working today produce work that possesses those traits. The museum continues to look for the exceptional.
In the work of Chuck Forsman (born 1944), a professor of painting at the University of Colorado, the viewer is at first enraptured by the artist's technical mastery -- the colors, the surface, the balanced composition. However, like Deas and Bama, Russell and Stinson, Forsman is making art that's about loss. Forsman's paintings contain an alarming message that the pristine ideality of the West is rapidly changing because of overcrowding, overuse, and thoughtless development. Forsman's imaginary scenes make us face a realism of a different sort. The deep blue pool in Aggregate looks like an unspoiled lake at first, until the viewer discovers the tire-tread marks of a heavy truck, which indicates that the removal of aggregate has left a hole partially filled with standing water. [fig. 10] Forsman says that his landscapes are "depictions of the encounter of nature and society, and they attempt to deal with the many conflicts inherent in that theme." In Crooked River, a calm landscape is marred by the scar of a road, the contrails of a jet plane, and a river in an unnatural path. The disquieting nature of Forsman's paintings reflects the time and place in which he lives -- the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in Colorado, when anxieties about land use and environmental issues are at the forefront of western dialogue.
Although not a direct antecedent, the tradition of lack of idealization can be found in the nineteenth-century paintings of Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910). His quiet paintings underplay the expanse and drama of the West in favor of recognition of ordinary land use. In Foothills Colorado, Whittredge paints a small, not grand, picture that shows Indian tipis on the Plains near the area that is now Greeley. [fig. 11] A contemporary of Bierstadt, Whittredge chose direct depictions of the Plains versus the grandiloquent studio versions of the more dramatic mountains.
As regional artist Thomas Hart Benton once said, "The real subject is what an individual has known and felt about things encountered in a world of real people and actual things." Many artists represented in the collection who have had personal experiences of the West communicate that direct feeling in their work. As a student at the University of Denver, Don Coen (born 1935) was taught to paint in a nonobjective, abstract expressionist style. Coen's first paintings after college were totally abstract and colorful; they also lacked great distinction. An artist friend suggested that Don paint the subjects he knew best -- the family farm near Lamar, Colorado, with its cattle, salt licks, watering holes, and derelict trucks. Coen discovered that these subjects had meaning not just for him but for his audience in Colorado as well. The large scale of Coen's canvases (perhaps a carryover from his abstract expressionist training) and his method of airbrush painting join the technology and aesthetic of the 1960s with the subject of farm life to produce paintings such as Yellow Rain Jacket. [fig. 12] They could not have been made anywhere else, nor by anyone else.
Many of the artists in the museum's contemporary realism collection have a strong sense of place and communicate it in innovative ways. In Comanche Gap II, Woody Gwyn (born 1944) describes a portion of the West near Galisteo, New Mexico, but the topography is characteristic of land from Montana to Mexico. [fig. 13] His panoramic display of promontory, valley, distant mountain range, and another valley beyond conveys a distinctly American concept: the unending and unpopulated promise of the land. It is an idea that may date back to the first human occupants of this land, a vision of the West as open-ended and there for the taking.
With the opportunity provided by the generosity of members of the Contemporary Realism Group, the Institute of Western American Art has created a collection and an installation that juxtaposes new and old to compare and contrast, enlarge and enrich our concepts and ideas about the West.
1 Lewis I. Sharp, foreword to Contemporary Realism Collection: Denver Art Museum, vol. 1 (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 2000), n.p.
2 Edward Lucie-Smith, American Realism (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1994), 14.
3 Entry on Chuck Forsman in Contemporary Realism Collection: Denver Art Museum, vol. 2 (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 2006), n.p.
