The title of the exhibition opening Friday at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage is a little misleading. "Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945" suggests a show of cowboy art, but the exhibition is about much more than that. This survey of 118 female artists who lived and worked in the West--but were largely written out of art history because they were women--is an ambitious exercise in historical revisionism that includes everything from plein-air painting to Surrealism.
Conceived by Patricia Trenton, curator since 1982 of the 31-year-old collection at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, "Independent Spirits," oddly enough, owes its existence to that bastion of masculinity in downtown Los Angeles.
"Several pieces in the collection here are signed with just an initial and it was always assumed they were by male artists, but I discovered after I'd been here for three years that they were by women," Trenton explains in an interview at the Athletic Club. "That got me thinking about women artists of the West and about why many of them used assumed names.
"Obviously there was still a terrible gender bias in the art world then--many of these women, in fact, came west because the East was such a world of male dominance," says Trenton, who earned a doctorate in art history from Berkeley in 1980. "The West, at least, was undeveloped, so it was a little more open, but it was also tough. The women who came here had to be strong because many of them homesteaded on their own."
Trenton approached the Autry Museum with her idea for the exhibition in 1991.
"The Autry doesn't have any work by women in their collection yet, but they'd been wanting to do an exhibition on women," she says, "so they let me proceed with very little interference."
The exhibition opens at the turn of the century, Trenton says, "because so many dynamic developments were taking place in the West," and closes with 1945, when the kind of art the show deals with fell into obscurity with the rise of Abstract Expressionism.
"That style was all about muscle and alcohol, and there wasn't much room for women there--in fact, it wasn't until the feminist movement of the '70s that women began to regain their place in the art world," she says.
In organizing the show, Trenton divided the West into five geographical regions to see if differences surfaced from one area to the next--"and they definitely did," she says.
"Texas, for instance, was extremely macho, so women there didn't take as many liberties as women did in Southern California, where there was an intense interest in Modernism."
The show, which is scheduled to travel to museums in Tulsa, Okla.; Santa Fe, N.M., and Provo, Utah, after it closes at the Autry on Jan. 28, consists of 139 works drawn from museums and private collections. Most of the works are generally unknown, although the show does feature some artists who have already found a place in the history books, among them Georgia O'Keeffe, Agnes Pelton, Dorothea Tanning and Dorothy Brett.
"The show is heavily weighted toward California and New Mexico because those are the places where we turned up the most artists," says Trenton, whose last curatorial project, "California Light," was at the Laguna Art Museum. "The plains region was the toughest in terms of unearthing work because it encompasses [so much space that] historic records and the collections themselves tend to be scattered there.
"It was mind-boggling how many artists we discovered--in fact, the reason we don't include photography is because we simply didn't have the space. As it is we're rolling over into an auxiliary gallery, and we don't show anyone in depth--not because we couldn't but because that's not what this show is about."
The variety in this work is quite dramatic, Trenton says, noting that the show includes portraiture, still life, landscape, domestic scenes and dream symbolism. "I think people will also be surprised by the large format many of these women worked with, as well as the volume of work they created," she says.
"It's hard to say who made the largest body of work, although Jessie Arms Botke would certainly be in the running--her overall output is in the thousands," Trenton says. "As to who the most progressive artists were, Agnes Pelton had a highly original style, as did Henrietta Shore--her work was quite unconventional up until the time that she settled in Monterey, at which point her art became religious."
The ferreting out of art that had fallen through the cracks of history was accomplished the hard way; Trenton got on airplanes, traveled around the West and searched. Her footwork was supplemented by the efforts of assistants she refers to as "mini-curators" who were based in the five regions the show explores.
All but 11 of the artists in the exhibition are deceased. A few of the artists still living have Alzheimer's disease, Trenton says, and one is 96. (She hopes that Pablita Velarde, who lives in Albuquerque and is in her late 70s, will attend a symposium that will accompany the show on Saturday.)
"I didn't have the luxury of firsthand input from the artists in the show," Trenton says. "Nonetheless, having thought of little else for the past several months, I've come to some conclusions about them.
"I wouldn't describe these women as bitter, but they were frustrated at times, and they were quite resourceful. Elizabeth Gardner, for instance, masqueraded as a man. Many were forced to neglect their art because of financial pressures, and several of these women were gay. . . . Some of them had companions, but we have no way of knowing if those relationships were sexual. Women didn't have the kind of companionship with their husbands that people have today, so women often sought each other out for that companionship.
"Many of them didn't marry until their mid-20s--which was late for that period--because they wanted to pursue their careers. And others made their art take second place to their husbands after they married."
Although these artists can be linked by the challenges they all faced, the range of styles in the show reflects a remarkable diversity in their backgrounds. Along with those of European descent, artists of Native American, African and Asian heritages are included, creating a rich stew of influences and styles.
Throughout, however, there is evidence of the tenacity that drove these women to become artists in a time and place in which their efforts were given little acknowledgment.
* Autry Museum of Western Heritage, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park. Daily except Monday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (213) 667-2000. A symposium, "Independent Spirits," will be held at the museum on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. ; $20 for museum members, $25 for non-members. Reservations: (213) 667-2000, Ext. 317.