Editor's note: The following essay and accompanying texts were reprinted in Resource Library on November 10, 2006 with the permission of the Joslyn Art Museum. The texts are excerpted from the exhibition catalogue for Legends of the West: The Foxley Collection, being held at the Joslyn Art Museum November 11, 2006 through February 25, 2007. If you have questions or comments regarding the texts, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which they are excerpted, please contact the Joslyn Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Collecting the Legends
by J. Brooks Joyner
The Cattleman and Innovator
Just as the image of the American West has occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of Americans from the moment the earliest European immigrants settled along the Atlantic estuaries in the early seventeenth century, so it has for Bill Foxley since his earliest boyhood memories. As it has fueled the imagination of a dozen generations of Americans with the dream of escape and adventure into a wilderness and frontier experience, burgeoning with danger and romance as well as brutal realities, it has given Foxley a practical and philosophical platform for both his business enterprises and his ultimate passion: collecting the art of the American West. It is a pursuit he refers to as an "insane disease."
Foxley understands the art collecting equation like no other collector today. At heart he is not just a passionate collector but a self-taught historian who understands the fleeting definitions and the sometimes under-appreciated form and content that constitutes what has become one of the most strident markets in the art world, the art of the American West.
For the earliest pilgrims and colonists, the lure of the West was just over the horizon. From their perspective it might have taken the form of the densely forested ridges and valleys of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania or the mountains of New Hampshire and Massachusetts. For a second generation of immigrants and settlers, it became the vast Ohio Valley beyond the Appalachians, the broad expanses of the Great Lakes, and south into the Tennessee River Valley.
Then again, it might have been from the cryptic communications of America's native people or the exaggerated stories of the French voyageurs that these early pioneers first heard about a great broad river to the west that divided the continent, a river called the Mississippi into which poured the vast waters of at least a half-dozen other major rivers: the Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, Wabash, Arkansas, and Tennessee.
With each succeeding generation of settlers, the real or imaginary boundary of the West was extended while the earlier ones gave way to the familiar notion of home. Into this dynamic setting strode explorers and adventurers, trappers and mountain men, miners and railroaders, homesteaders and cattlemen, soldiers, land speculators, and missionaries. They came on foot, horseback and mule, and in horse-drawn carriages and wagons pulled by teams of oxen. They came in wagon trains, by canoe and riverboat and, later, by motorcar. There were diligent soldiers and government surveyors, cavalier adventurers and outlaws, families seeking a new start and sometimes an escape from the teeming urban centers back East. And there were the thousands of single men striking out on their own to seek their fortune. Bill Foxley was a generation or two later, but his experiences, personality, and ambitions were similar: undeniably adventurous and aiming to carve out his own destiny.
William C. Foxley was born on January 7, 1935, in South Saint Paul. His father, W. J., had already been trading horses and cattle in the midst of the Depression. One of eventually eight children that included six sisters and a brother younger by fifteen years, Bill remembers that, in spite of hard times, his father built a respectable net worth and a large reputation before moving the family to Omaha in 1937, where they lived at 840 Fairacres Road. Bill attended St. Margaret Mary's School and Church, later graduated from Creighton Prep High School, and attended Notre Dame University, where he realized that his true calling lay elsewhere than medicine.
In 1942 W. J. purchased a 13,000-acre ranch on the Missouri River near Mobridge, South Dakota. In 1945 he acquired the 30,000-acre Wilson sheep ranch at Winnett, Montana, and a similar size ranch at Deer Lodge two years later. Bill recalls those early years with some awe at his father's tenacity and determination.
In the 1940s the price of cattle in one part of the country was often dramatically different from that in another. My father was in his element when his numerous, well-aimed phone calls from Omaha uncovered weather-induced cattle runs in Texas. With a week's supply of clean clothes, a carton of Chesterfields, and rolls of Tums, and often a fellow cattleman for company, he would emulate the fellow for whom his DeSoto was named and head into the Southwest for his own version of oro. He bought steers by the hundredweight in Amarillo and sold them by the head to Indians in South Dakota, often at a double. In the fall he would be found in Montana, buying steers driven off the range by an early storm for resale to Iowa feeders looking for a way to convert their corn crop. The vast majority of livestock were traded in stockyards in Chicago and in the larger cities on the Missouri, all important railroad terminals since the late 1800s.
It was Bill's mother who encouraged W. J to take his son to the Omaha Stockyards on weekends and on cattle-buying trips during the summer. A typical Sunday morning for the young Foxley would begin with a rousing at five or six o'clock and a trip through the all-but-deserted streets of the city to Omaha's Virginia Café.
From there it was to the feedlot at 50th where, aboard his sorrel cutting horse, W. J. would examine the three-acre pen of two-year-old steers that had been fattening for sixty to ninety days on corn and alfalfa. Bill remembers that his father would also make phone calls to commission men in Kansas City, Omaha, and Sioux City for market information and estimates on Monday's livestock runs. Then back home for showers and an obligatory trip to 12:15 mass at St. Margaret Mary.
At the start of the summer before high school, Bill was put on a train for Montana's Flying D ranch, which was owned by the California Irvines and leased by his father for $50,000 a year from 1948 to 1952. For Bill it was the "most perfect slice of the planet" that he had ever seen. Its 80,000 acres lay in a triangle formed by the Gallatin and Madison rivers and the Spanish Peaks. During the next eight summers that Bill was to spend in Montana, his infatuation with ranching and love for the land of the West grew in intensity.
Most of this first of what were to be eight summers in the West was spent digging post holes and stringing barbed wire. The routine was happily interrupted occasionally by wrestling calves at branding or helping the cowboys move the 10,000 Madador heifers up into the mountain reserve after the poisonous larkspur was no longer a threat. This high summer range was essentially a vast pine forest pocked with parks of all sizes and full of rich knee-high, blue-green mountain grasses. Black and, occasionally, grizzly bears, moose, elk, and deer could be spotted once we rode into the forest. I can still taste the clean, moist, flakey pink flesh of the trout the cook would pluck from a frigid mountain lake and fry up for lunch.
