Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on March 28, 2008 with the permission of the Denver Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Denver Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


The Contemporary Realism Group: New Narratives in the Art of the American West

by Gordon McConnell


In fall 2006, the Denver Art Museum opened the Frederic C. Hamilton Building, a bold new structure designed by Daniel Libeskind that has drawn international attention and acclaim. This dynamic landmark contains galleries for the museum's modern and contemporary collections and several temporary exhibition galleries. Galleries devoted to the museum's collections of Oceanic and African art are located on the upper floors. Significant collection space in the building is occupied by the Dietler Gallery of Western Art, on the second level of the building adjacent to the Reiman Bridge, which links the Hamilton and North buildings. The western American art collection is itself a bridge between past and present; within its holdings it unites treasured art of the Old West and the first decades of the twentieth century with ambitious, masterful, and sometimes provocative art of the New West.

In recent years, with substantial patronage and strong curatorial leadership, the museum's western art collection has grown in size and significance. Museum director Lewis I. Sharp, who came to Denver from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's American art department in 1989, later brought renowned western art specialists Joan Carpenter Troccoli and Peter H. Hassrick to the museum. Troccoli presided over the establishment of the museum's Institute of Western American Art in 2001 and remains on staff as senior scholar. Hassrick, former director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, is the institute's current director.

The museum's core collection of western art -- which already contained such iconic masterworks as Charles Deas's Long Jakes, Frederic Remington's The Cheyenne, and Charles M. Russell's In the Enemy's Country -- was greatly expanded and enhanced in 2001 with the gift of more than eight hundred works from the collection of Dorothy and William Harmsen Sr., founders of the Jolly Rancher Candy Company. The Harmsen Collection contains wonderful paintings by George Catlin, Alfred Jacob Miller, artists of the Taos and Santa Fe schools, illustrators such as N. C. Wyeth and Maynard Dixon, and early modernists including John Marin and Marsden Hartley. The third major category of works in the western art collection, and the focus of this essay, is the museum's contemporary realism collection, which is supported by the Contemporary Realism Group, an active corps of private collectors and patrons guided by Hassrick, Troccoli, and associate curator Ann Scarlett Daley. Since the early 1990s, the contemporary realism collection has grown to include about fifty artworks by artists who work within the realist tradition. With few exceptions, these artists live in the American West, and all of them have made substantial contributions to the region's visual culture. The enlightened taste and enthusiastic sensitivity of the Contemporary Realism Group, led today by its founder, former museum trustee Jim Wallace, along with the critical acumen and connoisseurship of the museum's curators, are richly demonstrated in this expanding collection of paintings, prints, and sculpture. All of the group's acquisitions have been exemplary and representative of the diversity of expressive options open to today's figurative artists.

As was evident in the opening exhibition in the Hamilton Building, the Institute of Western American Art's curators routinely install contemporary paintings and sculpture adjacent to objects from earlier periods. The inclusion of contemporary objects makes clear that in the minds of the curators and working artists alike, the West is not a closed subject. Rather than merely preserving and caretaking a settled canon of historical western art, as is the case at many museums, the Institute of Western American Art is actively assembling a collection that extends the tradition into the present. Much can be learned from the ways that artworks by today's painters and sculptors compare and contrast with those of their forebears. Change has been the constant in a region that saw the coming of Lewis and Clark and the massacre at Wounded Knee in one long, nineteenth-century lifetime, and it has accelerated exponentially ever since. Today's West would be unimaginable to the Victorians who conquered and settled it, much less the natives they dispossessed. Likewise, that late frontier, for most of us, seems more remote every day.

The curatorial strategy to include contemporary art in the context of its historic antecedents is bold, but it sits well with recent scholarly efforts to consider western art as a part of mainstream American art and not as a provincial or backward school, dated to a disconnected past. As Troccoli has written, "The evolution of art with western themes is actually an integral part of the evolution of American art in general . . . To embrace the art of the American West within the mainstream tradition is to enrich that tradition with work of value and significance. To ignore or discount it impoverishes, indeed misrepresents, American culture."[1] This curatorial approach defies the expectations of viewers who have a settled, retrospective understanding of western art and want to see it in a traditional chronological framework, but it is more engaging for viewers who are attuned to mainstream art and present-day aesthetic concerns.

