Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 5, 2017
Marian Wardle and Sarah E. Boehme, eds. Branding the American West: Paintings and Films, 1900–1950 Exh. cat. Charles M. Russell Center Series on Art and Photography of the American West, Vol. 23. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016. 240 pp.; 128 color ills.; 27 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (9780806152912)
Exhibition schedule: Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Provo, February 19–August 13, 2016; Stark Museum of Art, Orange, TX, March 11–September 09, 2017

Branding the American West: Paintings and Films, 1900–1950 is a lavishly illustrated exhibition catalogue containing seven essays by art historians, literary scholars, and poets, as well as an introduction by the exhibition’s co-curators. With its wide range of stimulating perspectives and insights, the catalogue offers a substantive conversation among the authors who consider the works and the legends of the Taos Society of Artists (TSA). The group’s paintings, and those of Maynard Dixon, are the focus of the book. The spirit of scholarly collaboration and cross-pollination is perhaps its greatest strength.

The relationship between the museums began, according to the preface by the volume’s editors, with the work of Minerva K. Teichert in the Stark Museum, which in 2012 donated most of them to the Brigham Young University Museum of Art. In light of the fact that Teichert and her work are the raison d’être of the exhibition and catalogue, it is remarkable that only two essays in the volume, one of which is the introduction, even mention her. Almost all of the objects discussed in the catalogue are by male artists. The book, then, does not move beyond the well-worn sense of the West as a space of masculine action and imagination. The authors do a better job of illuminating the complex relationships between artists, filmmakers, and their Native American subjects, as expressed in paintings and movies.

Dean Rader, in “Part of the Strangeness: Notes on Landscape, Branding, and the American West,” perceptively describes paintings by Dixon, Walter Ufer, Fremont F. Ellis, and Carl Oscar Borg in order to meditate on the way landscape painting invites us to question how we “read” the land and what such paintings say about art and aesthetics in the United States. Punctuated by his personal experiences and memories, Rader’s stream of consciousness leads him to juxtapose these paintings with landscapes rendered in poems and essays by Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and Leslie Marmon Silko. Although his notes never congeal into an argument, Rader suggests that these paintings, especially those by Dixon, often blur the lines between landscape, portraiture, and still life. In the final section he considers paintings and photographs that deploy scale to place human figures into sharp contrast with the vast western landscape. The effect is to force viewers to place the human and the land in an eternal dialogue.

In “Westward Contraction: Maynard Dixon Paints the Great Depression” John Ott discusses Dixon’s turn to social realism, which involved the photography of his then-wife Dorothea Lange and his paintings of Native Americans along with southwestern themes. Dixon’s series of what he called “forgotten men” expresses a belief that modern America could learn from the spiritual strength and relationship to nature he found to be characteristic of Native culture. The paintings argue that the bindlestiffs and “Okies” of the twentieth century are as worthy of memorialization as the wagon trains and frontiersmen of the nineteenth. However, Ott argues, Dixon’s political philosophy was often contradictory and is not straightforwardly expressed in his work. Whereas overtly political art by leftists like Victor Arnautoff and Anton Refregier depict groups engaged in class warfare, Dixon’s portraits of homeless men show how the Depression robbed individuals of their masculinity. That Dixon’s paintings never resolve the inherent conflict between their sympathy for the disenfranchised and a faith in the free market reflects, in Ott’s view, Dixon’s “extended romance with the premodern West and its reputation as a mythic space of personal autonomy” (79).

Jimmy L. Bryan Jr., in “The Weary West,” uncovers a tradition of southwestern painting that opposes typical visions of the region’s geography, people, and history. The essay opens by rehearsing the history of the representation of the West as a romantic frontier, and then considers the way certain illustrators “became disillusioned by these overworked themes” (91). Bryan animates a debate between the artists of Taos, especially William Herbert Dunton, Ernest Martin Hennings, Ufer, and other modernists who trafficked in counter-themes of disillusionment, gloom, foreboding, loneliness, drudgery, and weariness. Perhaps the most interesting section of the essay is the discussion of the way wealthy patrons influenced these artists, which extends the idea of weariness from the subjects painted to the painters themselves. Bryan details the indignities of catering to and ultimately being rejected by patrons. Though Bryan never says it, the tension between artists and patrons resonates with Dixon’s personal history: In 1937, at a moment during the Depression when he was desperate for money, Dixon sold his entire inventory of paintings—eighty-five pieces at the time—to the Brigham Young University Museum of Art.

