Editor's note: The following article was rekeyed and reprinted on January 10, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of Lonnie Pierson Dunbier. The article is an excerpt from Dr. Roger Dunbier's unpublished writing of 601 pages titled WEST IS WEST: Your Money's Worth in Original Painting.  Dated 1982, the original typewriter manuscript is owned by his wife, Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, who edits and submits the chapters to TFAO. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact Lonnie Pierson Dunbier in Scottsdale, AZ, at ldunbier@mac.com.




BOTHERED BY DEFINITIONS

Is that still life western?

By Roger Dunbier, PhD (1934-1998)

 

Cowboy and buffalo definitions of what constitutes so-called 'Western Art' have bothered me for as long as I was aware of their existence. This concern springs in the main from my own childhood association with painter friends of my father who were actively painting on the frontier when it still was at least a vivid memory. I refer to old men alive when I was a boy in the late thirties and forties. It is exemplified in the case of my father born on a farming, horsebreeding operation in central Nebraska in 1888.

He and his painter associates, to the best of my knowledge and his memory, never made much of East-West delineation. He, as well as friends and instructors with eastern associations such as George Luks (1867-1933), and western such as E.I. Couse (1866-1936) and Walter Ufer (1876-1936), looked upon painters who went West in those days as being involved in a kind of disassociation from things overly civilized (or decadent) but certainly not joined in some historically significant artistic school or movement.

And the western associations that developed among painters, such as in Taos, Santa Fe, Laguna Beach, Carmel, etc., were very naturally geographical in nature and usually limited to a single community. And membership to these associations of 'Western' painters (somebody else's name for them) centered on ability and camaraderie and not on the subjects that made their way on to their canvases.

A particularly muddled consequence of the cowboy and buffalo-defined 'Western Art' is that of the individual painter, particularly a master, whose work at different periods crossed subject matter lines. In many cases, among these skilled, now big-name artists, a day's output of painting ranged between several 'worlds' of subjects and even style. Such 'back and forthing' has posed dilemmas for art historians with a penchant for labels, but likely was natural for the artist with wide-ranging interests and talents.

For example, it was possible that Henry Sharp (1859-1953) started an early morning painting at the Taos Pueblo, came home and worked into a floral still life that afternoon.

Here in ten hours we have the problem of the individual painting versus the painter.

Were both the still life and Pueblo paintings 'signature' expressions of this European traveled 'eastern sophisticate' whose reputation was for Indians, teepees and campfires. How did those geraniums get in there? But notice the Navajo rug under the vase!

Does that rug make that still life 'western' as some gallery director told me? If so, is the painting western enough? Is the artist western? "Somebody told me Joseph Henry Sharp spent a summer in Colorado Springs where he drew some just beautiful horses, you know." How do I deal with these distinctions?

Attempting answers, I suggest that the criteria of American Western Art, specifically painting, can be summed up by positive responses to this question: Did the work at hand result from the artist living or traveling in the West, and does viewer or wider audience response show that the artist succeeded in conveying easily understood meaning of some of that experience?

Beyond these parameters, which are much wider than just cowboys and Indians and buffalo, no differentiation should be made between the animate or inanimate, wild or domestic, indoors or outdoors, native or introduced, colored or white, mountain or flatland, presence or lack of figures, quadruped or biped, photo realistic or impressionistic, tightly or loosely painted in the field or in their studios, or by painters of this century or last, living or dead.

With this explanation that even includes a still life with geraniums placed on a Navajo rug as 'Western', there are, however, definite exclusions, which are to my view, non objective or totally abstract. I refer to daubs of color representing, we are told, something envisioned while unconscious 'somewhere' in the West, or paint that arrived on a canvas after having been spilled from a bucket held by someone on a stepladder 'somewhere' in the West.

In other words, a painting that could have been made anywhere and that allows no possibility of common understanding must find its explicator elsewhere outside of 'Western Art', even though the artist protests unparalleled geographical link by explaining it was the result of being "locked three days in a closet at The Birdcage Theater in Tombstone, Arizona."

Intrinsic to my definition of Western Art is a kind of 'binodality' of function. At one node are the Western millieu or landscape, the artist in that landscape, and the skills he or she has carried into the act of painting that allowed the artist to transmit effectively to viewers a two-dimensional message about that setting. At the other node is the viewer who receives this painted message, brings together what is in front of his or her optical sensory system, and merges it with stored information about the subject that, in turn, enhances sensations and understanding.

The greater the input of skills, for example, on the transmitting side, the greater the signal and larger the input potential at the receiving mode. A low input of skill on the transmitting side can, however, be compensated for, and often is, by a large input of stored data at the receiving node. This last is what takes place when a viewer becomes ecstatic over some, perhaps not very well drawn, view of an old fort, a bridge, or a be-feathered chief, and you, as an outsider, can't understand why. Indeed the artist stirred up an exclusive experience of the American West.

To me, that too is Western Art.

Edited and Submitted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier who holds the copyright
 

 

About the Author:

From 1982, Dr. Roger Dunbier (1934-1998) combined his professional economics training, research skills, and love of art to develop an easily accessed, 'all-in-one-place' repository of factual information so that buyers and sellers of American art could make decisions based on hard-core data rather than just marketing hype.  With ever-more sophisticated computers, programmed by Charles Lefebvre, his long-time associate, Dunbier built an artist record database, which by the time he died 16 years later, had 21,357 names linked to their respective auction prices, literature and biographies.  Today the result of his dedication lives on as the foundation of AskART.com, an internet site since 2000.  

Dunbier's innovation of computer systems began in 1963, when he pioneered computer mapping on what were then relatively primitive computers.  In 1967, he utilized concepts of 'arbitrage' and 'comparables' in designing the first real estate Multiple Listing System.  Its direct descendent remains in use by realtors across the United States, and he later applied the same underlying principles in building his artist database.  (right: Roger Dunbier, photo courtesy Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, derived from a larger image at http://tfaoi.org/am/16am/16am17.jpg)

Dunbier was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska.  His interest in American art was natural because his father, Augustus Dunbier, (1888-1977) was a prominent landscape, still life and portrait painter and art teacher, whose studio and classroom were in the family home.   Although Roger showed few 'right brained' skills, he did have other talents.  He graduated first in his class and Summa Cum Laude from the University of Omaha in 1955 with majors in economics and history.   He then received a Marshall Scholarship, which led to enrollment at Oxford University in England from 1955 to 1959.  During that time, he was on the Oxford University basketball and track teams, and was a member of the British National Basketball Team.  In 1961, he received a Doctorate of Philosophy, Economic Geography from Oxford.  His dissertation, The Sonoran Desert, Its Geography, Economy, and People, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 1960, and subsequently used as a text book for college geography courses.

After formal education, Dunbier held full-time professorial positions for several years at the University of Omaha and the University of California-Irvine.  He lived most of the remainder of his life in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, and had economic-geography related jobs including CEO of his management consulting firm that prepared demographic and locational studies; and President of Metro Press, Inc., publisher of over 100 computer generated area directories for Metro Phoenix.  In 1991, he married Lonnie Pierson of Lincoln, Nebraska.

-- By Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, 2008

 

About this article's editor

Lonnie Pierson Dunbier of Scottsdale, Arizona and originally from Nebraska, married Dr. Roger Dunbier in 1991. From then, she worked full time on his artist database. After his death, she co-founded AskART.com, for which she was Research Director from 2000 to 2007. Ms. Dunbier is also the editor of all other excerpts from Dr. Roger Dunbier's unpublished writing of 601 pages titled WEST IS WEST: Your Money's Worth in Original Painting

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