The outcome of his first summer at the Flying D is summed up in a few choice words. "I learned how to play poker and got bucked off an old cow pony into the middle of Spanish Creek. Doc Jones, the ranch manager, cut me a $50 check at the end of the summer and later got chewed out for paying me anything." The next summer Bill graduated to the hay crew as a buck-racker and worked as a rod man for a surveyor laying out irrigation ditches. He was paid $125 per month, some of which he spent on Good Luck chewing tobacco, to his everlasting regret.
In 1952 the lease on the Flying D ranch expired. After a series of harsh winters and sliding cattle prices, W. J. consolidated his business, sold the Deer Lodge ranch, but retained his 30,000-acre Winnet, Montana, property. The mid 1950's were difficult times for cattlemen, and W. J. spent much time in his den at home in Omaha, investing his remaining cash in paper stock. Tragically, on May 1, 1957, while Bill was away at the University of Notre Dame, W. J. was killed in an automobile accident. He left an estate of almost $2 million, half of which was left in equal percentages of stock in Foxley & Co. to his eight children.
Although Bill's mother wanted him to return to Omaha to run the business, he had already signed a three-year commitment to join the Marine Corps, which seemed to him at the time an opportunity. Having seen the effect of the 1952 bust on his father, he was unsure that he wanted to go into the cattle business. Stationed at Quantico and later Camp Lejune, North Carolina, Bill's Marine Corps experience was rigorous and demanding, but he recalls that the teamwork and organizational skills he acquired became invaluable.
Soon after his discharge in December 1960, he drove up to the ranch in South Dakota to discover fewer than 400 of the original 500 fall calves left. He fired the ranch manager, brought in a veterinarian, and personally managed the care of the remaining calves. From then until the calves were turned out in May, only one more was lost. Bill remembers this transformative moment: the picturesque, tree-lined alfalfa meadows thick with deer and the chocolate waters of Lake Oahe. He picked a site for a new ranch headquarters. He had made his decision. Ranching and the cattle business would be his life for the foreseeable future.
Foxley had a net worth of $125,000 when he decided to go into business -- the book value of his 10% interest in Foxley & Co. inherited from his father's estate. He recalls that it was a great start for a twenty-five-year-old in 1960, but would not buy many cattle, even if leveraged. For the next ten years, his siblings invested with him, prior to his buying them out.
One of the gems of knowledge buried in the pages of my livestock books shone through because of seeing cattle suffer through the ice and cold of Omaha's winters-cattle gains are in direct proportion to cattle being comfortable. This seemingly obvious tenet was overlooked for decades in the Midwest because of the relatively cheap cost of its grain.
By 1960 California was the largest cattle-feeding state, behind Iowa, because of the weather and in spite of the high grain costs.
Thus was the nature of Bill's ingenuity, inventiveness, and practical sensibility. His pioneering spirit and openness to new approaches and applications in the cattle industry gained him a reputation over the years as not only an astute and honest businessman but also as an innovator who brought new and more progressive technical applications to both the feeding and care of cattle under his supervision.
For over forty-six years, Bill Foxley has been in the ranching and cattle business at every level. He has bought and sold ranchland, fattened and sent to market hundreds of thousands of head of cattle, developed new feeding formulas and processing techniques, adapted new ideas for feedlot pens, and essentially brought positive change and greater productivity to his business and to the industry.
Much of what he learned about business management was self taught and acquired through hardened experience. He has high praise for business correspondence courses, including two that he took as a young man, one concerning business law from the University of Minnesota and a series of studies through the Alexander Hamilton Institute Course in Kansas City. Of the latter he remarks:
Even with this fifteen-year stretch of success, Bill was mindful of the cyclical nature of the cattle business and "with an eye to the history books, I was getting edgy about the next market crash that would be just over the horizon in 1974, if the eleven-year cycle was to be on time." In March of 1974, Foxley & Co. sold the Mead, Nebraska, feedlot to meat-packer Flavorland Industries, Inc., of Sioux City, Iowa, for an estimated $6 million, including an undisclosed amount of cash and the of certain indebtedness of Foxley. The sale also provided that Foxley would be issued 125,000 shares of Flavorland Common Stock as part of the purchase price.
Bill soon recognized an opportunity in Flavorland Industries, which was being driven into the ground through mismanagement. In addition to his own stock, he negotiated the purchase of an additional 15% to become the company's largest shareholder. A carefully orchestrated, leveraged buy-out made Bill Flavorland's new CEO. He now owned 85% of the Fortune 500 company at a cost less than its working capital with 100% borrowed funds. By 1976 the company's fiscal earnings were over $4 million, 76% higher than its previous record earnings in 1973. By then, as Bill remembers, Flavorland quarterly board meetings were little more than short lunches after passage of a resolution or two. The following year, Foxley took the company private.
In 1980, in a rare confrontation with conservationists, Bill encountered criticism for his purchase of approximately 10,000 acres of land in the eastern sandhills of Nebraska as a site for a 60,000-head covered feedlot surrounded by sprinkler-irrigated farmland for liquid manure disposal and corn and silage production. Conservationists and some neighbors insisted that the land was unsuitable for growing crops and the operation would cause erosion and other environmental problems. Foxley notes that "the lot at Bartlett, Nebraska, cost three times other conventional facilities, and twenty-five years later is the only one of its kind. The spreading of liquid manure to nourish crops fed to cattle makes for a nearly perfect ecological system. It is one of, if not the lowest-cost producer in the country."
The inspiration for Bill's winding down his meatpacking and cattle business in the late 1980s and '90s came from an excellent book on strategic planning. Its author warned of the demise of the mid-sized entity in any industry. The giants have economy of scale while the small business has low overhead and is able to slip into niche markets. Profitable packers like Iowa Beef and small specialty killers near the Omaha Stockyards were proving the author correct. All eleven Flavorland facilities were successfully sold. In the feedlot industry, huge corporations like Cargill and Continental Grain entered the business, squeezing margins. The very small, diversified farmer-feeder got by even during a five-year period in the 1990s, when the national average return on fat cattle was a minus $50 per head. Cattle could no longer be hedged with a profit with any regularity.
