Art of the American West
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
We battled wild winds and sideways rain to get to Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher Building last Sunday, but once we ditched our coats and entered “Art of the American West: Highlights of the Haub Family Collection from the Tacoma Art Museum,” weather woes were forgotten and it was all about the art.
John Nieto’s electric “Buffalo at Sunset” welcomes visitors to the exhibit of 75 paintings and sculptures on loan from our neighbors to the south, and upon reflection I can see why. Although the American bison is an icon of the Old West, this particular rendition of the animal that once roamed the grasslands of North America in plentiful numbers was multi-hued, vibrant and unmistakably contemporary.
It wasn’t long before I surmised the more recent pieces that were interspersed among works from the past 200 years were there to remind viewers that art—like history—is ever-evolving.
“The artworks in the exhibition examine ideas of American identity over time, delve into storytelling and myth-making, and explore the vast American landscape,” a press release relating to the exhibit confirmed. “Visitors will see how concepts of the West, both real and imagined, have continually changed and evolved, and still influence people today.”
Olaf C. Seltzer was a good example of an artist who used his talents to make sure a vanishing Old West wasn’t forgotten. The painter was born in Denmark in 1877, but moved to Montana with his mother as a teenager, where he ended up, among other things, working for the Great Northern Railway. His most important works were completed in the 20th century, but pieces such as “Trail of the Iron Horse”—depicting a gathering of Native Americans sitting on their horses in full regalia, while in the distance a train approaches—helped depict the West when it was still the Old West.
“This image often shows up in history books to illustrate railroads coming through Montana,” my date told me as we studied the painting together.
Over the course of the next hour, he also pointed out other historical elements I may have missed in the viewing. For example, while taking in a sculpture of Shoshone leader Chief Washakie, he noted that he was a “strong ally” of the United States government. He was a peaceful man, but also a brave warrior—and, upon his death in 1900, was the first Native American to be given a full military funeral.
Questioning how artwork affects perceptions of Native American identity is just one of the themes viewers will encounter in “Art of the American West.” A “Landscapes of the Western Frontier” section of the exhibit draws attention to the 19th and early 20th century artists who “lamented senseless environmental destruction and created works that generated a call to action,” and pieces by artists such as Georgia O’Keefe, Maynard Dixon, Robert Henri, and E. Martin Hennings explore both western history and modern identity.
From an imagined scene from the Lewis and Clark expedition, to a realistic painting of Star Road by Taos Society of Artists member Catherine Carter Critcher, to breathtaking images of the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rainier, Mt. McKinley, the San Juan River, and far beyond, the exhibit is far-reaching and wondrous to behold.
“Each of these works is a story unto themselves,” my date said as we neared the end of the exhibit. “Let’s come back soon to find out more about them.”
Image credit: Maynard Dixon; A Desert Valley, 1922; Oil on board; 22 × 22 in. Courtesy of the Tacoma Art Museum, Haub Family Collection, Gift of Erivan and Helga Haub.
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