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Western Art Collector - December 2015

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The Art of the Cowboy

Author Don Hedgpeth likes to point out that Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington, the grandfathers of cowboy art, were two very different kinds of artists. “The contrasts are quite clear: Russell was the cowboy artist, Remington was the curious observer. Russell had ‘been there done that,’ and Remington was an outsider. Russell’s intimacy with the West showed in his work, while Remington was more of a studio artist. Russell painted like a poet, Remington like a journalist,” Hedgpeth says. “It’s remarkable how different they were.”

Yet, as different as they were, their dual influence was so vital to cowboy art as a genre that upon their deaths—Remington in 1909 and Russell in 1926—the genre and its future looked downright bleak. The Taos Society of Artists, formed in 1915, largely focused on Pueblo Indians, with exception to a certain extent to W. Herbert Dunton. And outside of artists such as Frank Tenney Johnson, Will James, Edward Borein and William Gollings, a post-Russell/Remington cowboy renaissance, while producing stunning works, did not stun the world the way the previous generation had. “The artists really only had regional representation, and it was very limited,” Hedgpeth says. “Artists like Frank Tenney Johnson, they were sold with two Navajo rugs and a set of Molesworth chairs. The work was great, but it was treated differently.”

“After Russell died in 1926,” Hedgpeth adds, “cowboy art went into the dark ages, like after the glory and fall of Rome.”

After several decades without a clear path forward, cowboy art was viewed by outsiders as a relic of America’s distant history, even as cowboys were fully entrenched in pop culture, including on television and in movies. What happened next would change even that: the Space Race, the Vietnam War, counter culture, the Beat Generation, and turmoil and disharmony across the country. Cowboys were suddenly shoved off lunchboxes, TV sets and posters hanging over children’s beds. They were icons of the past—in art and culture— while the world turned to science fiction, rock ’n’ roll and abstract expressionism.

When discussing this time period of cowboy art, Seth Hopkins, executive director of the Booth Western Art Museum, invokes the 1995 animated film Toy Story, about a cowboy doll being replaced in a child’s bedroom by a space ranger. “Toy Story is not a kids movie. It’s about the battle for the hearts and minds of young kids. The cowboy was a hero to young people in the late 1960s, and he was replaced by the astronaut and the dinosaur,” Hopkins says, adding that the adventure and poetry of the West never lost its luster, but it was pushed aside by pop culture. “The cowboy was still a romantic icon of America. It had a lot of social meaning and identified with rugged individualism and patriotic spirit. And cowboys were still doing their thing, even today. Like that song says, you just can’t see them from the interstate.”

Cowboys, interstate or not, pushed back and in the 1960s reaffirmed their presence in the landscape of American culture. Starting with the formation of the Cowboy Artists of America in 1965, cowboy art slowly gained new ground. Western-themed museums were opened, galleries filled their walls with images of bucking broncs and cattle drives, and painters emerged from obscurity (and jobs in illustration) to become masters of the genre, artists such as Charlie Dye, George Phippen, John Clymer, James Reynolds, Bill Owen, Tom Lovell and— an artist Hedgpeth calls a worthy successor to Russell and Remington—Joe Beeler.

“The artists were a reflection of a reaction to the 1960s. These were people from the same generation—my generation—that had grown up with Gene Autry. Cowboys were more influential to boys in informing their values than Sunday school was,” Hedgpeth says. “The radicalism of the 1960s seemed like a threat to those old values and traditions. So we turned back to that way of life. We turned more to the imagined West, not the real West. The real West was uglier and more brutal than Zane Grey and John Wayne. The imagined West felt old and familiar to us at that time.”

B. Byron Price, director of the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West at the University of Oklahoma, says a new generation of art collectors and artists were drawn to the authenticity of the West. Take painter Tom Ryan, for example, who didn’t paint cowboys from the 1880s, but painted modern cowboys from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. “Tom Ryan really found his niche on the Four Sixes Ranch dealing with the milieu of that time period and the cowboys of that era, as opposed to recycling from Russell-esque or Remingtonesque characters,” Price says. “He painted contemporary views of traditional subjects, and it set him and his art apart from others.”

While cowboy artists from the 1960s and ’70s were offering new views of an old subject, they were also delivering that timeless iconography that cowboys inspired—they were blending old and new, and reinvigorating the genre while doing it. Consider the bucking bronco, one of Western art’s most enduring images. It was an image that both Russell and Remington had painted, with Remington’s Bronco Buster being one of the most recognizable sculptural works in American art. It was also an image painted by pre-CAA artists such as Maynard Dixon and Dunton, and artists from the mid- to late-20th century, such as Dye, Beeler, Olaf Wieghorst and Frank McCarthy. So influential is that image that somewhere at this exact moment an artist is painting an airborne horse underneath a cowboy rider with one arm raised high.

“The imagery was iconic. And as long as we have American history there will be people interested in that imagery, in cowboys and Native Americans and landscapes and so forth,” Price says, adding that cowboy artists started painting the West to preserve the West, and that dynamic is now a self-fulfilling prophecy.