By this time Foxley was heavily into the grain and feed storage part of the business. Other major corporate entities, such as Cargill, Continental Grain, Simplot, Bass Brothers, and Koch Industries, had now entered the arena and represented the largest group of cattle feeders in the country.
In 1989 Bill sold his Mead feedlot for the second time and added to his grain division by bringing the Monroe, Nebraska, facility to eight million bushels and buying a two-million-bushel elevator from a sleepy co-op in Fremont. In all, Bill had about a half dozen elevators in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa. The grain division performed very well and never had a year in the red, but Bill's instinct told him that it was probably time to sell the grain division, which he did, to Scoular Grain of Omaha in 1999. Scoular Grain also acquired Foxley Freight Services, a livestock freight brokerage, at the same time.
Foxley Cattle Co.'s remaining two feedlots at Ordway and Bartlett did well to break even in the nineties, and soon thereafter Bill made the decision to gradually exit the cattle business, selling them to Four States Feed Yard Inc. based in Lamar, Colorado.
After looking at ranches for forty years as investments that should be bought at around $500 to $1,000 per-cow-unit to bring in a decent rate of return, I came late to the decision that the $5,000 to $10,000 and up per-cow-unit that ranches were bringing in 2004 could be justified if seen as works of art. They had appreciated and probably would continue, as a prime Charlie Russell oil did and would. In 2004 I bought two beautiful spreads in Wyoming.
The Art Business, Denver, and the Museum of Western Art
It was at a party given by the First of Denver in 1978 that Bill Foxley was tipped off about an art object that sent his life in a new direction. He learned of a little watercolor that was for sale at Rosenstock Arts on Colfax Avenue. Wolves Attacking Cattle in a Blizzard was by Charles Russell, and Rosenstock was asking $38,000 for it. The next day Bill purchased the work using, as he describes it, "his wiles as a cattle trader" to obtain the very best price.
The painting had been in a private collection for over sixty years, and even Fred Renner, art historian and expert on Russell, had been unaware of its existence. Bill had made his first major art purchase. As his friendship with and respect for Renner grew over the next few years, Bill asked him to compile a list of his favorite fifty Russell paintings. Over the next several years, it became Bill's "shopping list" in his quest to acquire as many Russell paintings and watercolors as possible.
Foxley threw himself into learning about the artists of the American West, reading books, exhibition catalogues, and auction results on the subject. He visited the major museums and commercial galleries that housed or handled Western art, including such notable institutions for that genre as the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming; and the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles.
His travels also took him to other smaller but equally excellent museums, such as the Rockwell Museum of Western Art in Corning, New York; The R. W. Norton Art Gallery in Shreveport, Louisiana; The Stark Museum in Orange, Texas; and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, to name just a few. Bill sought the experts in the field, both dealers and scholars, read the auction house catalogues, and studied the marketplace for American Western art. He brought to his art business the same level of thoroughness and intensity that he had brought to his agribusiness.
The outcome was much the same. He began to acquire critically important works, museum pieces that might easily grace the galleries of the Gilcrease Museum, in his opinion the very best museum in the country. Harold McCracken, the Remington expert from Cody, Wyoming, helped him track down an important Remington painting, Downing The Night Leader, which Foxley bought from Lincoln Ellsworth's widow for $1 million, at that time at or near the highest price ever paid for a painting by an American artist. Fred Renner helped him locate one of Russell's very best works, Piegans, which he bought for $500,000 and sold at auction in 2005 for $5 million. Bill also purchased a Remington bronze, Trooper of the Plains, from an estate sale on speculation and discovered that it was indeed a genuine recast with good provenance.
Like the legendary collectors of the first half of the twentieth century, Dr. Phillip Cole, Thomas Gilcrease, Amon Carter, and Malcolm Mackay, Bill Foxley was determined to acquire only the very best examples, the most important historical works available. He purchased Russell's magnificent Round-Up on the Musselshell from a private collection, right out of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, where it had been on loan for several years. He acquired Thomas Moran's Green River, Henry Farny's evocative Nomads at Sotheby's, and Georgia O'Keeffe's Cow's Skull on Red from the artist.
He added to his growing collection a haunting George Caleb Bingham river scene, Watching the Cargo by Night, and another Russell, A Serious Predicament of 1908. He later donated both these paintings to Joslyn Art Museum, certainly remembering his high school days at Creighton Prep, when he occasionally slipped out early to visit the museum's collections of European and American art in the peace and quiet of late afternoon.
Foxley's activities in the Western Art collecting arena had made him a highly recognizable and respected personality. It also had brought him to the attention of major museums around the country. Bill joined the Board of the Denver Art Museum in 1980, three years after his arrival in Denver. He would later be asked to join the Boards of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
Bill's collection grew rapidly in size and importance. He gathered archival information and documentation on every picture, grew his American Western library into a sizable and important resource, and began thinking that a book on his collection would soon become a reality, as would another dream of his: a museum that would be open to the public so he could share his collection and the story of the artwork be told.
Foxley had moved to Denver in 1977. In 1983 he bought a five-story Victorian building, the Navarre, at 1727 Tremont Place, downtown and across the street from the Brown Palace Hotel. Originally a school called the Bricker Institute when it was built in 1880, it was one of the first coed colleges west of the Mississippi River. Gradually the Navarre took on an even more exotic and colorful Western history of its own. By 1889 it was purchased by two gamblers, who opened it as a hotel. Soon after it was sold again and reopened as a dining and gambling establishment, which it remained for almost twenty years. During the 1960s clarinetist Peanuts Hucko operated the Navarre as a jazz and supper club. After that it languished until March 1977, when Bill discovered that it was for sale. He bought the Navarre for $6 million and sold it in 1999 for $2.5 million, taking pleasure in the realization of how fortunate he had been for not choosing commercial real estate as his profession.
Bill had a vision for the Navarre building and it began to take shape immediately. Having tried unsuccessfully to persuade then Governor Dick Lamm to assist in opening a public museum for Western art in Denver, Bill determined that he would do it himself.
