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Memphis Flyer Looking for Charley and Fred

Searching for the West in American art

By Paul Gerald

JULY 5, 1999:  Having done the "cowboy Disneyland" thing at the Fort Worth Stockyards recently, I took aim for a higher road: the art world. I know next to nothing about the subject --I managed to flunk art history twice in college -- but I do know what I like, and I like Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington. Both did lots of cowboy-and-Indian paintings and sculptures, with bright colors and a combination of drama and humor, and they didn't get too carried away with the myth-of-the-west stuff. In other words, they were Western, but they were good.

So with my art-critic vocabulary next to nothing, I headed for Fort Worth's Cultural Center, a cluster of museums and galleries and theatres on the north side of town. A tip had sent me to the Web site of the Amon Carter Museum, which told me that the Carter had "the single most important collection of works" by Russell and Remington. "Two entire galleries," no less!

So I went to the Carter first, and I found Remington right inside the door. The museum has several of his statues in the main lobby and a couple of his large paintings -- including A Dash for the Pines -- of a bunch of cowboys making an escape from attackers. Remington apparently spent enormous amounts of time studying horse anatomy, even dissecting horses to get a closer look, and the result is that, as this wannabe art critic noted in the Carter's lobby, "That guy could sure paint a horse!"

I wandered the first floor, still on the lookout for all those promised Russells, but the Myth of the West distracted me. The Carter has several enormous pieces by Albert Bierstadt and John Mix Stanley, so-called artist-explorers of the early West who made it look like the Garden of Eden. They also made the Indians look like they were lifted out of Greek mythology -- Michelangelo's David with a tan.

I also got held up by several Georgia O'Keeffes and samples from the collection of 6,000 photographs by 400 artists, until I remembered what I was there for in the first place. Where, I thought, are all the Russells? I finally found them upstairs, in a corner gallery. These paintings had real people doing real stuff -- Indians killing buffalo and cowboys shooting up towns, not standing around gracefully in the Renaissance West. Still, only about half a dozen were hanging. What was this?

That's when I glanced at one of the brochures I had in my hands and realized that the Carter is about to expand. Starting August 1st, it will close for a couple of years in order to triple the size of the galleries. A gallery downtown scheduled to open September 18th, however, means the Carter will still have something to show during the construction.

Not quite satisfied, I walked out and spotted the Kimbell Art Museum. Its Web site describes its collection as ranging "from antiquity to the 20th century," which seems to include the Old West, even though there was no mention of Russell or Remington. Instead, the list of names includes some of the folks I remember from my tortured academic past: El Greco, Caravaggio, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, and Mondrian.

I entered the Kimbell and found construction. Turns out I just missed an exhibit called "Picasso and Matisse: A Gentle Rivalry," and the staff was in the process of re-hanging the permanent collection. That left just one gallery to look through: the Asian Art Collection. I was all prepared to go whipping right through it, but they've got Chinese silk paintings and Japanese panels that made me stop and gawk for a while.

Still, I needed Remington and Russell, so I went to where, in retrospect, I should have gone first: The Sid Richardson Collection of Western Art. It's a small place downtown (on Sundance Square!), but this place doesn't mess around: It's chock-full of Remingtons and Russells. Sixty paintings and only 10 of them by other artists. I had found my personal art heaven.

I got to see how Remington used different shades of light, especially in pieces like The Luckless Hunter, where the moonlight on the snow seems to glow. I've seen that in the real world; how somebody reproduces it so well in paint is utterly beyond me. I saw Russell's sense of humor in Utica, where some ol' boys decide to raise a little hell to bust up the boredom. I read the guidebook on the collection and found out that in Russell's The Bucker, "the vertical composition ... emphasizes the towering height of the bucking horse and its rider ... [they] threaten to explode right out of the painting." And I saw that, right there in front of me!

After all my failures in college art classes, it turns out all I had to do to learn something was go to Fort Worth, find my buddies Charlie and Fred, and just look.

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