THE WEST OF THE IMAGINATION BY WILLIAM H GOETZMANN AND WILLIAM N GOETZMANN

Authors


University of Oklahoma Press 2009 (2nd edn) £43.72 $65.00
628 pp. 450 (mostly col) illus
ISBN 978-0-8061-3533-5

The art of the American west was never entirely about cowboys and Indians, although a quick survey of the illustrations here will do little to dispel that stereotype. Digging deeper, however, the reader will discover a work of stunning scope and unexpected vistas, of mythmakers and mythbusters. The father-and-son authors have added eight new chapters, significant additions and revisions elsewhere, and some 150 extra pages to their 1986 first edition. William H Goetzmann was, before his retirement, the Jack S Blanton Chair in American Studies and History at the University of Texas, Austin. He won both the Francis Parkman and Pulitzer Prizes in 1967 for Exploration and Empire. His son, William N Goetzmann, is Edwin J Beinecke Professor of Finance and Management Studies at Yale University; more importantly to this enterprise, he was, even before publication of the first edition, director of the Museum of Western Art in Denver and a filmmaker who wrote scripts on the likes of Thomas Eakins and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Beginning in Philadelphia with ‘The View from Peale's Museum’, the authors trace the earliest artists and the expeditions they accompanied in roughly chronological fashion across the vast but perpetually shrinking frontier. Clearly, the Goetzmanns see even the more recent artists of later chapters as entering unknown territory of one kind or another. With due respect for historical and artistic context, both editions devote entire chapters to individual artists, including George Catlin and Edward S Curtis, painter and photographer, respectively, of the vanishing Indians and their customs; George Caleb Bingham, painter of fur traders and flatboatmen; Albert Bierstadt, painter of majestic mountains; Frederic Remington and Charles M Russell, painters and sculptors of cowboys, Indians, and horses; and Georgia O'Keeffe, she of the New Mexican landscapes, light, and sun-bleached animal skulls. Such characterisations fail to do justice to the Goetzmanns' thoughtful, informative text and choice of illustrations. We learn that ‘[u]ntil the end of his days, Catlin believed … he was witnessing something out of the dark past of ancient Britain …’. That Curtis staged photographs which, nevertheless, ‘were taken as ethnographic reality’ is well known; it adds flavour to read that he ‘screened out trucks, alarm clocks, even modern backdrops from his pictures …’. Bingham's political paintings, several illustrated here, ‘were especially important studies of Americana’. O'Keeffe's largest painting (described though not illustrated here, but at 24 feet in length, still fresh in my memory from a recent trip to the Art Institute of Chicago) is ‘a stylized view of the geometry of clouds as seen from an airplane flying above them, and in the distance you can see the curvature of the earth’. The Goetzmanns speculate on Remington's turn away from Western subjects in his final years (he died in 1909) and whether he could ever have come to terms with modernists such as Duchamp and Picasso. These chapters, focusing largely on a single artist, were a minority even in the first edition. Most are devoted to great themes such as ‘Destiny and democracy’ or ‘The El Dorado vision’ and feature multiple artists, including Paul Kane, Alfred Jacob Miller, Timothy O'Sullivan, Thomas Moran, William H Jackson, Maynard Dixon, Thomas Hart Benton, and dozens less familiar.

Entirely new chapters cover McKenney and Hall's History of the Indian Tribes of North America (1837–44); nineteenth-century painters of the west's perils, Charles Deas, William Tyler Ranney, and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait; ‘Currier and Ives and the west’; Ralph Albert Blakelock; ‘The west of Jackson Pollock’; photographers of the postmodern west; a selection of contemporary artists, mostly painters, from David Hockney to Mark Tansey; and finally artists working directly in the landscape on a grand scale, including Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Walter De Maria, and James Turrell. New material has been added ‘to the chapters on American Indian and Mexican American art’.

No work this ambitious could be without errors or nagging questions; J M W Turner is called ‘W M C Turner’. Many individuals mentioned in the text are absent from the seemingly thorough index, including these from the first page of the Georgia O'Keeffe chapter: William Merritt Chase, Kenyon Cox, Alon Bemont, Arthur Dow, Frank Lloyd Wright, and (most surprisingly) Alfred Stieglitz. Pollock did not pull his drip paintings from thin air, but the Goetzmanns have him absorbing ‘drip painting and the mysticism of Far Eastern religions’ from his high school teacher Frederich Jon de St Vrain Schwankovsky; learning ‘the rudiments of spray and drip painting’ from Siqueiros; and led by Navaho sand-painting to [his] ‘later drip paintings’.

Minor details aside, however, this is a magnificent book, in text and image.

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