A LONG FRIENDSHIP
The Western Art Associates celebrates 50 years of support to the Phoenix Art Museum with new Western exhibition.
Phoenix is known for its sun and heat, which makes the reason for a reconfigured wing at the Phoenix Art Museum so much more amusing—blame the upgrades to the fire suppression system. While work was being done on the vital system in the museum’s storage vault, it was deemed cheaper and more logistically sound to simply move the bulk of stored items to the North Wing for storage. Of course, this meant the North Wing, home to some of the collection’s great American and Western works, would be closed for months while improvements were made to the vault.
Now, with work complete, the North Wing will be returned to museum guests, and with five new exhibitions to boot. One of the five exhibitions will be a celebration of one of the museum’s key support groups, the Western Art Associates, which was founded in 1968, only two years after the opening of the museum. Now marking 50 years of continuous support to the Phoenix art destination, the museum is presenting Western Art Associates: Celebrating 50 Years, an exhibition that will display all 53 Western works that the group has acquired for the museum.
“…[O]ver the past five decades, Western Art Associates as an organization has done more than help to grow our collections,” writes Amada Cruz, the museum’s Sybil Harrington Director and CEO, in the exhibition catalog. “They have been a beloved and valued part of the museum’s extended family. Their members have supported the museum not only through their personal largesse, but through their spirit of volunteerism, their love of the arts, and their commitment to ensuring that each day Phoenix Art Museum opens its doors to all people, that we are able to be a museum that truly belongs to our entire community.”
The Waa—which came along one year after the Men’s Arts Council, another influential museum support group that has shown a deep interest in Western art—has been a resilient force at the museum, even during turbulent times for Western art. After the Cowboy Artists of America moved their annual show to Oklahoma City, after 37 years at the Phoenix Art Museum, the WAA stayed the course and continued to bring important Western works to the museum.
Asking Betsy Fahlman, adjunct curator of American art, about the legacy of the Western Art Associates, she responded simply: “Their legacy is 53 artworks they’ve bought over the past 50 years. It’s a magnificent collection, one that includes both contemporary artists as well as historic artists. What they’ve done is incredible, including works by Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings, pieces that we would never have been able to acquire on our own. This is an important body of work.”
Works in the exhibition include the WAA’S very first acquisition in 1971, Maynard Dixon’s 1931 Watchers from the Housetops, a stunning pueblo scene that shows eight figures wearing blankets. The arrangement of figures has an almost abstract quality to the forms and colors, with six prominent figures dominating the top and center of the painting joined by a lone child on the far right and a climbing figure on the lower left. One year after the purchase of the Dixon, the group acquired an 1844 George Catlin lithograph, Catching the Wild Horse, followed in 1973 with the purchase of Edward Potthast’s Looking Across the Grand Canyon, which featured a scene the artist saw while traveling with Thomas Moran on the Santa Fe Railroad in 1910.
Other works in the collection include fantastic examples of paintings by Robert Lougheed, Herman Hansen, Donald Teague, Gordon Snidow and a 1977 acquisition of a work by Olaf Wieghorst, who was a regular at galleries and museums in Phoenix and Scottsdale around that same time. Important landscape pieces include an 1872 painting of Half Dome in Yosemite by James David Smillie, an 1866 Mississippi river work by Alfred Thompson Bricher, a 1925 Santa Fe scene by Willard Nash, a 1930s New Mexico scene by Fremont Ellis, and El Morro, a 2007 work by Wilson Hurley. One other landscape highlight is Philip Latimer Dike’s 1936 oil Copper, a regionalist landscape based on a merging of two Northern Arizona mining towns.
The collection does not bypass bronze works either, with fascinating pieces by Lone Wolf, Fritz White, Joe Beeler, Bill Nebeker, Hermon Atkins Macneil, Alexander Phimister Proctor, Herb Mignery, Charles Humphries and John Coleman, as well as a stone piece by Steve Kestrel. Additionally, photography also plays a prominent role with Gus Foster’s 380-degree panoramic landscape and a 1926 work, Hopi Snake Priest, by Dorothea Lange, who was also Dixon’s second wife. The Lange work is especially important because it predates her most iconic Depression-era works such as Migrant Mother.
