Cowboy art hits pay dirt

Get ready to slap leather, partner. Reach for your shootin' iron on the count of . . . around a million. Once again, the American West is the scene of fiercely fought duels, showdowns as intense as a scene from Zane Gray. Risks may be less, but stakes still run high. And nowadays the only leather being slapped here is on the outside of some well-padded wallets.

The target for this modern day enthusiasm is art, Western art depicting hard riding and slow cowboys, Indians, cattle drives, spectacular mountains, breathtaking landscapes, the legends and the realities of the American West.For decades, established art circles condemned such works as unsophisticated in terms of aesthetics as well as subject matter.

No more. Recent years have seen prices for the likes of a Frederic Remington or a Charles M. Russell climb from sky high in the 1960s to stratospheric in the '70s. On the rare occasions when works by these artists come on the market, Remingtons command prices on the order of $750,000, and Russells jingle the cash register for about half a million dollars. A New York gallery last year sold Remington's oil "Downing the Night Leader" for over $1 million.

The popularity of Western art, however, puts its price out of reach of all but the tiniest minority.

Investors recognize that it is one of the soundest art investments available, and announcements of a Western art sale generally result in a stampede of would-be buyers anxious to pay five or six figures for important and not-so-important works. The museum-going public reacts with the same enthusiasm , and more than one museum has had attendance records broken at an exhibition of Western art.

"People have begun to appreciate these works for their fine art, their artistic qualities," notes one museum director. [They] also offer them some relief from the stuffiness and rigidity of more formalized schools of art, both modern and traditional.

More to the point, however, the movement captures what some historians consider one of teh most crucial, certainly the most colorful, periods of American history: the settling of the Western frontier.

Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, Alfred Jacob Miller, Frank Tenney Johnson, Albert Bierstadt, Charles Schreyvogel, Ernest Tonk, and numerous other artists saw the westward expansion not only as exciting for its color -- cowboys and Indians, thundering buffalo, growling grizzlies and spectacular scenary -- but as a completely unique period that wouldn't last long. So they gave up clean sheets and other East Coast amenities and headed West. Some stayed; some returned East; some kept coming and going. They took what they saw and recorded it on canvas, on paper, and in bronze.

A number of these artists -- Remington, for example -- paid their way West as illustrators for magazines or books, while others painted advertisements for the new transcontinental railroads. Russell worked as a "nighthawk," the rider who guards the horses while the cowboys sleep during a trail drive. He did it because he needed the income, wanted firsthand experience, and loved the West and everything that went with it. A few of these artists became popular in their own time, but most earned little money for their art.

The real pay dirt came 70 years later. "All of a sudden, people who used to look down on the West now have this great enthusiasm for it," says Dean Krakel. Mr. Krakel is the director of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, which owns one of the greatest collections of Western art. He is recognized as perhaps the leading authority on that movement. "People are either consciously or unconsciously looking for the kind of freedom that this sort of art represents.

"There was not only the freedom of the West itself and its people, but this is an unsubsidized kind of art. Russell worked as a nighthawk. Miller worked as a cowboy. They foraged for themselves. It was a hard life, and it shows in their art."

He and others point to a sense of helplessness American feel at being caught up in domestic and foreign events beyond their control as a reason for the popularity boom in Western art. The frontier typifies the American spirit, the ability to stick together, to grapple with challenges and wrestle them to the ground.

"This is the most unique of all art. Western art is American art, a school all its own. It's distinctive and unique. It wasn't copied from Europe. People who went out West, by and large, had never been to Munich.

"Westerners are different people," he says. "They dress differently; they think differently; and they talk differently. They talk beautifully. This is what is personified in Western art. We are losing our individuality. We've lost our character and most of our morals. We've lost our principles and our roughness. Those people [the artists] were all individuals. They lived lives that maybe we would like to be living."

It doesn't take much imagination to picture Mr. Krakel in his cowboy boots. He is, indeed, a dyed-in-the-wool Westerner. He recalls how, when he was a boy, the family dinner table conversation might revolve around the one car that passed by the house that day. He takes pride in the fact that he was well into adulthood before he ever slept in a "steam-heated room."

He appears to subscribe to the axiom, first formalized by Frederick Jackson Turner, that the continual movement into new frontiers made and kept America strong. The art movement pictorialized that concept, and today's interest in Western art spearheads an overall resurgence of things and ideas Western.

