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THE AMERICAN WEST: ON PAPER; October 2016

How does an artist capture the essence of the American West? What image says it best? Is it an immense peak of the Rocky Mountains or a Native American village scene? Is it a buffalo-filled plain or multi-hued canyon? The American West is all of these things, and yet, so much more. How best to express it?  Where would you start? Artists have long grappled with these questions and the diversity of their works highlights the depth of artistry on this subject.

From this approach, viewing works on paper can give us a greater dimension, an almost kaleidoscopic panorama, of the American West. We can view it from multiple perspectives, the different vantage points, through time and media. It allows us the chance to see the intimate hand of the artist in one-of-a-kind drawings, watercolors, and mixed media, as well as the superb craftsmanship of the printers' techniques. Considering art of the American West, works on paper offer the full gamut: from the earliest, intrepid explorer artists and those who followed throughout the nineteenth century, to those who established the Taos and Santa Fe schools, to modern times and the contemporary genre.   

Before 1830, there was no such thing as "art of the American West." But after artists George Catlin (1832) and Karl Bodmer (1833-34) famously ventured along the Missouri River, exploring and depicting scenes in that vast, largely unknown territory, other artists were likewise inspired. Catlin and Bodmer and those who followed shortly afterward, such as John Mix Stanley and Carl Wimar, are known today as the explorer artists. Each of them created unique and significant first-hand accounts of their explorations. Their drawings and watercolor paintings evoke the freshness of the subject, while the later-made prints--hand-colored lithographs, hand-colored engravings, and chromolithographs--show a refinement of their creations. These works on paper are extremely rare, each a precious document of a moment long-gone in American history.

Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran accompanied government-led expeditions into the western territory, Moran more than once. The subsequent paintings that resulted from their travels caused considerable sensation in the East and even the establishment of the nation's first national park at Yellowstone, based on Moran's paintings of that region. CONTINUED: Both of these artists turned to the print method of chromolithography to allow further dissemination of their fine-art images. Thomas Moran was especially proud of the work Louis Prang and Company, Boston, rendered to reproduce his paintings of the Yellowstone region for a portfolio of fifteen chromolithographs, published in 1876. Thomas's brother, Peter Moran, visited New Mexico during the 1870s and created a body of work that included a variety of drawings and prints, such as etchings (in black and white), but also hand-colored photogravures and hand-colored lithographs.

The West provided rich subject matter for artists, many of whom were as adept with water-based paints, such as watercolor and gouache, as they were with oils. The quick-drying nature of water-based paints and the relative ease of carrying supplies (including paper, instead of bulky stretched canvas) gave them a certain appeal for use in the field. Four notable artists who spent considerable time in the West were Henry Farny, Frederic Remington, Thomas Hill, and later, Maynard Dixon. Each made prolific use of watercolors and gouache on paper to render their subjects with charming authenticity.

The American Southwest held particular allure for artists after the turn of the 20th century. The landscape and cultural milieu around Taos and Santa Fe provided plentiful subject matter for oil painting, but also fostered an extraordinary array of other types of media, namely, works on paper. Many members of the Taos Society of Artists were well-respected printers. Joseph Henry Sharp, especially, experimented with a broad range of print work that included etchings, but also monoprints that allowed the artist room for variations on his subject. Oscar Berninghaus kept his draftsmanship fresh with charming one-of-a-kind drawings in ink, watercolor and pastel, in addition to a series of colorful single-edition monotype prints. E. Martin Hennings produced a number of drawings, some of which became the basis for limited-edition lithographs, often depicting quiet scenes of daily life of the Taos Pueblo people.

Printmaking was an endeavor favored by many artists working in New Mexico. Some savored the challenges of old techniques to depict their subjects with vivid and dramatic flair. For others, printmaking allowed an expressive outlet that was adaptable to permutation. Gene Kloss and Gustave Baumann were the premier printmakers for whom the old techniques served their creativity with astounding variety. Though Kloss is best known for her masterly black and white prints from etching, drypoint, and aquatint techniques, she also produced watercolor paintings on paper, showing the New Mexico landscape in its full-range of seasonal colors. Baumann was already a master of the color woodblock print when he settled in Santa Fe in 1918. His prints, charming scenes with immediate appeal, belie the labor-intensive process of carving one woodblock for each color in the image and printing each, successively, in perfect registration.
 
Throughout the century, printmaking appealed to a wide variety of artists, some of whom made highly original contemporary images. Two exemplars of this are T. C. Cannon, the great Native American artist, and Harold Joe Waldrum. Cannon, a groundbreaking artist, and a graduate of IAIA (Santa Fe's Institute of American Indian Arts) was featured in a two-man Smithsonian exhibit (with Fritz Scholder, his former teacher at IAIA) while still in his mid-twenties. He adapted some of his powerful images, often with an element of social commentary, into color woodblock prints. Waldrum abstracted forms from New Mexico's traditional architecture, and presented his colorfully bold compositions in paintings, as well as in varied linocut and aquatint prints.

Spanning a wide expanse of time and place, "The American West: On Paper" serves as both an extraordinary historical document and creative achievement. To view all the works in the accompanying online exhibit, please go to "The American West: On Paper" exhibit page.

Stacia Lewandowski


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