The collections were organized in three segments -- Before the White Man, Westward Expansion, and the Old West is Dead. There were some 125 works of art on view, including more than twenty Russells and ten Remingtons, among them the first of 250 castings of Bronco Buster and one of the fifteen original castings of the famed bronze Coming Through the Rye. Bill's collection was at its zenith, and his Museum of Western Art presented Denver and regional audiences with a comprehensive survey of the art of the American West for the first time.
The Foxley collection began with the early nineteenth-century expedition and explorer artists like Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, and Alfred Jacob Miller; included the great landscapists Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and Thomas Hill; and paid tribute to the early twentieth-century achievements of the Taos Society painters such as Irving Couse, Victor Higgins, Walter Ufer, Bert Phillips, E. Martin Hennings, Oscar Berninghaus, and Ernest Blumenschein. In addition Bill included some of the great independent geniuses of the American Western tradition of the twentieth century with such highly regarded luminaries as Maynard Dixon, Herbert W. Dunton, Thomas Hart Benton, Nicholai Fechin, Frank Tenny Johnson, William R. Leigh, Georgia O'Keeffe, Norman Rockwell, Grant Wood, and even Jackson Pollock who, Bill reminded everyone, was born in Cody, Wyoming, and was influenced as a boy by Navajo sand painting. Probably the most eye-popping canvas in Bill's Museum of Western Art was the stupendous six-by-eleven-foot Mount McKinley by Alaska's great landscape painter, Sydney Laurence. The giant canvas had to be hoisted to the third floor through a central well, and a special wall was constructed to support it.
Bill's book on his collection, Frontier Spirit, was finished in four different versions and sold in the Museum of Western Art's shop along with a wide range of cards, posters, and other merchandise like Sioux elk drums and rare books, including a $2,500 first edition of the works of Charles Russell. The museum was open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; admission was an affordable $3 for adults and $1.50 for children.
With a tiny staff and considerable personal involvement, Bill gave tours himself, organized special exhibitions, launched an internship program for college students, and offered school tours geared to each grade level. There were even brown-bag lunch tours, outreach lectures, Christmas pageants, Indian dancing, and storytelling by fur trapper enactors. For fifteen years the Museum of Western Art offered the community and region an alternative if not unique experience in a spectacular historic setting with a collection that was, with few exceptions, unparalleled.
In 1997, with attendance never what Bill had hoped and ongoing litigation over a divorce threatening to diminish his collection and his capacity to offer the Museum of Western Art to the public as an educational resource, he decided that it must close. The experiment in a public museum enterprise had been at times fulfilling and at other times frustrating but, like Thomas Gilcrease's dream for his collection in Tulsa, Bill had been able to share it with others, albeit for a brief period of time.
Even following the sale of the Navarre Building and the reduction of his art collection during the disposition of property, including some major works in the December 1993 sale at Sotheby's, Foxley's passion for American Western art and history remained unabated. He found satisfaction in a number of new pursuits, including a fascination with American firearms, especially the most sought-after Colts and Winchesters. Introduced to the subject of collectible firearms by his friend Mort Fleischer, whom he met in Montana, Bill bought and sold a number of rare and historically important pieces for a profit.
Soon realizing the limited demand and few buyers for $1- and $2-million firearms, his business interest in such rare collectibles waned and he turned his attention back to paintings, only this time to a different group of artists that he had discovered since establishing a second home in La Jolla, California. Best known as the "plein air" California artists, they included Guy Rose, clearly the most important of the group, Edgar Payne, William Wendt, and Charles Reiffel. Bill quickly set about acquiring a fine collection of these under-valued painters, among them a dozen works by Rose. Today they form an integral part of his collection, extending his vision of the American West to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
The Denver period was over. Bill had gallantly experimented with a not-for-profit institution, the Museum of Western Art, that was clearly ahead of its time. Today he reflects very favorably on his art business over the years, in comparison to other business investments.
Bill has found, after many years in both businesses, "the collectables market to be extremely inefficient as opposed to the commodities market. For instance, I have been able to buy great paintings at good prices in up markets and to sell them in down markets."
Throughout his business and art collecting life there is a shared commonality of approach to learning about the subject at hand. One of Bill Foxley's most valuable assets has been his nascent humility when it comes to learning about anything that is important to him. In addition to his genuine early admiration for long-distance management instruction and correspondence-course learning, he has vigorously sought out the advice of people who are recognized as experts, people with native skills and focused intelligence in such broadly diverse areas as cattle feed formulas or Charles Russell paintings. Bill concludes:
Milton Friedman has rightly warned that inflation is bad for a nation's economy; however, I have discovered that some select inflation is not necessarily bad for an individual's economy. The 1935 price of May corn was a little less than half the price of May 2006 corn. During the same time period, the price of a Russell oil has easily gone up one thousand times.
Collector and Connoisseur
Bill Foxley's awareness of American Western art was peaked at an early age, long before he happened onto his memorable first purchase of the Russell watercolor in a Denver gallery show room in 1978.
Bill acknowledges many influences on his collecting philosophy, but none more important than advice from both academic experts and knowledgeable art dealers. He also ranks self study as a high priority: reading available art history and market information as well as immersing oneself in the artist's life and identifying their most significant achievements. Not surprisingly, his other recommendation is to travel to those museums that offer the best examples of American Western art.
Of the museums that he considers critically important for the study of American Western art, his top choices, apart from the vast holdings of the Smithsonian, include the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okalahoma; the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth; the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City; the Whitney Gallery in Cody, Wyoming, at the Buffalo Bill Historic Center; the Stark Museum in Orange, Texas; the Norton Museum in Shreveport, Louisiana; the Rockwell Museum and Remington Museum in up-state New York; the Charles Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana; and the Montana State Museum in Helena.
After his first purchase or, as Bill calls it, "his first art buy," he returned often to the gallery to visit with his friend Fred Rosenstock. When asked who his favorite American painters were, the elderly owner and renowned book dealer replied without hesitation, "Russell, Remington, and Moran." They became Bill's as well. "Round-Up on the Musselshell, The Pony Herder, and In the Tetons are the pieces I would carry out in case of a fire."
