Review: 25 years bring the Autry museum to a turning point

Autry National Center

Indian Roadmaster motorcycle, 1948, Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company, on display at the Autry as part of its 25th anniversary Art of the West exhibit.

Few major museums anywhere have as odd a history as the Los Angeles establishment now known as the Autry National  Center. Opening in 1988 as an intellectual monument to the most financially successful of the old time singing cowboys, the museum has grown from an eccentric,  overpriced showplace of Gene Autry’s favorite things into an ambitious, sometimes faltering and sometimes singular—and still eccentric-- gallery of  Western American art, ideas and culture.  

Along the way, however, its curators were obviously struggling intensely to define the very concept of the American West.  Are we to speak of it as beginning with the left bank of the Mississippi? Or does it begin where the Great Plains first give way to foothills?

Or does it actually initiate itself in people’s minds and imaginations, wherever they are? 

Like Karl May, the German writer of westerns who never saw the U.S.; George W. Trendle, the Detroit radio maestro who produced “The Lone Ranger;” the bottom-feeder New York pulp publishers who printed, for over a century, uncounted megatons of Western dime novels, monthly magazines and comic books with their countless avatars, who then slopped eagerly over into Filmland, bringing us Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix, Red Ryder, and Lash Larue, and their their serous cinematic kin John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Ronald Reagan ... with whom the long, fictitious re-imagining of the Old West tried, with some success, to manifest itself as modern political reality.

“There’s no greater piece of history than the convergences in the U.S. West,” said the Autry’s spokeswoman Stacy Lieberman, speaking at the opening of the Autry’s 25th Anniversary “Art of the West” exhibit, intriguingly captained by the Autry’s new president and CEO, who happens to be named W. Richard West.

“We’re trying to weave all the threads into the culture,” said exhibit curator Amy Scott.  The result, however, is more mixed than melded. The superb sometimes sits by the silly, the colossal next to the kitsch.  The imagined West next to the real thing. From which it is not always clearly distinguished.

Take that centerpiece Indian motorcycle, for instance. A gloriously actinic cherry-red mount from 1948 with those classic flaring fenders and that dangerous shift-lever next to the streamlined gas tank.  With its classic silvery-studded Western saddle-bags and clumps of leather thongs sprouting from the handlebars, it looks True West as all get-out, but there is no indication of its genuine provenance—it was designed by Norwegian immigrant Carl Oscar Hedstrom and built in Springfield, Mass.

And beautiful as it is, it’s a commodity, a mass-produced object sold mostly to post-war working men who couldn’t afford a car and liked to listen to the Lone Ranger on the radio. Pure Imagined West, then and now.

At what I think of as the opposite extreme of Real West is the work of contemporary New Mexico Cochiti Pueblo Indian Virgil Ortiz. A 4th-generation potter, Ortiz meticulously hand-crafts figures that include seriously traditional motifs with those of modern entertainments like travelling carnivals. His 2001 ceramic payoso smilingly bespeaks its own complex history.

Not that there is anything wrong with the great works displayed by traditional American West artists like Albert Bierstadt and Georgia O’Keefe, but many of the most impressive things at the Autry 25th Anniversary show are Native American works, quite a few of them from the Southwest Museum that is now part of the Autry enterprise.  The Indian jewelry, textiles, tools, artifacts of modest intention, hold the viewer’s eye and mind better than the kitschier modern work here, and are what you remember most after you leave.

Over the past quarter-century, there had been a great deal of public concern that the Autry would swallow up the gracious old Southwest like a Gila monster gobbling a chinchilla. It’s reassuring to see that, in this garbled but impressive 25th Anniversary visual mission statement, the Autry seems to know how much it has gained from the older museum, and is intent on letting us share it too.

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