Cowboys and Indians

Charting the not-so-grand endeavors of Frank Reaugh and Edward Sheriff Curtis

As the joke goes, nostalgia ain't what it used to be. And if you doubt it, hie yourself down to shows at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary and Photographs Do Not Bend, both of which are featuring work from the distant (for Texas) past.

The MAC's show features 96 works by Frank Reaugh, an icon of Texas' artistic heritage. Reaugh, whom the MAC is touting as "Texas's Renaissance Man," was famous in his day both as a late-19th-century chronicler of the Texas range and as a 20th-century teacher of many of the "Dallas Nine," those regionalist painters of a flattened, Depression-era Texas. He was also an inventor, a founder of what eventually became the Dallas Museum of Art and an art correspondent (for The Dallas Morning News). Despite it all, Reaugh is a near-forgotten figure; his last retrospective seems to have taken place years ago in that well-known temple of high art, the Highland Park town hall. Naturally the Panhandle-Plains Museum, as the resting place for some 800 of Reaugh's works, and the MAC, as self-appointed keeper of the regionalist flame, have set out to resurrect Reaugh's moribund rep.

The cause is worthy, but oh, the sanctimony. Even the reviews have been delivered with the solemnity of World Trade Center bombing coverage, many claiming, like Texas Monthly, that Reaugh "has no real competition in the category of most underrated--and most misunderstood--Texas artist." Granted, TM has no real competition in the modern nostalgia biz, having long ago devolved into a not-so-smart recycling bin for tired Texas legends. Even so, a lot of folk who really ought to know better are out there proclaiming that art history done Frank wrong.

"A Zuñi Woman," a 1903 photogravure by Edward S. Curtis, now on view at Photographs Do Not Bend
"A Zuñi Woman," a 1903 photogravure by Edward S. Curtis, now on view at Photographs Do Not Bend

Details

Frank Reaugh's Symphony of Shade and Light is on display through October 21 at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. Call 214-953-1212.

Edward Sheriff Curtis runs through October 13 at Photographs Do Not Bend. Call 214-969-1852.

Horsepucky. Wandering into the MAC's main gallery, the weakness and forgettability of the work is overwhelming. Are these really the best hundred or so selections from a lifetime oeuvre of more than 7,000? And do the organizers really believe that, as they suggest, Reaugh is the artistic equal of those great mythologizers of the American West, Frederic Remington and Charles Russell? What about Reaugh's inability to paint people, or animals in motion? For that matter, what of his general inability to paint? As the MAC's show makes abundantly clear, Reaugh's finest works are not his oils but his tiny pastel sketches of Texas' frontier past, most of which measure about 4 by 6 inches.

Of course, size is no prerequisite for great art, and wall text explains Reaugh's Lilliputian scale as frontier parsimoniousness. Paper was in short supply, as were Reaugh's preferred materials, pastels. (Ever the resourceful frontiersman, Reaugh made and sold his own pastels.) Still, wandering through Reaugh's show, two things seem clear. First, Reaugh's finest work was done early on, during a period dating from the mid-1880s to about 1902. And second, this best work isn't "cowboy art," but nature painting, pure and simple, that mainstay of 19th-century American art.

Reaugh came late to the genre. He was born in 1860, some 39 years after the Santa Fe Trail opened, and it was 1876 before he arrived in Texas by covered wagon. By then, such convoys to Texas were a familiar sight, though perhaps not so familiar as those headed the other way. Texas was a very hard place to eke out a living, and as such, sparsely populated. Though the young artist had to learn his craft by copying magazine reproductions and engravings by artists like J.M.W. Turner, Reaugh was privileged in one sense; long after such vistas had disappeared elsewhere, he could gaze upon expanses of relatively unpopulated, untamed plains. He saw cattle drives and ranges soon to be fenced, even a few Native Americans not yet warehoused on the reservation. He saw real longhorns, wild cattle not yet crossed with European strains. He sketched what he saw, rendering trees and cows and mountains and johnsongrass with skill, and mastered the trick of keeping everything else in the background. No mere stenographer, Reaugh sketched from memory and from photographs as well as from his own studies of bovine anatomy. The results are pictures of God's unspoiled handiwork in the finest 19th-century tradition, at once realistic and romanticized, little attempts to reach the divine through the bovine and through the enduring mysteries of Texas weather.

In 1888-'89, he studied in Europe, where he saw French Impressionism. Alas, beginning around 1900, Reaugh started working in oil, revisiting earlier scenes in a loosely painted, derivative Impressionist style. (Until about 1900, he rarely seems to have worked in the medium.) He ratcheted up the sentimentality and nostalgia, pasteled up the tones and ripped himself off unmercifully, becoming a kind of Dallas version of late de Chirico. Naturally, the public loved it. He showed at art fairs and expos throughout the Midwest and founded a fashionable Dallas atelier. He took students on sketching trips and spawned some wretched bluebonnet painters, as well as a few talented successors.

Rather than condemning the late work as sentimental schlock, the MAC is peddling Reaugh as the original cowboy impressionist, a dubious distinction that the MAC seems to feel earns Reaugh a spot "alongside" Remington and Russell. Upon examination, however, Reaugh's claim to inclusion in the pantheon of Western art fails. Unlike Remington, or even late Bierstadt, Reaugh never became a painter of overwrought, falsified cowboy myths. Reaugh's work is infinitely slighter, and sweeter, and truer than anything the two "Rs" produced and thus wholly lacking in the element that makes "Western" art so damnably enduring: its propaganda quotient.

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