Reilly P. Rhodes, on the other hand, likes Western art "because it is good art." Mr. Rhodes, director of the Bowers Museum of Santa Ana, Calif., recently kicked off an expansion program for the Bowers with the Gund Collection of Western art, a traveling exhibition.

"Western art is the most romantic art movement of any country," he says. "People are also recognizing its aesthetic merits, and that, I think, is the chief factor in the new popularity. Now we are beginning to hold Western art up against contemporary art of the 1890s, and we are recognizing that it is a valid school.

"People who collect other art are now seeing this as a viable investment, no doubt about it. But good art, that's the first thing."

In the case of Western art, money and "good art" now walk hand in hand. Henry Fonda, who attended the opening of the Gund Collection at the Bowers, commented, "I'm here because I love good art," but added that about 10 years ago he had been offered a Remington bronze, the Bronc Buster, for $27,000, "which was a pretty good chunk of money in those days. I wanted to buy it because I liked it . I asked by business manager what he thought, and he talked me out of it. Today that piece is worth $125,000."

Is it good art? Just as with any art movement, some is and some isn't. The era produced its share of junk. Critics generally group Remington, Russell, Miller, Kaplin, and Bierstadt together as the cream of the crop, although none of them was above producing medium-grade works strictly for popular demand.

Remington possessed a great feel for action and produced dozens of bronzes of broncobusting, Indians at full gallop, and cavalry soldiers snatching unhorsed buddies off the ground. Remington was enormously popular in his time, notes Mr. Krakel. He dined at the White House and moved in the best social circles in New York. Although he rode with the cavalry chasing Indians, he made no pretense about his fondness for soft beds, white sheets, good food, and Pullman cars. In fact, he sketched material on his trips West and then went back to his Long Island, New York, studio to paint and sculpt the final works.

It is its authencity that makes a good deal of Western art valuable, though not necessarily in dollars and cents. Lithographed railroad advertisements, for instance, were sold by the thousands for a nickel apiece, and now they are worth thousands of dollars, says Mr. Rhodes, adding, "You can still find them in Midwest garage sales for $5 to $10."

But in many of these works subject matter counts more than artistic merit. In others aesthetics are more important than authenticity. Mr. Krakel notes a small oil painting by Miller showing an Indian looking out over an enormous, panoramic valley. The Indian's steed is a flowing, white stallion, the sort that no Indian ever rode. "They rode scraggly, jughead ponies, like you see in A Remington."

Towards the end of his life, Remington drifted towards impressionism, which, Mr. Krakel feels, accounted for his best works."Remington died at 48, and if he had lived 15 more years he would have turned out paintings that, in my opinion, would have been impressionism equal to any of the French. Anything after 1900, when he quit the magazines, were all fantastic impressionism -- land-scapes, mountainscapes, deserts -- there wasn't a line in them."

In one sense, "good art" runs counter to the essential appeal, the Western spirit of these works. This is the I-don't-know-good-art-but-I-know-what-I-like school. If a Westerner likes a picture, what the critics "back East" have to say about it pulls as little weight as a cowboy without a saddle and a horse to put under it.

Mr. Krakel feels that the very best of the Western art, what he calls the Taos Mexico) school, attracts the least amount of attention. "They went there in the 1890s, all of them highly qualified painters. They had no subsidies. They had no illustration contracts. They were there because they loved the most beautiful setting in America. That air is like crystal clear water -- beautiful. They loved it. The autumns, the Indians, the color -- this is probably the finest school of art in American art history.

"They did problem paintings, not simple things of horses. Their paintings were mostly 50X50 inches. This [pointing to a Russell painting] is easy stuff. There [are] no talents today . . . that can match those old boys. . . ."

Although its popularity has spread east of the Mississippi, the great bulk of Western art resides, of course, in the West, mostly in Texas and Oklahoma. Westerners appreciate Westerners, and it didn't take long for oil paintings to get together with oil money to benefit some museums and private collections.

Mr. Krakel enjoys the fact that Western art is now recognized as a valid and valuable school of art, but is concerned lest outside interests, the "Robert Redford" influence, contaminate what remains -- the "beautiful sparseness . . . the paucity" -- of the Old West.

"This whole art thing today is great at selling the West, but it's so corrupting. The real West is dead. They've corrupted it."

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