PAINTINGS, drawings, and sculpture from the American West appear to be gaining wider respect in the art world. In 1985, there was the huge Karl Bodmer exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, which surprised and delighted almost every critic who saw it. That was followed by a number of smaller group exhibitions of Western art in New York, which were generally well received. These laid the groundwork for the Metropolitan's eye-opening Frederic Remington retrospective in 1989. Although that show received a few negative reviews - mostly from critics who rejected the idea that ``cowboy painting'' could be art - it convinced many others that Remington was a better artist than he had been credited with being.
Of equal or possibly greater importance to all these New York shows was the opening in 1989 of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art here in Indianapolis. No longer must art lovers travel to the Western states to see significant numbers of paintings by excellent but largely unknown artists - people such as Ernest L. Blumenschein (1874-1960), Walter Ufer (1876-1936). E. Martin Hennings (1886-1956), Maynard Dixon (1875-1946), Victor Higgins (1884-1949), Frank E. Schooner (1877-1972), and others.
At the same time, museumgoers can now compare the work of these artists with good to first-rate work by such well-known painters as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Remington, Charles Russell, Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin, and John Sloan, whose work is on view here.
The museum's founder, Indianapolis businessman and philanthropist Harrison Eiteljorg, was also its principal donor. He gave 240 Western paintings, 149 bronzes, and 740 Indian artifacts, mostly from the Southwest, Plains, and Northwest Coast Indian cultures. He also collaborated with architect Jonathan Hess in working out the plans for the building.
The result is a simple, handsome 73,000-square-foot structure inspired in part by the Indian pueblos of northern New Mexico. Two types of stone cover the face of the building, a honey-colored Minnesota dolomite and a plum-colored sandstone from West Germany. A distinctive touch is the museum's copper-trimmed canopy, supported by the trunks of large Canadian red cedars.
The museum's Western collection spans from the early 19th century to the present and includes paintings, sculpture, prints, and drawings. It is particularly strong in works by members of the original Taos, N.M., artists' colony and includes a good selection of paintings by contemporary Western artists Fritz Scholder, Harry Jackson, John Clymer, and others.
The Native American collection is also large and comprehensive. Outstanding here are various items of clothing, including a Creek man's shirt (1900), a Sioux quilled shirt (1880), and a beautifully decorated Sioux girl's dress (1880-90).
The Eiteljorg's main attraction, however, is its collection of 19th- and early to mid 20th-century Western art. That in itself is worth a trip to Indianapolis.
In major Eastern museums, there are hardly any paintings by Ufer, Blumenschein, Higgins or Hennings, and yet they produced work of exceptional quality. At his best, Blumenschein painted some of the richest and most compelling American landscapes of this century. And no other recent Americans could match Ufer's and Higgins's ability to capture the brilliant and complex effects of sunlight.
It's difficult to understand why these artists have been ignored by America's major critics and curators. Perhaps they were too far from, and too indifferent to, big-city success. Or perhaps, as I suspect, their sun-drenched, celebratory landscapes and narrative paintings didn't jibe with the largely formalist and urban-oriented sensibilities of America's most influential critics. But whatever the reason, it's clearly a case of willful neglect that I, for one, hope will soon be corrected.
Blumenschein's ``The Plasterer'' (1921) is particularly effective, as are Hennings' ``The Twins'' (1923), and Dixon's beautifully composed - if perhaps a bit illustrational - ``The Cow Country'' (1938).
Also impressive are several of the works on paper and an early painting by Scholder.
Walking among these paintings and sculptures, I couldn't help but feel grateful that there are still collectors who collect from the heart and not for profit - who buy what they like regardless of fad or fashion.