Contemporary realist art is abundantly represented in the Dietler Gallery installation and accounts for about a third of what is on display. This confirms the commitment of the Institute of Western American Art to the modern scene. The artists whose work is on display share a collective belief that representational imagery most effectively relates the story of the region's essence.

Acknowledging also that much important contemporary art of the West falls outside the parameters of the realist school, the western galleries also include a recent abstract impressionist canvas by one-time Montana cattleman Theodore Waddell, plus artwork from other departments in the museum including, notably, a Deborah Butterfield assembled-metal horse, Orion; photodocumentation of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Valley Curtain project; a video of performance/conceptual artist and New Mexico rancher Bruce Nauman setting a corner post; and photographs of the eastern Colorado prairie by Robert Adams, a former Colorado resident and important figure among the "New Topographics" photographers of the 1970s.

How does contemporary art relate to the art of the past, the traditions of the West, and the tradition of realism? To address such questions, one might begin by considering two late-twentieth-century photorealist paintings by James Bama (born 1926) and Donald W. Coen (born 1935). Bama seemingly goes beyond photographic detail in his tour-de-force painting, Young Plains Indian, missing not a bead, feather, or hair and leaving scarcely a single brushstroke visible in the finished painting. Where Bama erases his method beneath an Old Master finish, Coen deliberately leaves visible evidence of his process -- penciled contour lines traced from a projected 35 mm slide can be seen in places under layers of airbrushed, translucent acrylic colors. Yellow Rain Jacket is large, rivaling the proportions and impact of modern abstract canvases. The composition is tightly cropped to focus our interest on a functional horseback still life consisting of a fancy trophy saddle, a brightly colored jacket, and other accouterments.

Bama's portrait of a young Plains Indian is derived from a photograph he took of a rider in the Crow Fair parade. The painting retains the candor and instantaneity of a photograph, and the revelation of character in the portrait owes a great deal to the momentary pose and facial expression of the young man. Bama is an extraordinarily skillful painter who has developed an honest, present-tense approach to painting iconic western subjects. Living near Cody, Wyoming, since the late 1960s, this one-time New York illustrator finds subjects for his paintings at rodeos, pow wows, reenactments, and area watering holes. Aside from some costumed Hollywood actors, he's painted authentic characters in their own outfits -- cowboys, buckskinners, cavalry reenactors, Indians in contemporary pow wow attire and period regalia -- every feature and texture captured in meticulous, satiny detail.

A much younger artist, William Matthews (born 1949), perfected his skills as a watercolorist as he traveled in Europe, North Africa, and the United States. In the mid-1980s, he found his way to Elko, Nevada, and met some of the traditional cowboys, the buckaroos of the Great Basin, who in their isolation on the great ranches in the region maintain distinctive traditions of dress and horsemanship. I agree with Hassrick, a leading authority on those two great artists who codified the cowboy in art, Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, who sees something special in Matthews's work: [fig. 1] "When you stand back and look at one of Matthews's cowboy paintings, it defines a very powerful piece of visual iconography. You walk away from the painting feeling differently. The strength and uniqueness of his technique and style make a genuine contribution to our visual understanding of cowboy life." [2]

Compared with historic precedents in the museum's collection, human figures are relatively scarce in the works of contemporary artists, though, like Bama and Matthews, the sculptors Harry Jackson (born 1924) and Hollis Williford (1940-2007) [fig. 2] portray the figure with mastery and define narratives with terse and precise detail. Few can rival Jackson's ability to capture extreme action in bronze. The bronc and rider in Two Champs, a furious tangle of counterbalanced appendages dynamically balanced on one extended leg, is thrilling to behold. [fig. 3]

Narrative or genre subjects are abundantly represented in the art of the historic West. Paintings ranging from George Catlin's and Alfred Jacob Miller's early frontier canvases through the works of twentieth-century illustrators like N. C. Wyeth and Frank Tenney Johnson are teeming with people and incident. Of all the artists in the contemporary realism collection, however, only one works almost exclusively in this tradition. In series after series of narrative canvases, many set in the modern American West, John Hull (born 1952) has pursued a type of pictorial storytelling scarcely seen in American painting since the "Golden Age" illustrators and realists of the Ashcan School. Since then, technologically mediated image-making in the cinema and photography have progressively supplanted the need or ability of painters to pursue narrative interests. Hull has said, "It's a mistake of painters to have given up the great subjects to popular culture. Paintings are substantial in a different way from the movies." [3]