“With his second wife, noted documentary photographer Dorothea Lange, [Dixon] made trips to Arizona in 1922 and 1923 to explore the Hopi and Navajo reservations. Although this was familiar territory for Dixon, for Lange, a studio portrait photographer based in San Francisco, it was the first time she had worked outside the studio, an experience that proved
invaluable to her when she was hired by the Farm Security Administration during the Depression,” Fahlman notes in the catalog. “In 1983, Western Art Associates purchased a photograph by Lange, Hopi Snake Priest (1926), which was shot during her early travels with Dixon. Also in 1983, Western Art Associates provided funds for the purchase of a second Dixon, Hopi Men, a study for one of a pair of murals commissioned in 1925 for the impressive lobby of the Barker Brothers furniture store in Los Angeles. The final murals were each 20 feet in height. Although not a purchase by Western Art Associates, in 1980, a collector donated the mural Hopi Men to Phoenix Art Museum (its pendant, Hopi Women, has been lost).” Some of the most profoundly moving pieces in the WAA collection are Taos Society of Artists works, including Walter Ufer’s 1923 oil painting The Garden Makers and E. Martin Hennings’ Taos Indian Chanters with Drum from the late 1930s. The Hennings acquisition from 1987 is especially noteworthy because the price soared toward half a million dollars
in price, the most paid for a work by the WAA. “It was far more than they had ever paid before, which was maybe $100,000. But when they saw this work, they just knew they had to have it. It turned up at the last minute coming from a ranch and a dealer had it and was making offers. When they heard the price, they were just aghast, but they pursued it with a lot of interest,” the curator says. “They ended up exchanging some redundant works to bring the price down, but even then it was a substantial sum. They couldn’t afford it unless they worked together, and that’s what they did. And they raised the level of the collection by doing so.”
In addition to works by Fred Fellows, Beeler, Coleman, Nebeker and others, the collection features a surprising amount of work by Arizona artists. Tucson artists are especially well represented: Howard Terpning has two pieces in the collection, 1981’s charcoal work The Warrior and 1998’s oil Offerings to the Little People; Howard Post’s San Tan Valley was acquired in 2010, the year it was painted; and Kenneth Riley’s Bodmer Painting Piegan Chief was acquired in 1986, also the year it was painted.
To celebrate the WAA’S 50th year, the group pulled out all the stops when it acquired Emil Bisttram’s oil on canvas Ranchos de Taos Church. The work, painted around 1937, features one of the most painted churches in the United States, if not the world, bathed in luscious blue moonlight. “Bisttram was part of the Transcendental Painting Group. They worked in an abstract manner and this is a wonderful example of the group and the artist,” says Fahlman. “We have quite a few Bisttram’s in the larger museum collection, as well as some other works by his fellow Transcendentalists like Raymond Jonson. So this Bisttram will really add great context to our collections. It filled a nice gap because it’s a painting a museum can use in so many different ways.”
Western Art Associates: Celebrating 50 Years will continue through Spring 2019. The four exhibitions that will accompany it, all with spring closing dates, are Philip C. Curtis and the Landscapes of Arizona, Sublime Landscapes, American Scenes/americas Seen and Early American Modernism: The Decade of the Armory Show.
Emil Bisttram (1895-1976), Ranchos de Taos Church, ca. 1937, oil on canvas, 28¼ x 453⁄16". Museum purchase with funds provided by Western Art Associates and Men’s Arts Council in honor of the 50th anniversary of Western Art Associates.
Howard Terpning, Offerings to the Little People, 1998, oil on canvas, 621⁄8 x 40¼".Gift of Western Art Associates and Men’s Arts Council Western American Endowment Fund.
Walter Ufer (1876-1936), The Garden Makers, 1923, oil on canvas, 29¾ x 25¼ x ¾”. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Donald Ware Waddell Foundation and Western Art Associates.
Philip Latimer Dike (1906-1990), Copper, 1936, oil on canvas, 383⁄16 x 46¼”. Museum purchase with funds provided by Western Art Associates.