From the mid-1960s onward, the CAA founders and their contemporaries quickly gained momentum and eventually created a sprawling market for cowboy and Western art. With expansion came some growing pains, but cowboy art gleefully persisted, even as it surged out of the 20th century and into the 21st. Today those mid-tier, post-Russell/Remington artists are collected not just for the aesthetic value of their compositions, but also because the time and place they represent through their works. And auction records support that with banner sales numbers, many of them achieved within the last decade, proving that cowboy art, especially mid- to late-20th century cowboy art, has impressive staying power.

Consider Melvin Warren, a CAA member whose trail-themed works in the 1970s and 1980s are classics of the genre. All three of Warren’s top auction records occurred within the last four years—his top piece, Approaching Storm, realizing $198,000 at an Altermann Galleries & Auctioneers sale in 2014. He’s not the only artist with a spree of recent records: Beeler’s Spellbound sold for $69,000 in 2014; Dye’s Old Blue in the Lead sold for $240,000 in 2013; Ryan’s The Impressionable Years realized $203,150 in 2007; and Owen’s Winter Work sold for $50,000 in 2008.

“I see a corollary between cowboy art and the entrepreneurial spirit of the person who buys the art. To succeed you have to work hard, get dirty and sometimes go into unfamiliar territory. There are big risks and, if you succeed, great rewards and another exciting adventure,” Altermann co-owner Tony Altermann says. “I’m convinced that the viewer and ultimate buyer has a vicarious experience and imagines himself to be that character depicted in the painting or sculpture by Joe Beeler, Frank Tenney Johnson, Harry Jackson, Johnny Hampton, Jim Norton, Bill Nebeker, Gary Niblett or Olaf Wieghorst.”

Altermann adds, “There are more buyers out there now than there ever has been. There are more museums dedicated to Western art than before. The collectors are more geographically diverse than ever before. It certainly helps that the economy is continuing to expand out West. There is still room for growth in Western art.”

Brad Richardson, owner of The Legacy Gallery and partner of Scottsdale Art Auction, has also seen considerable interest in what he calls “first-generation CA artists.” He says that the market for some of the more famous artists—Russell, Remington, William R. Leigh, N.C. Wyeth—is so competitive that collectors on a budget are usually priced out. A Remington could easily sell in the high six figures, but a terrific cowboy piece from the 1970s could sell in the mid-five figures, a considerable difference to new collectors.

“Not to mention that many of the great Russells and Remingtons will never be available to the public again because they’re owned by museums and other institutions, so collectors are turning to these first-generation CA artists because they’re more accessible and affordable,” Richardson says. “We’re finding this market to be very strong. These artists—such as Tom Ryan, Bill Owen, James Reynolds, and Olaf Wieghorst—they have unique individual styles. These artists are not being replaced, and they’ve weathered the test of time, which is appealing to a collector.”

With sustained growth from these artists in museums, auctions and galleries, the question of how long this 50-year cowboy renaissance is going to last comes into play, but the answer can be found in the next generation of artists, which has picked up right where Warren, Reynolds, Wieghorst and all the other cowboy artists left off.

“Western art is uniquely American, and it has a romance to it. People travel to the West to experience the views, the vistas, the light… they have a tendency to fall in love with it, and that’s something you’ll see in this next group of artists,” says Richardson, who represents painters such as Glenn Dean, Kyle Polzin, G. Harvey and many others. A number of his artists are already collecting auction records—Polzin’s Mystic Warrior sold for $287,500 in 2014, and Harvey’s History in the Making achieved $409,500 in April—something that was paved for them first by Russell and Remington, and then again by the artists that found success in the 1960s and 1970s.

Other contemporary cowboy artists making waves include Logan Maxwell Hagege, Jason Rich, Teal Blake, Bill Anton, Shawn Cameron, Tom Browning, Grant Redden, Bruce Greene, Andy Thomas, and R.S. Riddick. Some of them are actual cowboys and a cowgirl, and others just paint them.

Don Hedgpeth—who’s written important books on Beeler, Robert Lougheed, Howard Terpning, Tom Lovell, among others—is optimistic about the future of cowboy art, but admits that children and young people don’t have as many opportunities to see it.

“It doesn’t forecast well when Westerns aren’t on TV or in the movies anymore, at least not like they used to be. Even kids in New York City and Philadelphia, far away from the West, grew up with cap guns and cowboy hats. Those kids grew up, went to law school or Ivy League schools, and turned into the core group of collectors today, which is why they fill their houses with Western artwork. But kids today don’t have heroes like that. Kids have stronger links to Star Wars than cowboys,” he says, adding that young people have to be exposed to Western art for them to appreciate it. The cowboys, for their part, they’ll just keep cowboying. “The real cowboys won’t be bothered, because as long as McDonald’s sells hamburgers and Ruth’s Chris sells T-bones then they’ll be out there doing what they do.”

Artworks Illustrated

Lot 120
(2011)
Maynard Dixon (1875–1946)
Cowpuncher ()
oil on canvas
30 x 25 in
$402,500