The American West is conquered ground. Throughout the 19th century we were an economic colony, variously mined, and an emotional and intellectual colony. Eastern and European artists like Bierstadt and Catlin, Bodmer and Moran came west to paint the wild vistas and the natives in their indigenous dress. Mark Twain wrote about gold camps in the Sierras and hurried east to celebrate his literary triumph; there were 1,700 nickle-dime adventure novels written about Buffalo Bill Cody. Artists in the West understood: Significance and recognition came from the East, New York and Paris.
As Westerners responded to a natural urge to produce their own regional high art, their vision was at first derivative, mirroring work travelers could admire in those empire cities. California Impressionists, a look at the "Plein-Air" school of landscape painting in California between 1900 and the 1920s (sweet reproductions) demonstrates this notion. Essayist Susan Landauer shows us artists driven by admiration for French Impressionists and by regional boosterism. Painters got out of doors; their work celebrated the California climate and qualities of light, and a sedate, civilized society. But tranquillity in paradise was short-lived.
On the Edge of America: California Modernist Art; 1900-1950 is a first-rate collection of nonacademic essays about the various controversies and reinventions connected to the high art movement in California. Gray Brechin's story about the debate, in 1953, before the House Committee on Public Works, on whether to destroy supposedly communist-inspired and subversive murals painted by Anton Refregier on the walls of the Rincon Annex Post Office in San Francisco was news to me, and it was good news. Among many others, the directors of San Francisco's major museums protested the destruction, and the murals were saved. The system worked. But the murals themselves (the book cries for better reproductions), however splendid, were still derivative, in this case of work by the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.
In The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism (fine color reproductions), Susan Landauer tells us of the group of abstract painters who gathered just after World War II around the California School of Fine Arts and painter Clyfford Still. With strong ties to painters of the New York School like Mark Rothko, and eventually with the Beats, they ruled a rambunctious scene. By the mid-'50s creative energies were as often as not flowing West to East.
But my personal favorite, a voyage of discovery, is Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945, a collection of first-rate reproductions and essays on lost artists from California to the Great Plains published last year but worth mentioning again and again. In the powerful and often touching stories of these artists, we witness the creative impulse working as a key to subduing the inhumanities generated by a culture hell-bent on conquest. This is a true and important and until now secret history. And some of their work was gorgeous.
Western artists, these days, look to their own empire cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle. Our regional art is more than a collection of pop-culture rockers and light-show film magicians. It is regional in the sense that Cezanne and Picasso were local in France; it is multiracial and ethnically diverse, and useful as we work at defining ourselves in the world culture that is so rapidly forming as the millennium comes on us. With these books you can enjoy a look at our beginnings.
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Holiday 1996 / BOOK CITY CALIFORNIA IMPRESSIONISTS text by Susan Landauer. (The Irvine Museum and the Georgia Museum of Art: $19.95, 103 pp.)
THE SAN FRANCISCO SCHOOL OF ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM by Susan Landauer. (University of California Press / The Laguna Art Museum: $29.95, 271 pp.)
ON THE EDGE OF AMERICA: California Modernist Art 1900-1950 edited by Paul J. Karlstrom. (University of California Press: $45, 308 pp.)
INDEPENDENT SPIRITS: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945. (University of California Press: $49.95, 348 pp.)
And Bear in Mind:
WHERE THERE IS NO NAME FOR ART: The Art of Tewa Pueblo Children, Text and Photographs by Bruce Hucko (S.A.R. Press, $20, 128 pp.)