In the collective imagination, the American West remains a mythical province of wide open spaces, bucking broncos, and cowboys. There are plenty of cowboys–and Indians–on view in the Titan of the West show, currently on view at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis. Well, guys that look like cowboys, at least. Take this painting by Frank Tenney Johnson—
“Well this is a fun painting,” notes James Nottage, the Eiteljorg’s chief curatorial officer. “It’s called On the Camarillo Rancho.”
Nottage provides a little background about Adolfo Camarillo, he of the ranch where the painting is set—
“He was actually the world’s biggest producer of lima beans. So he wasn’t really a cowboy, but he was a westerner.”
And the Camarillo Rancho wasn’t exactly a working ranch, but more of a resort for fellow tycoons who belonged to a social club called the Rancheros Visitadores, which Nottage describes as “a group of wealthy riders who still to this day since 1930 gather outside of Santa Barbara, California to enjoy a Western lifestyle for a few weeks in the summer.”
A member of the Rancheros Visitadores himself, the painter of the dude ranch scene had a lot of practice representing the Western lifestyle to the east-coast establishment. A longtime resident of New York City, and a member of the National Academy of Design, Johnson took frequent trips out west to create illustrations for Field and Stream, Harper’s, and Cosmopolitan.
In the show, a scene of horses being changed on the Pony Express showcases what became known as the “Johnson Moonlight Technique”—
“It’s a very aesthetic painting that does a great deal playing with light and shadow and a moon brightly lighting a scene.”
But the painting’s aesthetic qualities were not an end in themselves, Nottage insists—
“It’s unabashedly something created to tell or be part of something telling a story.”
Creating The Western Brand
Johnson’s paintings lent themselves so readily to storytelling they became part of the visual vernacular. The rights to one of the paintings on view were sold to a calendar company, as were those to many paintings by E.I. Couse. A 1919 Couse painting in the collection featuring classical-looking Native American figures in a monumental landscape was purchased by the Atchison, Topeka, Santa Fe Railroad to promote tourism in the Southwest.
A painting by W.H.D. Koerner hanging nearby was used to illustrate one of Zane Grey’s novels. Grey’s Westerns were some of the first to be adapted for the silver screen, an industry in its infancy not too far from where Charles Schreyvogel was making the paintings we see in the show–
“It’s interesting to note that he lived in a high rise,” Nottage suggests, “and he often had his models posing as soldiers on the roof of his Hoboken apartment house as he painted them there…at the same time that the first Western films were being fully scripted and produced in New Jersey.”
Like those early Westerns, Schreyvogel’s scene of a Native American in full regalia hunting buffalo on horseback, and Johnson’s dude ranch nocturnes rehearse the familiar tale of how the West was won–
“We’re looking at paintings that sort of verified America’s idea of the conquest and assumption of control of the west. These are works that freeze the west in time in some ways, and Native cultures.”
But in this exhibition, the painters don’t get the last word in the story of the west and its Native people–
Everyday Objects, Real Stories
“The counterpoint to that in this collection, wonderfully, is the everyday objects of the same people that demonstrate that they’re still with us.”
The collection showcased in this exhibition is that of Kenneth “Bud” Adams, whose name might be better known to sports fans than museum goers. The late owner of the Tennessee Titans football team, one of the founders of the American Football League, and founder of the Houston Oilers, Adams’ interest in the art of the West reflected the diversity of his own background—
“His family drilled the first successful oil well in the history of Oklahoma. His family was active with trading posts among a number of tribes in Northeastern Oklahoma. His family from the 1830s to the present has maintained its ties as part of the Cherokee nation.”
Yes, Bud Adams, owner of the Tennessee Titans, was an enrolled member of the Cherokee nation. While investing in well-known landscape paintings, Adams acquired hundreds of artifacts that spoke to his Indian ancestry–
While Adams in the paintings liked the general Western genre, he also collected deeply objects by Santa Fe and Taos artists. With the native objects, he preferred and concentrated his collecting on Plains objects, primarily beadwork. He also broadened his views so that he was collecting weavings, baskets, and other objects that aesthetically were important expressions by artists from a wide range of cultures.
