East and West don't meet in Santa Fe

The American West: The Modern Vision, by Patricia Janis Broder. Boston: New York Graphic Society Books, Little, Brown, & Co. 350 pp. $75. There are two art worlds in the United States today. One in the East, with New York City as its hub, is the avant-garde arena of museums and galleries influenced by Europe. The other, in the West, is the romantic continuation of American narrative painters descended from Benjamin West by way of the Hudson River School: Frederic Remington, Winslow Homer, and many others.

The Eastern establishment, because it commands the communication center of the world and has won the hearts and minds of most of the academic community, has the upper hand and looks down its nose at its, until recently, shabby brother. At its worst, Eastern art can become ingrown, puerile, noncommunicative, self-serving, and downright silly in its, at times, pseudointellectual handstands and pursuit of constantly new images.

There has been a resurgence of Western art, well-financed by wealthy collectors tired of the posturing of the ``isms'' and ``ists'' of the East. Western art, however, can become anti-intellectual, reactionary, and even corny, if the John Wayne influence becomes too strong. Beware of paintin's where the final ``g'' is dropped from the title.

In both camps there are credible painters who must be considered seriously. But can the twain ever meet? Is there a common ground? Patricia Janis Broder makes a valiant attempt to establish one. This book is crammed with minibiographies of every known Eastern artist of this century who ever trod the fabled streets of Taos or Santa Fe. The list is indeed impressive, from Robert Henri and the American impressionists up to and including David Hockney and Andy Warhol. Ms. Broder's impressive scholarship has turned up a long list of well-known painters who have been touched by the vivid landscape of Western America or the strong imagery of the American Indian.

The artists who have really become part of the Western oeuvre and made significant statements are Georgia O'Keefe and the Indian artists led by Fritz Scholder. Many of the other artists seem merely to have laid the patina of their already established styles on a different subject matter than usual. It is also doubtful if Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud can be considered Western artists in subject matter. Freeways and urban landscapes are hardly in the mainstream of Western thought.

Ms. Broder has given us a fresh look at 20th-century American painting from a different angle. It is amazing how many painters have taken Western sojourns, as this book amply illustrates with hundreds of pictures -- many in full color. But does this approach bring credibility to the West? And what of the regular Western painters? Are they not further in the Eastern establishment doghouse? They aren't even included. I kept thinking of the old film of ``Girl Crazy.'' Even when Mickey Rooney appeared in the last scene in chaps, boots, and a 20-gallon hat, we still knew he was a dude.

Charles McVicker is assistant professor of art at Trenton State College.

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