Susan S. Rugh, in “Branding the Southwest for Tourists,” considers the widest-ranging selection of objects, including paintings, postcards, posters, railway promotional literature, tourist maps, and personal photographs, to demonstrate the close links between tourism and Taos painting. The Taos school and tourism were mutually beneficial, but the spread of tourism, facilitated by the popularity and dissemination of images produced by Taos painters, ultimately “threatened the independence of the inhabitants of the Taos Pueblo” (115). Faced with economic hardship, Pueblo Indians deployed capitalist tactics that altered the nature of their ceremonies, turning them into spectacles and accelerating the process of cultural assimilation. Rugh describes how members of the TSA walked a fine line between finding a style of painting that was organic to the Southwest while also appealing to buyers and taste-makers in the East, all while trying not to exploit the Native and Hispano peoples who not only served as their subjects, but whom they regarded as friends and neighbors. The efforts of the TSA and the American Indian Defense Association to prevent the assimilation of Pueblo Indian culture backfired in a way, bringing tourism to Taos, which inevitably changed the Native population and turned the area into a commodity for consumption.

In “Taos and Its Other Neighbors: Intertribal Visiting in Taos School Painting,” Elizabeth Hutchinson makes the collection’s most theoretically provocative move, giving the reader a new way to see southwestern art. She suggests that TSA paintings exceed the intentions of their makers by recording cultural changes that were invisible to the members of the artists’ colony. Hutchinson examines paintings that depict intertribal visiting between Apaches and Pueblos and that register artifacts of intercultural exchange. Rather than seeing inaccuracies in the depictions of, say, Pueblo Indians wrapped in Navajo blankets, Hutchinson takes seriously the artists’ training in the plein air style, arguing that they painted what they saw. The painters, largely unwittingly she argues, recorded evidence of Taos’s vibrant and longstanding intertribal exchange between the Pueblo who lived there, the Navajo from the west, and the Plains Indians from the north and east. Her analysis helps the reader see that the lines between Native religion, commerce, and culture are far blurrier than they first appear. The dances and other ceremonies that seemed timeless to the painters and their patrons were actually the product of shifting historical forces and intercultural exchanges between the peoples of the Southwest and the Great Plains.

LeAnne Howe, in “Imagine There’s No Cowboy: It’s Easy If You Try,” deals with the impact on Native American audiences of Hollywood films in which Indians are subdued in the name of civilization and progress. Howe touches on numerous films, including The Squaw Man (1914), Wild and Woolly (1917), the tourist film Adventures in Kit Carson Land (1917), and Broken Arrow (1950). Howe takes these films seriously, not merely dismissing them for their racism, but rather reading them against the grain in order to motivate her own writing process. She attempts to revise an understanding of these films in order to encourage future writers and artists to follow her lead. Howe’s personal memories of the films would have benefited from a more pointed argument that could lend further coherence to the examples, which are chosen idiosyncratically rather than systematically. For a catalogue whose essays have so much visual analysis, Howe’s essay stands out for its focus on narrative and plot. It is also unclear how the films fit into the group of paintings and visual objects.

Drawing from a rich reservoir of objects, at times Branding the American West seems to be juggling too much without an organizing conceptual apparatus, despite the title’s stated focus on “branding,” which is never fully theorized or defined, and which only a few essays invoke. Nevertheless, the essays offer frequent and fresh insights on the relationship between the exhibition’s paintings, the artists, and the region they depict and construct.

Matthew Hauske
independent scholar