Cowboys and Indians
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.
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.
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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.
No one has ever accused Edward Sheriff Curtis of lacking a point of view, or of stinting on myth, or nostalgia, or overt manipulation. Yet, despite the heavy-handedness of Curtis' noble savage approach, or perhaps because of it, Curtis' famous photographs of Native Americans are today generally regarded as great art, often by people and institutions that wouldn't deign to sniff at Remington's flights of xenophobic fancy.
After viewing the 29 Curtis photogravures now displayed at PDNB, however, a subtle doubt slowly emerges: Are the photos or the life the real Romantic masterpiece? Curtis fits every cliché of the Romantic genius, obsessively pursuing and suffering for Art. He lost his youth, his money, his wife, even control of his work, all in pursuit of his dream to systematically document the "authentic" way of life of Native Americans before their contact with the white man.
Best of all, the quest was by definition impossible. Curtis was born in Minnesota in 1868; like Frank Reaugh, he had little formal education, and he learned about cameras by building his own. After briefly apprenticing himself to a frontier photographer, in 1890 he purchased a half-interest in a photographic studio in Seattle. It was a pivotal year, a year that marked the battle of Wounded Knee, the end of the Indian Wars and the closing of the American frontier. Yet Curtis dithered, photographing society brides until 1898, when, on an expedition to Mount Rainier, he rescued a lost scientific party.
The grateful mountaineers included eminent men of science: the chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, the chief of the U.S. Division of Forestry, a noted naturalist, an ethnologist, a writer. Curtis was invited to accompany them to Alaska and on a second trip to Montana. He didn't waste the chance. He absorbed the ethnographic and scientific techniques he saw, which included recording native languages on wax cylinders. By 1900, when Curtis returned with glass negatives of Eskimos and Plains Indians, he had lit upon his life's work. Over the next few years, he began collecting material for what he hoped would be the definitive ethnographic study of Native Americans.
He, too, was late to the game. The Age of Exploration was at its end, and the cycle well-established: Discovery, Manifest Destiny, Absorption/Elimination of natives and last but not least the Grand Endeavor, that pseudo-scientific, vaguely nostalgic effort of the victors to memorialize the vanquished. By the time Curtis embarked on his G.E., painters, photographers and amateur anthropologists had been documenting the American Indian's demise for 75 years. Even the U.S. government was in on the act. While its left hand plotted to wipe out Native Americans, its right hand, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was collecting artifacts--in the words of one commissioner, "whatever of the aboriginal man can be rescued from the destruction which awaits his race." Painters, collectors and photographers had lived among the tribes, bicycled thousands of miles, bankrupted themselves, ruined their own health, even committed suicide in pursuit of the elusive quarry: an all-encompassing record of the American Indian. As one 19th-century photographer complained, there were so many shutterbugs vying to record a Hopi snake dance that the rivals were "kicking down [the] other fellow's tripod and sticking [their] elbow[s] in the next fellow's lens."
Curtis simply had the sharpest elbows. He understood the cardinal rule of artistic recognition: go East, young man. He worked his connections, hired a publicist, lectured. He enlisted the Smithsonian in his cause, hiring one of its curators to edit his project. He garnered influential fans, among them Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States and a sucker for Old West myth. Curtis' project appealed to the he-man adventurer in T.R.; as Roosevelt wrote of Curtis, "[h]e is an artist who works out of doors and not in the closet." T.R. boosted Curtis as he earlier had Frederick Remington, providing introductions and helpful letters. Thus Curtis was able to enlist the help of J.P. Morgan, who agreed to finance Curtis' 20-volume project and portfolios.
Curtis' efforts to "document" a way of life already gone consumed 30 years. Many tribes were already living on the res, but for Curtis, this was no problem; he decreed that "none of these pictures would admit anything which betokened [white] civilizations, whether in an article of dress or landscapes or objects on the ground." In other words, the work was heavily staged. Traditional costumes were sewn, rites re-enacted. The results were hailed as great science and ethnography, which they were not. Nor are the photogravures documentary, being to that noble genre as Joe McGuinness' book on the Kennedys was to biography: faction, at best.
It has taken almost a century for Curtis' work to be accepted as the art photography it certainly is. But is it great art? Curtis was a man of his time, which in his case meant a pictoralist, a heavily romanticized photographic style featuring dramatic angles, close-ups, soft focus, hand-tints, abstract backgrounds, chiaroscuro. He made some smart aesthetic decisions, among them the determination that "the pictures should be...of a size that the face might be studied as the Indian's own flesh." Some of the resulting portraits are arguably among the great works of the Romantic imagination. But you've got to ignore the manipulation to get there.
The actual landscapes are another matter. Curtis, far more than Reaugh, set out to mythologize, to tell white lies, and for this reason he belongs in the roll-call of important Western artists. Of course this category is an art-historical oxymoron, and Curtis' results, like Remington's, are often as schmaltzy and stilted and dishonest as anything produced under the guise of official Soviet state realism. Curtis' point of view simply makes his work somewhat more palatable to contemporary tastes, and this seems a slender reed upon which to hang greatness.
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