If it sells, podner, it's art. Ro clear the corral for a new breed /f roughriding Carav ggios, the American cowboy artist.

Art mirrors culture, so it should come as no surprise that the recent shift in centers of power and population from the Northeast to the Sunbelt has nurtured a new school of artists who are painting and selling old myths and new realities of the Wild West. In a repival of the tradition of 19th-century illustrators Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, today's ''cowboy artists'' are rendering well-crafted frontier caricatures of trappers, gamblers, and cattlemen. It might be a heroic explorer set against majestic mountains and candelabra cactus, or perhaps a solitary wrangler with a haunting Edward Hopper loneliness. Regardless of the mood (and sometimes artistic quality), Western subject matter is a hot commodity.

''Anything with a tepee in it will sell these days,'' says Frank McCarthy, one of America's most successful cowboy artists. McCarthy, an Eastern-transplant-turned-armchair-cowboy, low lives in nothern Arizona and peddles his portraits of pensive mountain men and charging cavalry for between $ 30,000 and $40,000, seven times the price he was getting a decade ago.

It's hard to say exactly what is fueling the prairie-fire market for cowboy art. Nostalgia? Investors looking for the next trendy blue-chip paintings? WHatever the reason, the fact is that the value of cowboy art has soared nearly tenfold in 10 years. Some artists have been doubling their prices annually.

Former Texas Gov. John B. Connally paid cowboy artists perhaps the Longhorn State's highest compliment seven years ago when he began auctioning off Western paintings side by side with quarterhorses and Santa Gertrudis cattle at the now-annual Western Heritage Sale and Auction in Houston. Last year at the auction Clark Hulings's ''Kaleidoscope,'' a 29-by-46-inch oil painting of a border town market scen', sold for a record $31O,000, more than twice the price of the most expensive racehorse.

Connally and other prominent public figures who have collected Western art over the years (such as the late President Lyndon Johnson; industrialist Leonard Firestone; C. R. Smith, former American Airlines president and secretary of commerce) are partly responsible for turning the cowboy art movement into the respectable stampede it is today. US Sen. Barry Goldwater, another booster, has served on the exhibition jury for a Cowboy Artists of America show, and wrote a foreword for a recent CAA catlog.

But if these painters are so famous, why hasn't anyone ever heard of Frank McCarthy, Joe Beeler, John Clymer, Gordon Snidow - the Rembrandts and Rubenses of contemporary Western art?

''Cowboy art,'' Sheldon Reich suggested in ARTnews, ''is like an underground movement - it's a separate but flourishing cultural manifestation, which has virtually nothing to do with the elite establishment of the East or West Coast. This, incidentally, is not to state such pictures do not enter collections on both shores - they do. If Remington had only realized what he had started.''

With characteristic cowboy bravado, CAA president Joe Beeler boasts: ''No art group in the history of art has accomplished what we have in such a short time.'' Beeler is overseeing the construction of a $2 million museum for cowboy art in Kerrville, Texas, 60 miles north of San Antonio; it is expected to open in the spring of 1983. Meanwhile, many museums have begun to build reputations around their Western art collections: the Whitney Gallery of Western Art in Cody , Wyo.; the Gilcrease Institute in Tulsa, Okla.; the Woolaroc Musuem in Bartlesville, Okla.; the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth; the Jocelyn Art Museum in Omaha; the Montana Historical Society, in Helena; the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center, in Oklahoma City.

In addition to CAA, a whole alphabet soup of organizations has bubbled up: the National Academy of Western Art (NAWA), the Society of American Historical Artists (SAHA), and Western Artists (WA). If you'd like to read all about it, of course, there are such magazines as Artists of the Rockies and the Golden West, Art West, and Southwest Art. And if you decide to lay your money down, there is an ever-growing string of exclusively Western art galleries appearing in places like Albuquerque, Taos, and Santa Fe, N.M.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Kansas City - even Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

''It's not hoity-toity art,'' says Doug Hancock, a mustachioed salesman for the Husberg Fine Art Gallery, one of the most respected in the Southwest. ''A lot of the people who collect it know nothing about art, but they love this stuff and it seems to capture the romance, glamour, and adventure'' of America's past.

The Husberg Gallery is in Sedona, a hamlet nestled among the ponderosa pine and sandstone buttes of Oak Creek Canyon in northern Arizona. It is home to 9, 000 people and more than a dozen art galleries. It is said to be the birthplace of the cowboy artist movement.

Both McCarthy and Beeler live in Sedona, and in 1965 Beeler met there with four other cowboy artists in Bird's Oak Creek Tavern and founded the Cowboy Artists of America, to uphold ''authentic -representation of the life of the West as it was and as it is.'' The rest is history, and high-rolling history at that. In 1924 Hollywood brought its camera crews and hopalong cowboys here and used this now-famous Red Rock Country as backdrop to a series of Westerns, ''Broken Arrow,'' ''3:10 to Yuma,'' ''The Rounders,'' ''The Cowboy and the Redhead.'' At the time only the lizards and a few hundred people lived in dry, dusty Sedona. Deep-water wells were eventually drilled, and a small colony of retirees and artists followed.

Joe Beeler, a crusty old painter and part-time cowboy, claims to have been the first artist to move into town, about 21 years ago. Son of a hard-rock miner , Beeler was born in Joplin, Mo. ''There was Indian blood in my family and I grew up going to Cherokee powwows,'' he recalled on a recent afternoon. ''I was drawing cowboys and Indians when I was seven years old.''