As part of the research he did for his series on the Battle of the Alamo, Hull traveled to Brackettville, Texas, and, with some sense of irony, painted plein air studies of the set built for John Wayne's movie The Alamo. Hull's viewpoint in Aftermath [fig. 4] is from the roof of the long convento building, looking obliquely at the famous chapel and a scene that, in Hull's words, "reveal[s] the ugliness, loss and misery that 'heroism' leaves in its wake." [4]

In contrast to the landscape painters of the nineteenth century -- who often populated their works with gaudy bands of Indians or immigrant trains of Conestoga wagons -- today's painters of western views seem most often to cling to notions of timeless purity and spiritual refuge and crave an unpeopled land. Their paintings open windows on scenic vistas and secret places, inviting the vicarious enjoyment of solitary viewers. Other painters, like Chuck Forsman (born 1944), seek to come to terms with the utilitarian landscape and its development and exploitation. [fig. 5] They see open country, farms, and ranches vanish, cut up and smothered by suburban and exurban sprawl, drilled and mined and paved. The land itself in so many places seems destined to disappear, and the great, inspiring spaces of the West are in many places compromised and diminished, crisscrossed by roads and wires, blighted by the derelict remains of past enterprise, gnawed at by the new.

These trends give a sense of urgency to conservative painters trying to preserve lonely vistas in their works. Others, attuned to look with critical eyes at cultural geography or the vernacular landscape, depict altered, transitional, and damaged landscapes in an attempt to capture and, perhaps, reconcile themselves with, the processes of transformation. The genre or narrative artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were likewise preoccupied with change. Aware that the scene before them was disappearing while they watched, men like Russell and Remington sought to immortalize the wild riders and unfenced plains before all memory of them was lost forever. They succeeded more spectacularly than they could have imagined in seeding the world with indelible images of their West. Some of today's landscape painters have similar feelings about the changes now at hand and their works, well-represented in the contemporary realism collection, carry narrative messages along with their scenic details.

Some of the monumental, historically resonant landscapes in the collection are as much historical commentaries as registers of panoramic splendor. Wilson Hurley's The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone meticulously assays both the detail and grandeur of one of America's most cherished and storied places. Hurley (born 1924) is a more than worthy successor of Thomas Moran and the earlier luminists. Woody Gwyn (born 1944), by contrast, is more of a modernist in the line of Maynard Dixon and Georgia O'Keeffe. With bold massing of forms and carefully modulated modeling and coloration in his monumental panorama Comanche Gap II, he emphasizes the grand abstraction of a historic volcanic dike near his Galisteo, New Mexico, home. Ridgeline basalt formations are applied in impasto, while layers of background country recede toward distant mountains in smooth bands and stripes of atmospheric desert color.

The landscapes of Keith Jacobshagen (born 1941) and Karen Kitchel (born 1957) speak to a precisionist view of nature and a narrative of human use and abuse of the land. Jacobshagen, who is a professor at the University of Nebraska, draws his motifs from the area within a 50-mile radius of Lincoln, regularly venturing into the farmland to sketch, photograph, write in his journal, and paint watercolor and oil studies. Although the sky is sovereign in all his work, filled with light and atmosphere and carefully composed, meteorologically correct cloud formations, the land he delineates across a low horizon is also well-defined. [fig. 6] Working down into the weave of the canvas, Jacobshagen captures the spacious and fertile grid of the midwestern agrarian landscape in minute scale. Furrowed fields, green with early-summer row crops, and several prosperous farmsteads, the roofs catching the light among the trees, stretch out under a luminous sky worthy of John Constable, one of the artist's heroes. It is an American pastorale, less scenic than the showy Rockies but majestic and beautiful all the same.