Upon Adams’ death in 2013, the Eiteljorg staff learned with some astonishment that the businessman had given the museum his 400-piece collection of native objects and Western-themed paintings, by the likes of Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Remington, and Thomas Moran.
“In terms of quality and the importance of the individual pieces, the total gift is one of the most important in our history,” asserts Nottage.
From among the four hundred pieces, a team of four curators—two of them Native Americans—selected the 60 paintings and 90 cultural artifacts on view in Titan of the West to explore themes of identity.
“The paintings speak rather loudly about American identity related to the West,” says Nottage, “whereas young Native scholars can speak more eloquently using the native objects to talk about native national identity, native tribal identity, native personal identity.”
So, while painters like Johnson, Couse, Koerner, and Schreyvogel helped romanticize the American West to such an extent that factories are still cranking out shirts with pearl snaps, a handmade shirt from the 1880s that’s on view tells a less cinematic story–of a real man, and the woman who loved him—
Nottage points to an exhibit case that contains a range of objects, including a porcupine-quilled man’s shirt, which he describes–
The colorful orange and blue strips are dyed porcupine quill. This is a tremendous work of art that was created by a woman for a man in her family that is really an expression of that man’s personal identity. It’s as much about him as it is about being a shirt. And it’s a very high art form produced by women artists of the upper Missouri, women of the Mandan and Arikara tribes. A type of shirt that was so much appreciated that it was traded for by other tribes at the time.”
Putting objects used in daily life next to paintings not only creates an aesthetic equation among the pieces in Titan of the West, it allows different kinds of stories to be told by different tellers at the same time—
“A painting by Frank Tenney Johnson of Sioux people in the Dakotas done in the 1930s is a storytelling painting about the American Indian,” Nottage explains, “but if you look near it at a fully beaded Lakota vest it also shows American Indians on horseback in their feathered headdresses.”
And in the case of the beaded vest, as with the porcupine-quilled shirt, the storyteller is a woman.
Expressions Of Persistence
Life stories long underrepresented in American history are told by other pieces in the show, asserts Nottage—
Things that you see like a girl’s dress or a beaded baby bonnet or a cradle board are expressions of something real in the lives of these people, but they’re also an expression of resilience. These being objects done at the same time when children were being forced by their families to go to boarding schools and their fine outfits were taken away from them, their hair was cut, they were forced not to speak their native language. These are real expressions that they persisted and that those traditions and languages survived—they’re still challenged today, but these are cultural objects related to persistence.
The inclusion of these expressions of persistence was a critical curatorial choice. Standard history has foregrounded a different tale of persistence—the white man’s struggle to settle the frontier. One of the most recognizable works of art in the exhibition speaks to that narrative–
“It’s an important Frederick Remington painting that was done in 1893–a classic portrayal of a cowboy on a wildly bucking bronco,” Nottage points out. “It’s this sort of symbolic expression of the white man overcoming and controlling nature.”
Considering the painting in the context of American history, however, yields some irony about the timing of that message . In the midst of the festivities surrounding the Columbian Exposition, or World’s Fair, in Chicago in 1893–including performances by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show nearby–a young professor named Frederick Jackson Turner presented a paper declaring that, through the study of the census, the frontier era had come to an end.
But it was only the beginning for the Western myth-making era.
“That horse,” Nottage notes, “is sort of frozen in mid-air, just as portraiture of Native Americans shows them frozen in time. The West in a way becomes sort of frozen in time.”
But the Adams collection contradicts that myth.
“One of the neat things I like about the idea that this collection was given by a native American Westerner who identifies with the West,” says Nottage, “is that he himself demonstrates that Native people and the West are both alive today.”
Titan of the West: The Adams Collection of Western and Native American Art
An exhibition of highlights from the Adams Collection, including paintings and artifacts.
Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, 500 West Washington Street, Indianapolis IN
Through February 5, 2017, Monday - Saturday: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Sunday: noon - 5 p.m.
Members: Free Adults: $13 Seniors: $11 Youth 5-17: $7 Child 4 & under: Free