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In Search of the Dream: The American West

February 9, 2002 to June 2, 2002


The West in Popular Culture

January 26, 2002 to June 23, 2002


The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science in Greenwich, Connecticut, looks west in 2002 with two new exhibitions that it has organized. The Museum's major winter-spring exhibition, In Search of the Dream: The American West, opens February 9, 2002, and runs through June 2, 2002. A companion show, The West in Popular Culture, began January 26, 2002, and continues through June 23, 2002. In the planning for over two years, these dual explorations of the cultural heritage of the West seem particularly timely in light of recent trends towards an intense national patriotism. The American West has become much more than a place; it is a symbol of strength, individualism and struggle that stems from roots that are uniquely American and yet embrace a rich diversity of voices. The West has continued to be a repository of dreams, The dreamers among us paint the West as a land of hope and renewal, promising unlimited possibility. (left: Rudolf Cronau, Green River, Wyoming, 1882, oil on canvas, 15 x 10 1/8 inches, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma)

In Search of the Dream: The American West is comprised of a diverse collection of art works and objects that illuminates the dreams and players of the Western drama. Over 150 paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, and artifacts from museums, galleries, and private collections are on view. An 80-page color catalogue, produced by the Bruce Museum and written by exhibition curator Deborah Brinckerhoff, accompanies the show. Indians, Spanish, explorers, mountain men, miners, settlers, cowboys, and tourists are all a part of this major exhibition which presents an imagery of the American West that is as varied as the visions of the many people who lived there. In Search of the Dream: The American West examines a place that cannot be defined by its geography. The American West - its past and present - exists in the dreams of millions, whose lives and art have created a place with a constantly shifting identity. The exhibition focuses on dual aspects of that identity in two sections: "The Peoples of the West" and "New Visions of the West."

In "The Peoples of the West," paintings, works on paper, photographs, sculpture, and artifacts depict inhabitants of the American West. In search of gold and with ambitious plans to convert the native peoples to Christianity, the Spanish entered Indian homelands. Explorers and mountain men and gold miners followed, seeking adventure and escape. Homesteaders were lured to the frontier by tales of rich soil and the promise of a new start. Where so many hoped to find riches or freedom, the Indian peoples fought to protect their ancient homeland and a way of life, based on identity with the land, that had evolved for millennia. (right: Eanger Irving Couse, Indian Bead Maker, c. 1910, oil on canvas, 23 3/8 x 28 3/8 inches, Private Collection)

The West also drew artists to its exotic landscape. Others were topographers, or Indian ethnologists. Beginning in the 1800s, the first eyewitness pictures of the Rocky Mountains were brought back by explorer-artists accompanying government expeditions, such as Samuel Seymour, whose work is on view. Conveying a romantic invitation to the wilderness, thousands of these western scenes appeared in official reports back East and were copied by engravers into books and magazines. These engravers frequently changed the depictions of both the background and the people.

In the 1830s, curiosity about native peoples led to the assembling of Indian portrait galleries, portraying the theme of the noble and vanishing savages. In the exhibition are works by such artists as Karl Bodmer and George Catlin, showing the white man's emerging view, while Native American art provides the counterpoint of an Indian perspective. In their ancient homeland, American Indians worked and celebrated the occasions of earthly life and spirit in accordance with their diverse traditions. A significant number of Indian works, with a complex and abstract vocabulary, including prehistoric Pueblo pottery, Plains beadwork, paintings on canvas and muslin, and ledger art are on view.

The seemingly limitless horizon of westward expansion as championed by the romantic landscapes of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran are exhibited alongside the splendid vistas captured by 19th century photographers Eadweard Muybridge and Carleton Watkins. Works by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell illustrating the cowboy hero - daring, macho, rugged but honest - elevated the cowboy to mythic proportions. (left: Eddie Dominguez, Small Totem II, 2001, ceramic, 20 inches, Munson Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico)

Artists such as Henry Joseph Sharp, Ernest Blumenschein, and E. Irving Couse, whose works are on view, discovered the Southwest in the first half of the twentieth century and established art colonies in Taos and Santa Fe. Tourism in the Southwest is relived in the exhibition in a recreation of a 1920s' Fred Harvey shop at the Grand Canyon, stocked with objects from the Bruce Museum collection purchased from Fred Harvey.