Karen Kitchel's American Grasslands [fig. 7], a series of 112 panels (of which the Denver Art Museum owns twenty) painted between 1996 and 1998 in the area around Billings, Montana, are intricately detailed "micro-landscapes." Focused down rather than out, the compositions delineate intimate patches of grassland categorized as native prairie, pasture, cropland, or lawn. Seen together, the American Grasslands paintings effectively embody the shattered mosaic of a landscape divided and subdivided into blocks of property and functionality, foot-square patches from a fractured prairie panorama, a formal quilt of tiny real-estate parcels. While she naturally cherishes exquisite specimens of threatened native grasses and wildflowers, Kitchel gives equal definition and attention to the impure plant communities found in weedy pastures and yards and the chemically sustained monocultures of wheat fields and manicured lawns. Individually, these panels seethe with the acuity and intensity of the artist's minute observations and extreme painterly dexterity and persistence. "Just as a painting embodies the time it takes to make it," Kitchel says, "these multi-image landscapes reveal plural realities of use and appearance over time . . . I paint them with the traditional craftsmanship of the genre's past and a critical eye on the geography of the present." [5]

Don Stinson (born 1956), like many travelers through the West, finds his landscapes at the side of the road. His work reflects the mobility of American culture and the changeability of the landscape. Often, he has examined a "geography of obsolescence" in his pictures of failed gas stations, roadside cafes, and, particularly, that nearly extinct relic of baby-boom summers, the drive-in movie theater. The big screens now stand like vacant billboards of a lost culture, as Stinson sees them, "like obsolete monuments to the films of John Ford and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. [6]

In Stinson's diptych The Necessity for Ruins, the screen is featured on the left panel, the ticket booth on the right, and standing nearby is an actual antique set of drive-in movie speakers that play a soundtrack of wind and passing cars. In the right panel, rows of metal poles that once supported such speakers stand alongside berms raised to tilt cars at an angle to the screen. The entire field, once cleared and graded for the theater lot, has been reclaimed by a riot of prairie grasses and brush. Although he portrays ruins from his lifetime in the West, Stinson is no pessimist. As Nancy Anderson, associate curator of American and British paintings at the National Gallery of Art, has observed: "In this painting of an abandoned drive-in theater near Chama, New Mexico, Stinson invites the viewer to reflect on the cyclical continuum articulated by the landscape and the structures upon it. The glory days of this theater enterprise have passed, the land lies temporarily fallow, but another narrative has already begun." [7]

The art of Stinson and the other artists in the contemporary realism collection affirms that, indeed, a new narrative has taken hold in the art of the American West. The contemporary realism collection demonstrates the resilience and relevance of traditional forms of painting and sculpture, and it gives the Institute of Western American Art's collection a critical edge and a renewable future. Self-identified traditionalists and artists with more cutting-edge conceptual concerns are brought together in a way that argues for their coexistence in a larger, sustainable tradition. The museum's collection of western art from the past two centuries provides a resonant context for this contemporary work, and the newer work recontextualizes and refreshes our appreciation and understanding of the old.



1. Joan Carpenter Troccoli, Painters and the American West: The Anschutz Collection (New Haven and London: Denver Art Museum and Yale University Press, 2000), 20.

2. Quoted in Dyan Zaslowsky, "The Watercolors of William Matthews," introduction to Cowboys & Images: The Watercolors of William Matthews, by William Matthews (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994), 20

3. Quoted in Gordon McConnell, "Witnessing: A Retrospective Look at the Work of John Hull," in Imitation of Life: The Paintings of John Hull (Baltimore: Goucher College, 2001), 3.

4. John Hull, "Notes on the Alamo Paintings," in John Hull: The Alamo, Paintings and Works on Paper (New York: Grace Borgenicht Gallery, 1994), n.p.

5. Quoted in Gordon McConnell, Crowded Prairie -- Four Painters (Clearmont, Wyoming: Ucross Foundation and Nicolaysen Art Museum and Discovery Center, Casper, Wyoming, 2000), n.p.

6. Quoted in John Arthur, 23° -- Geography of Obsolescence: Landscapes by Don Stinson (Casper, Wyoming: Nicolaysen Art Museum and Discovery Center, 1999), n.p.

