Looking West

Article excerpt

Patricia Trenton, ed. Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. 317pp.; 143 color ills., 134 b/w. $60.00 cloth, $29.95 paper

Paul J. Karlstrom, ed. On the Edge of America: California Modernist Art, 1900-1950. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. 308pp.; 10 color ills., 106 b/w. $45.00

Two recently published anthologies attempt to revise the history of the first half of twentieth-century art in the western United States. Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-945 accompanied a 1995 exhibition organized by the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles, but it bears little resemblance to the typical exhibition catalogue, nor does it feature artists representative of the modernist canon. Compiled by Patricia Trenton, the book includes an introduction and nine essays by scholars who chronicle women's contributions in various regions, from the Great Plains to the West Coast, with two essays on southern California. The book is devoted to what Trenton calls "Western painting," an appropriate subject for the [Gene] Autry Museum. In the introduction, Virginia Scharff's acknowledgment that women artists in this part of the country were overshadowed by George Cabin, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington, and Charles Russell indicates the genre of art to be covered, these days a genre that is scarcely ever treated in modernist histories. While the time frame spans the traditional dates of modernist innovations, other than Wassily Kandinsky, whose theories influenced a few experimental painters, the avant-garde is missing in action here. Instead of Pablo Picasso or Stuart Davis, Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase (with whom many of the women studied) are palpably present, as are the ghosts of Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Sheeler, and Reginald Marsh.

Although the essays are distinctly focused, the authors share several points. The women they write about are economically comfortable, schooled in art, and primarily Anglo, with the exception of a few Asian Americans and Native Americans, such as Mine Okuba and Tonita Pena. Many taught art or worked on federal art projects during the Depression. The authors emphasize the fact that women artists were frequently responsible for founding or staffing cultural institutions and often participated in art clubs or societies. Club members tended to be more conservative than women modernists, who cherished their individualism. One of the most significant and unresolved issues raised by the book as a whole is the relationship of feminism to modernism, which author Susan Landauer equates with masculine power and Ilene Fort identifies with free thinking and liberation. It is easy to see why the subjects of the book, mostly genre or landscape painters rather than modernists, are caught in a theoretical bind.

In the authors' words, some of the artists take on mythic dimensions. Eugenie Lavendar met her husband at the Louvre and later immigrated to the United States, where "the family crossed swollen rivers with their animals and wagons, dodged Indians, fought a prairie fire, and killed rattlesnakes and panthers" on the way to Texas (Susan Landauer and Becky Duvall Reese, 185). Equally adventuresome was Idahoan Minerva Teichert, who studied at the Art Students League in New York and "supported herself by performing as a trick rider and Indian dancer in a Wild West troupe" (Erika Doss, 238). The book's method is primarily biographical, except for Fort's essay, and the reader is informed of each artist's education, marriage, memberships, and exhibitions. However, as author Vicki Halper points out, an interesting life does not necessarily result in interesting art. What is the point, then, of including so many mediocre conservative artists? I suspect that Trenton, who contributed the chapter on "Women Traditionalists of Southern California," has a real affinity for "Western painting. …