Along with expert advice, Bill also relied on study and an inherent sense of knowing what to look for in an artist's work. He understands that a particular piece can vary in value and art historical importance dramatically, depending on a number of variables, such as condition, subject matter, date, quality of execution, and its ranking in the artist's overall lifetime production.
When interviewed in 1984 by The Collector magazine about his view on collecting, the difference between the cattle and art business, and his reasons for establishing the Museum of Western Art, Bill responded pragmatically: "A collection is created like an artist creates a painting. The way to tell if a painting has a good composition is to take a good look and see how it could be improved. Take away one of the elements. If there is no way to improve it, it has good composition. That's how collecting is. I had a scheme; I sketched it out, how the collection would be built. It begins with Karl Bodmer and ends with Jackson Pollock. About 125 pieces."
He was even more emphatic about the differences between the cattle business and the art business. "They're completely dissimilar. The cattle business is volatile, prices change from hour to hour. Cattle are animate; they change daily and they're soon gone. It's arithmetic, it's a science. Art collecting exercises the other part of the brain, and it's an art in itself. There's much more permanence to art. It's impossible to feel good about the acquisition of grain and cattle, unlike that of paintings."
When his Museum of Western Art opened in Denver in 1983, Bill's appreciation for the role of the art museum in our society took a personal form. In addition to his understanding that, for a variety of reasons, American Western art had been largely marginalized for years by the academic art establishment, he believed that a public museum with outstanding examples supported by exciting educational programs might just succeed, particularly in a city such as Denver, which had a colorful history both in mining and cattle and as a destination point for early pioneers and settlers.
His philosophic premise for the Museum of Western Art is summed up in this 1993 response to the question "What does 'the West' really mean to you?"
In anticipation of closing the Museum of Western Art in 1997, Foxley began to fine-focus the collection and to zero in on the major realistic and impressionistic Western artists working between 1900 and 1940, with a few exceptions. He disposed of modernist works, for which he had never had a strong liking, and recalls that in almost every case those sales were financial mistakes, including a Grant Wood painting he sold in 1995 that brought seven times as much at auction in 2005. He notes, however, with some satisfaction that the Moran In the Teton Range, which he purchased in 1991, is worth ten times the hammer price today.
For Bill, the process of collecting art has been both emotionally and financially rewarding. The Moran was the featured work and cover piece in Christie's December 1991 New York auction. He bought Farny's Nomads at a Sotheby's New York sale and Russell's Boss of the Herd at another. The latter painting was on the original list of Fred Renner's fifty favorites from twenty years earlier. "The thrill of acquiring a great painting at auction, from a dealer, or from an individual is pretty much the same, especially if at a good price. My experience as a cattle trader has served me well in negotiations, however, I seldom let the price get in the way if the object is a 'ten'."
I asked Bill if he would share with me two or three of his most memorable experiences when acquiring a work of art, and he replied by directing me to several passages in his book, Frontier Spirit. The first involved his acquisition of Russell's fabulous Round-Up on the Musselshell. Russell personally worked the Musselshell roundup in 1883-84, and this painting is considered one of his greatest. After a lengthy search for its owner, Bill contacted him with an offer to buy the painting. The owner was quick to refuse, saying that it was a favorite among his many fine pictures. Bill followed his initial approach with three letters, each with a slightly higher offer, over a nine-month period. His persistence paid off and the owner finally gave in. Transfer of possession of Round-Up on the Musselshell took place in a Montana hotel room in the presence of armed guards.
Not as long and drawn-out, but more eventful, was Bill's efforts to acquire one of Russell's important Indian oils.
A call from the owner quickly resulted in a purchase. A certified check was presented to him on the same day at his estate twenty miles from a major Midwestern city. The manicured grounds were surrounded by a private golf course and speckled with buildings housing vast collections of African animal trophies and English and American artifacts.
The seller, a colorful polo player and big game hunter in his seventies, was on his way to Johannesburg. Arrangements would be made to ship the painting to Denver upon his return. Two weeks later brought the revelation that the hunter had been blind-sided with a divorce action, all locks had been changed and the work could not leave the reservation!
The bill of sale was a pale comfort. Twenty-four tense hours later, the buyer, the seller, his wife, and a New York art dealer, not a party to the transaction, had lunch to talk things over. The dealer had been periodically appraising the extensive and eclectic art collection and was understandably concerned that a fox had gotten into what he assumed was his chicken coop.
The third memorable and possibly the most audacious purchase that Bill recalls was his acquisition of Georgia O'Keeffe's masterpiece Cow's Skull on Red, which was at that moment in 1980 on loan from the artist to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Bill traveled to Abiquiu, New Mexico, to visit with the "gracious premier American artist" and hoped to secure a verbal agreement from her to purchase the painting. After some anxiety and the passage of three months, Bill received a reply from O'Keeffe stating politely: "After much time to think, I have decided that I would like to keep for myself, at this time, my painting. I am sure that this will be a disappointment to you, but as I have not had it to enjoy for over thirty years, I would enjoy having it around."
As Bill recalled, "A ninety-three-year-old world-famous celebrity can do as she pleases. However, the painting was a must for the collection." A carefully worded response to O'Keeffe intended to clear up any misunderstanding resulted in another communication from the artist a month later. "I hope to receive the painting from the National Gallery some time next week, after having it on loan for thirty years. I plan to have it on my wall for a month and will let you know in the beginning of October what I decide." The painting arrived in good shape the first week in October of that year. Bill had acquired a masterpiece by one of America's most important artists and a recognized national treasure.
The exhibition includes fifty-six paintings and sculpture, all of which are drawn from Bill Foxley's collection of American art. The works represent only a portion of that collection. My intent was not to stage a mini survey of the art of the American West nor to replicate in miniature the remarkable and comprehensive collection that was represented at the Museum of Western Art in Denver from 1983 to 1997. Rather, my approach has been more subjective and purposeful, with a mind to characterizing the attitude and attributes of a collector. With Bill as my guide, we strolled through his collection-at no fewer than three locations-musing over certain works that had special meaning for him and art historical significance for me.
