Sunday, July 17, 2011

Autry Museum's New Installation on early 20th Century Images of the West
"Chavez Ravine" by Misha Askenazy, one of the new canvases in the Romance gallery (Photo: Autry curatorial staff)

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Autry National Center has announced the opening of a new and fascinating installation as part of its "Romance" of the West exhibit. It is An Unspoiled Space: The West in the Eyes of Early 20th-Century Artists and it deals in part with how idealization and longing/desire influenced how artists saw -- and painted -- landscapes and cityscapes in the West.

Focused on the unique, regional landscapes of the desert Southwest and coastal California, this installation explores the people and places that artists were drawn to as they sought to redefine the West by looking at who, what, and where artists chose to paint following the close of the historical frontier.

Artists often saw life in the West in terms of its differences from the Eastern cities where they had previously lived. Whereas city life often left a person—as D. H. Lawrence put it—feeling “dead, dark, and buried,” the Southwest seemed to possess an uplifting visual aesthetic that enhanced daily living. Many believed that Pueblo Indian culture was driven by an innate artistic spirit, and their paintings of Native people reflect this belief. While Indian life preoccupied many artists in New Mexico, blossoming resort communities from Santa Fe to Southern California also became subjects. In Southern California, some artists documented the burgeoning social scene of Los Angeles, from the docks of San Pedro to the downtown plaza, whereas others celebrated the unspoiled beauty of the coast. As they created images that touted the visual landscapes and cultural life of these Western destinations, they promoted ideas about place that remain embedded within their modern identity.

In addition to the landscape of the West, artists were fascinated by its people. The Pueblo Indians and Hispanic families of Northern New Mexico were represented in individual portraits as the visual personification of their respective geographical settings. By focusing on Native and Hispanic cultures as immersed in traditions of craftsmanship, artists believed they were capturing values lost in the quest for industrial progress. The quest for a life spent in harmony with nature also fueled creative production across Southern California, where artists’ groups from La Jolla to the Bay Area created a supportive environment for art. Unlike their counterparts in New Mexico, however, California painters often overlooked the Native population in favor of a more exclusive focus on the private gardens and ocean resorts in works of landscapes and leisure that conveyed the relaxed, stylish qualities that California continues to export to the world.

The Autry blog has a very interesting discussion with Amy Scott, the Autry’s Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross Curator of Visual Art.

“This is about how artists are orienting themselves within a changing West, settling into certain communities, working with the landscape and its native, sometimes its Hispanic, residents to develop visual ideas about place,” Scott said. “Not only did they settle there permanently, but often they brought their families, they raised their kids there, they developed local artists’ organizations to exhibit and promote their work. So they’re really embedded within these communities in a directed and organized way.”

As these painters looked to express their vision amid the ferment of the times — this was the time of World War I, the Roaring 20s and then the Depression — they moved out West, or at least spent significant periods here, in search of a more “authentic experience.” The result was colorful canvases that used the blocky, pared-down visuals of modernism, cubism, surrealism, and impressionism, but applied to the austere landscapes and the indigenous people of the West, like the Navajo (DinĂ©) and the Hopi.

“In the twentieth century, part of the allure of places like Santa Fe and Taos, or Los Angeles and La Jolla, is the fact that they seem to be separate or operate differently from the modern, industrial centers of New York and D.C. and Philadelphia, which sort of form the bedrock of American modernism,” Scott said. “Many of the artists, particularly those who settle in Taos in the early twentieth century, like Blumenschein, are in search of a distinctly American art and distinctly American subjects by which to distinguish their work from the more Europeanized abstraction that is coming out of the East Coast.”

Of course, authenticity is a loaded concept. The artists sought honest representations of American life, and they believed they found them in images of Indigenous people and Southwest desert landscapes.

But some might argue that is still a view from the outside, because the Indigenous people in the paintings were still merely subjects, not necessarily collaborators in the forging of their images. This even though the artists considered the Pueblo Indians they were painting highly artistic, integrating art into their everyday objects and leading lives that had been essentially unchanged for hundreds of years.

“Not only are the Pueblos considered to be inherently creative and artistically gifted people,” Scott said, “but they are one of the few groups of Native people who are seen to be — and of course this is all the perception of Anglo and European artists coming from the East Coast — they’re perceived to be living in manners that are relatively straightforward and consistent with the way they’ve always done. They are not tainted or corrupted too much.”

Eventually, even maverick artists like Blumenschein and Sloan would themselves become the establishment, and they would inspire a reaction in another direction from their successors in the 1940s and 1950s, like Georgia O’Keefe. But at least at the dawn of the century, they and their colleagues formed part of an effort — cyclical in art — to both appropriate new influences and return to “genuine” images and concepts.

“The longing to experience the West as it truly is and as it truly was is part of what (was) pushing these artists into these places,” Scott said. “It’s part of a longing for a more straightforward, what they considered to be more honest representation of American landscapes and American life.”
"Iesaka Waken," by Maynard Dixon, one of the new 20th-century works in the Autry's Romance gallery (Photo: Autry Collections)

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