Beeler got a fine arts degree at Kansas State University, did graduate work at the Art Center in Los Angeles, and served as a combat artist for the armed forces' Stars and Stripes newspaper while serving in the military. ''But I did a share of cowboying, too. There are cowboy artists painting today who haven't cowboyed, and there are some pretty good cowboys who can't paint. The trick is to combine the two. The same division existed back with Remington and Russell, the guys who got this whole thing started. Remington was an Eastern artist who made periodic trips to the West, and like a reporter, recorded what he saw. Russell was a Westerner born and bred. Today people are still fighting over who made the most impact.''

Before founding the CAA, Beeler was a painter in search of patrons. ''When I started out,'' he says, ''the only people who bought my paintings were cowboys and ranchers. There were no collectors, organizations, or galleries that handled this kind of stuff. When we started our organization it was more social than anything else. We thought it would be fun for a bunch of us guys to get together and philosophize. We're all pretty amazed at the route it has all taken. None of us foresaw the success it would have. There was a whole audience of people ignored by the abstract trend in art who were looking for something more representational. People could admire our stuff without having a doctor of arts degree.''

The recent fanfare has its dark side as well. ''With all the hoopdeedoo over Western art, people forget that what we do is fine art,'' he protests. ''There is no magic, no hocus-pocus. We paint things we see and feel strongly about. As far as prices, we artists are usually the last ones to figure out why they are going through the ceiling,'' says Beeler, getting a little hot under the collar. ''Ask the collectors and dealers and the auction guys. They've done more to stir up . . . '' He pauses and reflects. ''Well, I best stop there.''

Frank McCarthy comes from the West - west of Long Island Sound. He grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y. His first contact with cowboys came at the Saturday afternoon movie matinees. ''And one of the first books I ever read was Will James's 'Smoky ,' the story of a cowboy and his horse,'' McCarthy said recently in a back studio at the Husberg Gallery. Its walls are covered with handsomely framed oil paintings of wagon trains, calf ropings, and Canadian Mounties tending their huskies.

As McCarthy leans forward in his armchair, beside an old easel and jar of paintbrushes, he looks less like a cowpuncher than one of those dapper, outdoorsy grandfather types in the L. L. Bean catalogs. He wears a cerulean blue shirt, and his manicured salt-and-pepper beard frames a deeply tanned complexion.

Like Beeler, McCarthy's talent for painting showed through in grade school. He spent summers at the Art Students' League of New York, and eventually earned an illustration degree from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. The film industry caught wind of his knack for capturing dramatic detail and hired McCarthy to create those anonymous works of art hung in cinema lobbies: movie posters.

''I began to develop a real mastery of wars and crowd scenes, you know, whole cavalries going over the hill. They (the film companies) wanted things larger than life, things that couldn't be photographed. In 'Khartoum,' you couldn't count how many Arabs I had on both sides of that river. And those underwater battle scenes from James Bond's 'Thunderball,' that was pretty wild stuff, too.''

McCarthy's reputation grew; he became the illustrating world's hired gun who could take on any subject. ''I did people landing on the moon, and Australian dingoes chasing kangaroos. I did Charlton Heston in 'The Ten Commandments.' You know, a little bit of everything. But my interest in Westerns kept growing,'' says McCarthy. ''I did the posters for 'Duel at Diablo,' with James Garner, and 'Hallelujah Trail,' with Burt Lancaster.''

McCarthy's commercial work took him into record album covers for movie sound tracks. He even fathered a whole genre of paperback illustration. ''For historical novels, the publishers wanted a single cover illustration showing not only portraits of the main characters, but the plot line as well. I was once asked to do a guy and a gal in a clinch along with a battle scene. A montage was the only answer. I was one of the first to do it and now it's used all the time.''

In 1969 McCarthy placed one of his Western paintings in a prominent New York gallery. Five years later he had made enough from his art sales to leave his Connecticut home and his career as a commercial artist and move to Arizona. ''We had seen a photograph of Sedona in Arizona Highways (magazine), and came through here in 1971 taking pictures as research for my paintings. Within three days of our arrival we had bought property.''

In 1974, when McCarthy settled in Sedona, one of his 24--by-36-inch paintings sold for around $4,500. In eight years his prices have increased nearly sevenfold. ''On average, today, the 24-by-36s go for $30,000 and the 24-by-48s go for $40,000,'' he says. ''I can get a couple thousand for my little ones, the vignettes with figures but no background.''

What is causing the Western art craze sometimes baffles even McCarthy. ''I really don't know. People can't relate to that abstract stuff and I suppose they can understand this art. Most people have seen Western movies, and this sort of painting is realistic and romantic. My paintings are selling all over the country, even back East. Now you tell me why everybody on Cape Cod is wearing Western clothes, and disco has turned into country western,'' he says.

No tellin' why, he says, but the orders keep coming in. ''At any one time there are 150 people waiting for one of my paintings. Sometimes they ask specifically for a cavalry painting, but I never do any commissions. I paint cavalry, mountain men, or Indians, in the order that inspires me,'' says McCarthy, who paints anywhere from 12 to 15 -major works each year.

As realistic as the final product may be, he claims to always begin with an abstract design, patterns of dark and light. ''This one started off as a series of triangles,'' says McCarthy, pointing to a buffalo stampede in a calendar collection of his prints. ''People never believe me, but often I feel like a real abstract painter.''

Nevertheless, cowboy art is anything but highbrow, admits McCarthy, who turns a cold shoulder to the New York critics. ''They're snobs. Look at Andy Wyeth, one of the greatest, and they panned him. If the critics talk about me, I don't read it. I don't even know if they've heard of me in New York. The only feedback I like to hear is from a customer saying: 'I want another one, Frank.' ''

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