As a result, we chose a variety of paintings and sculptures that punctuate particular moments in time and taste in his collecting, the earliest chronologically being the little Karl Bodmer watercolor, Head of a Prong-horned Antelope Calf of 1833, and the most recent of Foxley's acquisitions, Thomas Hart Benton's beautiful 1940 watercolor study, Running Before the Storm. Both works have significant actual and symbolic meaning to Joslyn Art Museum. Joslyn maintains the largest and most important collection of Karl Bodmer's art in the world; it is, in effect, the jewel in the crown of the permanent collection. The Benton, which also has a pencil sketch of a similar scene on the reverse, is the only watercolor sketch for the painting Hailstorm, which is also a significant piece in the Museum's collection.
In the selections for the exhibition, I have tried to represent the collector's unbridled pleasure in discovery and acquisition. I imagine the secret pleasure of, say, a collector of rare stamps or coins occasionally laying out his favorites in the privacy of his study, admiring their beauty and uniqueness while remembering the precise circumstances of their acquisition. This may not be a fair characterization or comparison to the true pleasure that Bill Foxley has experienced over some thirty years of collecting. His creation of a public art museum for the enjoyment and education of thousands of strangers was probably a more accurate measure of his larger intent.
Included within the exhibition are several important Charles Russell paintings, admittedly Bill's favorite artist and the subject of his often-mentioned "checklist" from his friend Fred Renner. Among the Russells is one of his most memorable purchases, Round-Up on the Musselshell (1919); his very first acquisition from Rosenstock in 1978, Wolves Attacking Cattle in a Blizzard; several major Indian paintings, including Buffalo Hunt (1903), The Truce (1907), the much-prized Jumped (1914), Indian Party, and Calvary Mounts for the Braves (1917-18).
Also included are three other outstanding cowboy subjects: The Price of His Hide, Rattlesnake, and Boss of the Herd (1905), as well as two charming illustrated letters that have become part of the Charlie Russell folklore and an informal medium that clearly differentiates him from his contemporary, Frederic Remington. Two bronzes, Smoking Up and Bronco Twister, and the unique hand-painted plaster cast Wolf with Bone complete the group representing Russell.
Russell's most successful contemporary and one to whom he is most frequently compared was Frederic Remington. The second artist of Bill's triumvirate of the most sought-after, Remington is represented in the exhibition by three paintings and one magnificent first-cast Roman Bronze Works sculpture. Two of the paintings are Indian subjects, An Old Time Northern Plains Indian: The Coup and The Pony Herder. The third is an iconic Remington cavalry subject of 1908, Cutting Out Pony Herds. Bronco Buster, Remington's first bronze and similar to one in the collection of Joslyn Art Museum, is one of the artist's most significant sculptures and the most desired by collectors of the artist's work.
A third figure in this group of action painters depicting events on the prairies during the last quarter of the nineteenth century was Charles Schreyvogel. Neither the authentic like Russell nor with the polish and society connections of Remington, Schreyvogel carved out his own reputation and profitable business on the east coast by painting light-filled canvases with dramatic scenes that most often portrayed the last of the Indian wars on the Great Plains, generally for an Eastern sensibility that had already been primed by a generation of paperback writers who fictionalized and exploited the Western experience for all it was worth. His paintings, The Pickets of 1907 and A Close Call of about the same period, are excellent examples of Schreyvogel's talent and imagination for this very popular subject in the early decades of the twentieth century.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, many American artists had developed a new approach to imaging the West. Rather than undertaking sweeping journeys of discovery, although those still occurred in their imagination and along the highways, many American painters chose to stay at home, and their home was the West. Many of them had been born there and lived there. They had developed a keen appreciation for the history of their pioneer ancestors and for the lifestyle and labor of the farmer, cowboy, rancher, railroader, and Native American, all of whom had contributed to the building of a great nation. Moreover, the first generation of Western painters had broken new ground, leaving a visible legacy from which they drew inspiration and style consciousness.
This group included artists such as Frank Tenny Johnson, Edward Borein, Carl Oscar Borg, and the great Maynard Dixon, to name only a few. All of them painted the cowboy as their central theme. They brought to life the real nature of the twentieth-century cowboy's existence: days upon days of routine, hard work, and isolation punctuated by moments of excitement, danger, and sometimes violence. Johnson's richly layered canvases, Smoke of a .45 from 1937 and his exciting Cowboys Roping the Bear, are in keeping with Russell's legacy of mixing the serious with the anecdotal. His indebtedness to Russell not withstanding, Johnson's paintings are some of the finest works by any American painter of the first half of the twentieth century.
Borein's Roping a Steer and Carl Oscar Borg's A Knight of the West elaborate on the then-prevailing image of the cowboy as a romantic loner, a toughened individualist who, by the way, had found freedom and a new existence or identity in the West. It was around this characterization that many new industries emerged and flourished, including the new movie empire in California, later the television western from New York, and let's not forget the tourism industry that really opened up the West.
Probably the most original of the four above-mentioned artists was Maynard Dixon. Dixon was essentially a self-taught artist who traveled the back roads and highways of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and the Pacific Northwest seeking the subject matter of his art. Cowboys, Indians, and horses were his three main ingredients. In his magnificent southwestern skies and geometric mountains, he fused these ingredients into paintings unlike any done before. Dixon's bold use of color combined with his strong quasi-abstract surfaces imparted to his work a unique appearance. This authenticity and craftsmanship was not lost on Bill Foxley, who has included three works by the artist in the exhibition. One is Dixon's early masterpiece, The Pony Boy (1920); the others, his Cowpuncher from 1927 and a later work, finished four years before his death, Open Range of 1942.