4 Quoted in Lucie-Smith, American Realism, 12.
About the Author
Ann Scarlett Daley, associate curator for the Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum, has been associated with the Museum since 1977. She has organized exhibitions such as the "Late Work of Frederic Remington" and written extensively on Western American art in books including Landscapes of Colorado: Mountains and Plains and Sweet on the West: How Candy Built a Colorado Treasure. She served as the inaugural curator of the Coors Western Art Exhibition and Sale at the National Western Stock Show. Michael Paglia has a vast knowledge of Colorado art from years of writing, teaching, and speaking. A prominent art critic, since 1995 he has had a regular art column in Westword, a Denver-weekly owned by Village Voice Media. (source: Amazon.com)
About Western Passages
George Carlson's work is highlighted in the annual Western Passages publication of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum. "Heart of the West: New Painting and Sculpture of the American West" includes essays on George Carlson, collecting Western American art, the Museum's Contemporary Realism Group, artist-explorers and the Western landscape, and full color illustrations. The above essay is one of four essays from Heart of the West: New Painting and Sculpture of the American West and the catalogue for the George Carlson: Heart of the West exhibition being held at the Denver Art Museum December 15, 2007 - April 13, 2008. (source: Denver Art Museum)
About the Institute of Western American Art
In September 2007, The Denver Art Museum announced that Denver resident Tom Petrie would endow the Museum's Institute of Western American Art. Additionally, he agreed to a long-term loan of pieces from his comprehensive collection of works by Western artist Charles M. Russell for display at the Museum. In recognition both of this gift and Mr. Petrie's long-time commitment to Western art and the Denver Art Museum, the Museum announced a new name for the Museum's Western art initiative: "The Petrie Institute of Western American Art."
The gift will be used to fund art display and conservation, Institute staffing, special exhibitions, and educational efforts including the annual Western Passages publication and an annual symposium. An impressive lineup of upcoming exhibitions that will be supported by the gift includes George Carlson: Heart of the West (December 15, 2007-April 13, 2008), In Contemporary Rhythm: The Art of Ernest L. Blumenschein (November 15, 2008-February 15, 2009), Charles Deas: Telling Tales to 1840s America (June 6, 2009-August 30, 2009) and The Russell Retrospective (November 2009-January 2010).
"As the Denver Art Museum is at the geographic center of the Rocky Mountain West, our goal is to create one of the most internationally respected centers of Western American art," said Peter Hassrick, director of the Institute. "In conjunction with other recent gifts and initiatives by ardent supporters including the Dietler, Harmsen and Wallace families, this generous gift from Mr. Petrie provides us with very exciting momentum towards achieving this goal."
"As an avid collector of Western art and a resident of Denver, my intention is that this gift will help continue to elevate the importance of Western art within the Colorado community and at the Denver Art Museum," said Tom Petrie. "With the progress that's been made in the last decade in terms of strengthening the collection, building an excellent curatorial team and increasing the priority on Western American art, I feel that the Denver Art Museum is well positioned to develop this program into one of the finest in the world."
The Institute was founded in 2001 following the very successful Painters and the American West exhibition, drawn from the esteemed Anschutz collection, and a major donation of more than 700 objects from the collection assembled by Bill and Dorothy Harmsen. Since then, Peter H. Hassrick, a leading scholar and curator in the field of Western American art and past director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, was hired as director of the Institute. Former director and curator Joan Carpenter Troccoli has been appointed senior scholar and has focused on writing and curatorial duties associated with exhibitions and publications. Hassrick, Troccoli and associate curator Ann Daley also worked to prominently display many of the major works from the collection in the Dietler Galleries of Western American Art in the new Frederic C. Hamilton Building, which opened in October of 2006.
A member of the Denver Art Museum Board of Directors since 1998 as well as the Museum's Western Advisory Committee, Tom Petrie is a Vice Chairman of Merrill Lynch and has a long career in energy investment banking. Mr. Petrie is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, holds an MSBA from Boston University and received an Honorary Doctorate of Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines. (source: Denver Art Museum)
Resource Library editor's note
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Nicole A Parks, Curatorial Assistant, Petrie Institute of Western American Art, Denver Art Museum, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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