7. Nancy Anderson, "Reflecting on Ruins," Journal of the West 40, no. 4 (Fall 2001): 58.


About the Author

Creating paintings inspired by western movies and by Remington and Russell, he is a native of the West, having been born and raised in rural Colorado. He studied art at Baylor University in Waco, Texas; at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, and at the University of Colorado, Boulder where he earned a Master's Degree in 1979.

For two decades he worked as curator at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Montana, before leaving in 1999 to begin work as a full-time painter and independent curator.

His work is in the collections of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming; the Art Museum of Missoula; and the Yellowstone Art Museum; the Federal Reserve Bank in Helena, Montana; and the Deaconness Medical Center in Billings, Montana. (Source: AskArt/Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale, 2003)


About Western Passages

George Carlson's work is highlighted in the annual Western Passages publication of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum. "Heart of the West: New Painting and Sculpture of the American West" includes essays on George Carlson, collecting Western American art, the Museum's Contemporary Realism Group, artist-explorers and the Western landscape, and full color illustrations. The above essay is one of four essays from Heart of the West: New Painting and Sculpture of the American West and the catalogue for the George Carlson: Heart of the West exhibition being held at the Denver Art Museum December 15, 2007 - April 13, 2008. (source: Denver Art Museum)


About the Institute of Western American Art

In September 2007, The Denver Art Museum announced that Denver resident Tom Petrie would endow the Museum's Institute of Western American Art. Additionally, he agreed to a long-term loan of pieces from his comprehensive collection of works by Western artist Charles M. Russell for display at the Museum. In recognition both of this gift and Mr. Petrie's long-time commitment to Western art and the Denver Art Museum, the Museum announced a new name for the Museum's Western art initiative: "The Petrie Institute of Western American Art."

The gift will be used to fund art display and conservation, Institute staffing, special exhibitions, and educational efforts including the annual Western Passages publication and an annual symposium. An impressive lineup of upcoming exhibitions that will be supported by the gift includes George Carlson: Heart of the West (December 15, 2007-April 13, 2008), In Contemporary Rhythm: The Art of Ernest L. Blumenschein (November 15, 2008-February 15, 2009), Charles Deas: Telling Tales to 1840s America (June 6, 2009-August 30, 2009) and The Russell Retrospective (November 2009-January 2010).

"As the Denver Art Museum is at the geographic center of the Rocky Mountain West, our goal is to create one of the most internationally respected centers of Western American art," said Peter Hassrick, director of the Institute. "In conjunction with other recent gifts and initiatives by ardent supporters including the Dietler, Harmsen and Wallace families, this generous gift from Mr. Petrie provides us with very exciting momentum towards achieving this goal."

"As an avid collector of Western art and a resident of Denver, my intention is that this gift will help continue to elevate the importance of Western art within the Colorado community and at the Denver Art Museum," said Tom Petrie. "With the progress that's been made in the last decade in terms of strengthening the collection, building an excellent curatorial team and increasing the priority on Western American art, I feel that the Denver Art Museum is well positioned to develop this program into one of the finest in the world."

The Institute was founded in 2001 following the very successful Painters and the American West exhibition, drawn from the esteemed Anschutz collection, and a major donation of more than 700 objects from the collection assembled by Bill and Dorothy Harmsen. Since then, Peter H. Hassrick, a leading scholar and curator in the field of Western American art and past director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, was hired as director of the Institute. Former director and curator Joan Carpenter Troccoli has been appointed senior scholar and has focused on writing and curatorial duties associated with exhibitions and publications. Hassrick, Troccoli and associate curator Ann Daley also worked to prominently display many of the major works from the collection in the Dietler Galleries of Western American Art in the new Frederic C. Hamilton Building, which opened in October of 2006.

A member of the Denver Art Museum Board of Directors since 1998 as well as the Museum's Western Advisory Committee, Tom Petrie is a Vice Chairman of Merrill Lynch and has a long career in energy investment banking. Mr. Petrie is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, holds an MSBA from Boston University and received an Honorary Doctorate of Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines. (source: Denver Art Museum)


Resource Library editor's note

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Nicole A Parks, Curatorial Assistant, Petrie Institute of Western American Art, Denver Art Museum, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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