Landscape painting was probably the most recognizable contribution to the nineteenth-century American art historical legacy for a variety of reasons. By either its romantic scale and sublime grandeur or by way of its ability to identify specificity of place and natural wonder, landscapes transformed our own self image, giving us a pictorial idea of who we were and who we might become. Through the varied styles of many painters, we were introduced to places we had never visited but only imagined. In the hands of great painters like Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, William Keith, and Thomas Hill, we were transported to those places. Later, in the twentieth century, this phenomenon was played out again for a different generation of Americans in the more regional context of California by two of the leading artists of the plein-air school, Guy Rose and Edgar Payne. This, also, did not go unnoticed by Bill Foxley, who has collected this group with vigor.
Bierstadt is represented by two paintings from the 1860s. His dramatic The Domes of Yosemite (1867), is a sublime image, more picturesque than real, that has its roots in European romanticism. It is nevertheless and undeniably an awe-inspiring Western America landscape, one of the earliest to capture the West in a manner similar to that of Thomas Cole, who had painted the Hudson River Valley for another generation of Americans thirty years earlier. The other painting by Bierstadt, Big Sandy River-Wind River Mountains of 1860, is impressive in another way. Equally beautiful but different in scale and import, its realism allows one to enter into this painting and into the location with a sense of confidence.
No other American landscape painter has received as much renewed interest in the past ten years as Thomas Moran. Even the British lay claim to him, given that he was born in 1837 in Bolton, England, before moving to Philadelphia in 1844. Long lived and highly productive, Moran's work has become synonymous with the characterization of the West as a supernatural wonder, an awe-inspiring justification of America's greatness and a source of ever-flowing national pride. This tribute to Moran is not without merit. He was on Bill's "top three" list as well for a variety of reasons, notwithstanding his longevity and the production of thousands of paintings, drawings, watercolors, and prints over a career that spanned nearly eight decades. It may also be because of the artist's sense of adventure and daring when accompanying the Hayden geological expedition of the early 1870s to Yellowstone, which resulted in a series of brilliant paintings that persuaded Congress to establish the first National Park. Even more daring was Moran's later adventure with John Wesley Powell, whom he accompanied on the first expedition to fully navigate the Colorado-and in open boats, to boot.
For this exhibition we have included four brilliant examples of Moran's work, among them two early oils, Green River from 1883 and Castle Rock of 1907. There is also a jewel of a watercolor, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, finished in the mid 1890s, following Moran's triumphant return from the landmark Yellowstone expedition. Certainly the most stunning Moran work in the exhibition is In the Teton Range, painted in 1899. Measuring over 42 by 30 inches, this oil was done at the height of the artist's career but is strangely reflective. There is a sense of the poetic about it, not the gritty topographical realism of his Grand Canyon and Yellowstone depictions but rather an homage of sorts to an earlier time in his career, even before all he could do was imagine the West. In In the Teton Range, one can also see a tribute to an even more monumental picture, Moran's Mount of the Holy Cross which, we remember from Bill's commentary, was one highly coveted painting that got away.
Two men in particular were instrumental in establishing a California landscape school: William Keith, a Scotsman, and Thomas Hill, an Englishman. Two others, Guy Rose and Edgar Alwin Payne, can be credited with reviving the school in the early twentieth century. The exhibition includes a work by each of these artists. Keith is represented by his impressive Kings River and Hill by A Fisherman and his Dog on the Bank of the Mercer River, Yosemite of 1895. Rose's striking Off Point Lobos and Payne's formidable Topmost Sierra complete the landscape component of the show.
Scattered throughout the exhibition are works by individual artists that have caught Bill's attention for their uniqueness and originality. One such painter is Henry Farny, the Cincinnati-based artist whose realism and execution is both appealing and evocative. We have included three works by Farny, most notably his oil painting, Nomads of 1902, as well as two gouaches entitled A Nest of Rattle Snakes and Rounded-Up-By-G-d.
Another lone spirit was the painter Richard Lorenz, whose trademark melancholic images are evident in his Sunset on the Prairie. Charles Christian Nahl, an idiosyncratic artist who built his reputation by painting the vaquero tradition on the frontier and in the Far West, is represented by Joaquin Murieta: The Vaquero. A work each by the modernist painter Frank Albert Mechau, Jr., the illustrative Will James, and the regionalist Ogden Pleissner are included in the exhibition. The fiercely independent personality of Grant Wood is demonstrated in an early little oil on paperboard titled Black Barn (1929). These artists represented independent and sometimes wholly original points of view with regard to how they envisioned the West. This diversity of perception in the early to mid twentieth century gave way to a manner of reinventing the West based on very personal levels.
Lastly, there is a work in the exhibition by probably the most enigmatic of painters to be included in the Foxley collection. The portrait by the Russian artist Nicolai Fechin entitled Indian Girl with Sunflowers differs strangely from all the other works in the show. Fechin was born in Kazan and studied art at the Imperial Art School in St. Petersburg, Russia. He immigrated to the United States in 1923, where he won immediate recognition from the National Academy of Design the following year. Soon thereafter he settled in the small village of Taos, New Mexico. A true pioneer of the early twentieth century, Fechin typifies what Bill describes as America's greatest attribute: a land of opportunity for anyone who will seize it. Fechin was never a Taos Society artist. On the contrary, he introduced a largely European tradition to the community, an impressionist style with his own personal signature. With his uncompromising modernist leanings, Fechin was yet another explorer seeking his place in the West of America. It is understandable that Bill Foxley recognized this strident individualism in Fechin's proficient style and included him on his other "checklist."
Presently, Bill Foxley and his wife, Katherine, divide their time between homes in La Jolla, California, and Saratoga, Wyoming. Bill owns two ranches near Saratoga, which together comprise almost 25,000 acres of beautiful rangeland between Wollcott and Saratoga. Still very much involved with collecting art, attending auctions, and visiting art museums and galleries, his interest and passion for American Western art, as well as the California painters and American history in general, continues unabated. Bill himself has become a major resource to many people, including art historians, art dealers, and museum curators, because of his comprehensive knowledge of American Western art and given his almost thirty years in the art business.
Joslyn Art Museum is deeply honored with this opportunity to share a part of Bill Foxley's collection with our community, and we are very grateful to Bill for allowing us to have the exhibition and the loan of many of his important American Western art works.
