For lovers of Western culture in all of its contemporary complexity, no trip to Los Angeles would be complete without a stop in Griffith Park to visit the Autry Museum of the American West. Its wide-ranging collection has continued to grow and evolve since the museum’s founding in 1988.
If a trip to the heart of L.A. isn’t in the cards right now, the book Art of the West: Selected Works From the Autry (University of Oklahoma Press) should tide you over. Showcasing works from the museum’s collection and the ongoing exhibit of the same name, it’s organized thematically around religion and ritual, land and landscape, and migration and movement.
Beginning with the cover art — a close-up of a Deborah Butterfield horse fashioned from painted bronze tree branches — you’re primed for the vast variety that is Western art. Page through works you know and works you never could have imagined. With more than 150 color images, there’s plenty to dwell on.
Represented are artists for whom one name suffices — Remington, Russell, O’Keeffe — along with other greats like Fritz Scholder, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and Maynard Dixon; lesser-known names that you’re glad to learn; and the talented anonymous whose names we’ll never know but whose artistry we thankfully can appreciate. Whatever the source and whatever the era, the images feed your need for beauty, meaning, and inspiration.
Bohlin saddles and Plains Indian beadwork, chief’s blankets and a Tlingit rattle, bultos and patchwork quilts — from an Indian Roadmaster motorcycle to the HO-scale-model photography of David Levinthal, the richness and inventiveness of human creativity are staggering.
There’s much to enlarge your thinking on the subject of not just Western art but of the West itself, with essays by prominent scholars and art historians, who explore everything from women’s art to Native American art to Chicano art — “important correctives to more traditional and linear models of Western art history, with its emphasis on rugged masculinity, Anglo-American pioneers, and the myth of the ‘untamed’ frontier.” As Autry Museum curator Amy Scott, who edited the book, says in the introduction, there is not one monolithic West but rather many Wests, “a complex tapestry of ethnic mixing and geopolitical spaces, diaspora, immigration, industry, infrastructure, tourism, and environmental degradation.”
These are artworks and essays that challenge assumptions and delve beyond the surface. Time spent with them can’t help but expand your Western horizon.
– Dana Joseph