ForeWord Reviews

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The American West

People Places and Ideas

Foreword Review — Nov / Dec 2001

This lavishly illustrated and informative volume serves as the catalog for the recently renamed Rockwell Museum of Western Art of Corning, New York, formerly the Rockwell Museum. The museum’s collection had been focused on the art of the American West since its founding in 1976; after the additional bequest in 1983 from a benefactor with “a passion for the West,” it rightly began to be called “the best of the West in the East.”

The catalog’s primary author, Campbell, an art historian and curator based in New Mexico, tackles the core questions of “What is the American West?” and “What is western art?” in her exhaustively researched essay. She traces artistic activity in the West to the years immediately following the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803, when artists, drawn to the newly opened area west of the Mississippi, began documenting the distinctive landscape for those who could not make the trip. She organizes the museum’s holdings according to themes indigenous to the West, including wilderness, the buffalo, horses, American Indians, cowboys, and the lure of the emerging Southwest. These themes are emphasized by the juxtaposition of works with similar subject matter, from different time periods and in different media, such as the eye-catching horse sculptures created a century apart, one almost life-like, the other an impressionistic shell of the animal.

Prime examples of Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, and Henry Farny, each of whom helped to document both the beauty and the harsh realities of the lands they encountered, are complemented by contemporary works by Native American artists Norm Akers and Mario Martinez, visibly demonstrating the breadth of this collection. In the chapter devoted to American Indians, Campbell offers an abbreviated history of nineteenth-century expeditions and travelers’ encounters with Native Americans. The text is interspersed with visual portrayals varying from George Catlin’s 1871 depiction of a band of Mandan Indians to Andy Warhol’s 1986 portrait of a grim Geronimo.

Unlike the dry text accompanying many museum catalogs, Campbell’s essay is sprinkled with quotes both contemporary and historical from artists, historians, and poets. These help to elucidate the author’s goal of discovering, through this vast and varied collection, what really constitutes the American West. A bibliography is included, as well as short biographies of 165 artists featured in the collection, making this catalog not only a visual banquet, but a valuable research tool as well.

Deborah Donovan