About the Author:
J. Brooks Joyner is director of the Joslyn Art Museum.
Other selected texts from the exhibition catalogue:
AN APPRECIATION OF BILL FOXLEY
In the last half of the twentieth century there were five great collectors of Western American art: Thomas Gilcrease, Amon Carter, H. J. Lutcher Stark, Bill Foxley, and Phil Anschutz. The Gilcrease collection stands alone as the greatest collection of Western art ever assembled, while the Amon Carter Museum comes in a reasonable second, having diversified its holdings extensively to augment a strong emphasis on Remington and Russell. Third is the collection of the Stark Museum, put together by Lutcher Stark, with great emphasis on the best works of the Taos painters. Then comes Bill Foxley, who started to collect art in the late 1970s and built an unparalleled collection that now exceeds any other efforts in the last forty years. The fifth great collector of our time is Phil Anschutz, who has gathered the largest collection of any living Western collector.
With this exhibition and catalogue, we now see that Bill Foxley has the best and most focused collection extant. Bill has an unerring eye. His taste has been simply superb. He has quite deliberately picked the best examples available for his collection. While the core of his collection is based on works by Bierstadt, Moran, Remington, and Russell, Bill's acquisitions have spanned the whole West-from Karl Bodmer to Georgia O'Keeffe and Jackson Pollock-in a way that the other great collectors have not.
Along with an eye for art came the uncanny business skills that Bill honed during many years of cattle trading. His was the old-fashioned Western style, where your word is your bond. I watched him hold to it time and again. He has bought and sold more Western art, great Western art, than any collector I know, and has built an astonishingly refined group of works. Bill was always willing to pay the record price for a great picture, knowing that time was his ally. I saw many cases where he later traded something off and got six to ten times the record price he had originally paid. He was not as shy as most collectors. His willingness to pay out for the greatest works -- in any particular historical period -- has been absolutely key. It has been my extraordinary pleasure to work with Bill on both sides of the buy-and-sell equation. It is always fun to work with someone who knows as much as you do, who has an unquestionably great eye, and a great business instinct as well.
Bill's book, Frontier Spirit: Catalog of the Collection of the Museum of Western Art, is an elegant classic by a visionary Westerner. The volume reveals his great clarity of focus, which he very deliberately brought to his collecting. That focus, along with his great passion for and love of the West, makes Bill Foxley a unique contributor to the field of Western art. It is a field made far better for his involvement.
FROM THE COLLECTOR
The C. M. Russell prints above the sofa in my father's comfortable den at 840 Fairacres in what was west Omaha in the early 1940s fascinated me. The reproduction of Gainsborough's Blue Boy in my mother's formal living room did not. Later in the decade, I saw my first Russell originals in the lobby of Billings' Northern Hotel. They were on loan from the MacKay collection, now at the Montana State Historical Society in Helena. My exposure to visual art became broader in the early 1950s, when I would occasionally visit the Joslyn during the noon hour or by skipping class at Creighton Prep, then a few blocks north of the museum on California Street.
It was in the late 1970s before this dormant virus manifested itself into a fever that still persists. I, for the first time, became aware of an original watercolor for sale in a gallery. Rosenstock on Colfax in Denver wanted $38,000 for the cowboy artist's Wolves Attacking Cattle in a Blizzard. I had no idea of its worth, but bought it after my best cattle-trading efforts failed to pry it from the wily owner. A trip to Arizona to see Fred Renner, the universally recognized Russell expert, convinced me that I had stumbled onto a rare, previously undocumented watercolor at a good price. I read Janson's History of Art and McCracken's The Charles M. Russell Book, the first two books in a library that grew over the years to hundreds of references. Before long I had visited a dozen Western art museums from Corning, New York, to Los Angeles. The fever spread.
In two years I rounded up a good number of the strays that had not been acquired by Tom Gilcrease and Amon Carter in the 1950s. In 1983 I opened a museum in Denver to display the collection.
Although many of the works in the collection were purchased from dealers or at auction, a significant number were acquired from fellow collectors. One of my favorites, Musselshell Roundup, was spotted on a museum wall, where it was on loan from a man in West Virginia. My first attempt to acquire the oil ended in a polite refusal. Two years and three attempts later, I got a call from the owner, whose tax advisor thought a sale might not be a bad idea.
Remington's Cutting Out Pony Herds was purchased on the last day of a ninety-day consignment from the Detroit Club at a New York City gallery. It had been too optimistic in its asking price, and a bid of two-thirds of that figure lifted it from the easel in the plush viewing room. The painting had been purchased by the club in 1912. The artist's The Pony Boy hung above a smoky fireplace on a Colorado ranch owned by Black, a partner in a silverware manufacturing firm back east. Moran's In the Teton Range was the cover lot of Christie's American art catalogue in 1991, when the art market was generally perceived to be soft.
One of my recent purchases was Lorenz's Sunset on the Prairie. I was the under bidder in a New York auction two years before my purchase and gladly paid more than twice what it formerly realized upon seeing the oil rather than a poor reproduction. Although not a major artist, he obviously had a great day when he put brush to canvas on this one.
Most of the artists represented in the Joslyn exhibition, having lived or traveled extensively in the West, had an intimate knowledge of and a love affair with it which are revealed unabashedly in their works. Russell's attachment may have been the strongest, and his pieces may most often affect the typical Western art enthusiast in a way that cannot be duplicated. To others, nothing quite equals the array of pleasures generated in viewing a sunlit Bierstadt landscape or a crisp Farny Indian encampment. Art critic John Canaday defined art as a man-made object that pleases the eye, "a triple experience-visual, emotional and intellectual." To me, that is a pretty good description of my feeling when viewing In the Teton Range, Nomads, or The Pony Boy.
Resource Library editor's note:
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Amy Rummel of the Joslyn Art Museum for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above texts.
The fully-illustrated exhibition catalogue and narrative essay by Joslyn director J. Brooks Joyner will be available for purchase in Joslyn's Hitchcock Museum Shop.
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