In Search of the Dream: The American West progresses to the 20th and 21st centuries in a section entitled "New Visions of the West," which presents the works of prominent artists who explore their vision of the West on canvas, in clay, in wood and in beadwork. But for them the landscape is a setting, a point of departure; cowboys and Indians are nostalgic figures; and all are symbolic of one's roots and heritage. Whether realists, modernists or cubists, the scores of artists who painted the Southwest after World War I, including John Sloan and Victor Higgins, conveyed an image of a different landscape, no longer empty but full of exotic peoples and things. The new visual language of the modernists replaced The Taos Society's European academic conservative approach.

This section of the exhibition presents much of the diversity of contemporary art in the West. Georgia O'Keeffe and Marsden Hartley provide introspective and symbolic visions, which suggest themes of a universal, rather than regional nature. The nostalgia of the cowboy West - of Remington and Russell - is skillfully updated in a painting by Nelson Boren and in sculpture by Dave McGary. Hispanic artists, such as Luis Jimenez and Carmen Lomas Garza, explore themes of political injustice and cultural heritage. Native American artists such as Diego Romero, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, Kay WalkingStick and Dan Namingha are no longer the exploited subject, but are the creators of their own vision based either on rich cultural traditions or transcending them. (right: Carmen Lomas Garza, Nopalitos Para Ti, 1989, gouache on paper, 15 x 13 inches, Collection of the artist)

In the companion exhibition, The West in Popular Culture, the Bruce Museum explores an American West that is known across the continent and throughout the world to millions who have never been there - through advertising, entertainment, media and styles. The exhibition features over 100 items of historical and contemporary interest on loan from private collections that celebrate the frontier West of the 1800s and contributes to the creation of the myth of Western heroes and legends. This show, which complements the main exhibition, is designed to delight buckaroos of all ages. It includes a range of familiar and unusual items, from original "Buffalo Bill" memorabilia to Indian kitsch. Also included in a video of Western film clips and an interactive "Oregon Trail" computer game.

As civilization began to overtake the frontier, interest in the Old West sparked the imagination to keep its spirit alive. In the 1870s and '80s dime novels and Western pulp fiction brought fame to real life characters such as William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody. His traveling Wild West Show, organized in 1882, offered living history lessons to enthusiastic audiences throughout America and Europe for thirty years. Featured in the exhibition are Cody's fine show saddle and black felt hat, Annie Oakley's engraved Parker double-barreled shotgun and beaded belt, historic firearms, original posters, programs, pictures of stars of the Wild West Show and more in a display of over 60 items selected from the extensive collection of Michael and Pat Del Castello.

Also on view are more recent images and objects that celebrate frontier life. Classic Western film and television shows are represented in photos and video clips, which include cowboy stars such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Tom Mix, William S. Hart and even Yosemite Sam.

From cowboy to Indian, The West in Popular Culture explores the myths and stereotypes that are found in the imagery of the West. A poster of "Big Indian" burgers is on view along with an extraordinary Tiffany silver spoon with finials designed in the shape of a Bear Dancer. A Mexican sombrero, Spanish architecture from The Magnificent Seven movie, and the flare of Zorro represent the color of the Hispanic culture. From Ralph Lauren clothing, Stetson cologne, and the Marlboro man to mugs, food containers, and children's games, products have borrowed their identities from a mythical West in an attempt to capture the imagination and lend an aura of self-confidence that is consummately American.

The exhibitions are jointly underwritten by Deborah and Richard Kessler, State Street Global Advisors, The Lebensfeld Foundation, Lake Partners' LASSO Long and Short Strategic Opportunities, and The Advocate/Greenwich Time.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Bruce Museum in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. Rev. 12/29/11

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