American West Paintings Are Inspiring New Artists and Causing an Auction Boom
Powerful images of the American West are inspiring contemporary artists and a booming collector market.
In 2006, the artist Z.S. Liang learned of a mid-19th-century battle between two Native American tribes, a confrontation that began with a faux pas that devolved into a fight. The northerly Kootenai tribe snuck onto the neighboring Blackfoot tribe’s hunting grounds without permission, believing the Blackfeet were away and it was safe to pursue buffalo. But when the party of some 300 Kootenai arrived, three times as many Blackfeet were waiting. The ensuing battle was elevated into a legend by the bravery of a Kootenai medicine man named Raven. He rode directly into the enemy line armed with nothing but his holy rattle and his war song. The Blackfeet rained arrows upon him, but he emerged untouched. The Blackfeet eventually agreed to a draw, and peace held between the two tribes until the winter of 1865.
Liang—a contemporary artist known for depicting scenes of the American West with rigorous accuracy—became obsessed with the tale. Early this year, he completed The Holy Rattle (Elkwater Lake Battle, 1864), a riveting scene and also a testament to the depth of Liang’s devotion. It took eight years for him to research the battle and pursue his vision until it ripened into the dramatic, 40-by-60-inch painting. Liang sent The Holy Rattle to the 2015 Jackson Hole Art Auction, an annual sale of Western-themed art held in September in Jackson, Wyo. It was estimated to sell for $80,000 to $120,000.
Classical Western works by Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, and the like have long commanded six and seven figures, but Liang and other prominent contemporary Western artists have started to catch up. Some of this interest is linked to the increasing scarcity of first-rate Remingtons and Russells, which are disappearing into institutions, but much of it is driven by the quality of the 21st-century art, and that quality often rests on the individual artist’s technical competence and ability to tell a story.
It is quite a turnaround from the early 1960s, when contemporary Western artists had few venues for showing their work and earned modest sums when they did sell something. The annual Coeur d’Alene Art Auction, one of the leading auctions for contemporary Western art, shows the field’s growth over time. The inaugural edition, held in Idaho in 1986, totaled $300,000. The 2015 auction, conducted in late July in Reno, Nev., where it moved after outgrowing the original location, earned more than $23.1 million. Many of the best contemporary Western artists follow directly in the footsteps of Remington and Russell, with occasional nods to the present. For example, Red Dirt Country by Tom Ryan, set in the modern era, shows cowboys on horseback in yellow rain slickers. But the style and themes remain the same: figurative realism yoked to the mythic romanticism of the West.
“Right from the beginning, I had a pretty good idea in my mind,” Liang says of Holy Rattle, an oil-on-linen and his only full-scale battle scene to date. “It would be horizontal, not vertical. You’d see the sky and the hills far away. The composition was not difficult.”
The heavy lifting was in the research. Liang, 62, went to Canada to view the battle site during summer, the time of year when it happened. He saw how the clouds cast shadows on the bare hills and “found it a very beautiful image.” He picked the brain of Hugh Dempsey, chief curator emeritus of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, who wrote the book in which Liang encountered the Raven story. He took hundreds of photos, including photos of Native American models dressed in period-correct costume, taking care to shoot from the same angle, with the same intensity of light, to ensure consistency.
There was little information on Raven, and not as much documentation on the Kootenai, a Plateau Indians tribe, as there is on the Blackfeet, who are Plains Indians, but Liang came as close to the truth as he could. He agonized over the rattle in Raven’s hand. Convinced that the painting would have more visual power if Raven held two rattles, one in each hand, he consulted Dempsey. When told no, one rattle would be more appropriate, the artist acquiesced. “You have to know 100 percent the facts,” Liang says. “This medicine man, there’s very little about him. It’s impossible to get all the information to be 100 percent truthful. That doesn’t mean [the painting] is not true. It’s possible.”
The demands of Liang’s style limit his production to about 15 paintings per year and help make him one of the few contemporary Western artists who can command six figures for a piece fresh from the easel. Past Liang results at the Jackson Hole Art Auction include a 2008 canvas, Grandpa’s Blessing, which garnered $149,500 in 2008, and Red Rock Crossing, Northwest Montana, 1850, painted in 2009 and sold that year for $115,000.
The most valuable living contemporary Western artist at auction, Howard Terpning, routinely reaps million-dollar sums for paintings that travel directly from his Arizona studio to the sale room. He embraces the same subject matter as Liang—the Plains Indians—and pursues the same intensive approach to research, but his advancing age—he turns 88 in November—has prompted him to reduce his output to the low single digits in recent years. An illness precluded him from giving an interview for this story.
Terpning’s house record at Sotheby’s is held by War Stories, a 1999 canvas of a Crow scout recounting his adventures to two rapt white cavalrymen that sold for $909,000 on an estimate of $300,000 to $500,000 in May 2008. But Terpning’s auction record belongs to Captured Ponies, which fetched $1.9 million against an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000 at the 2012 Scottsdale Art Auction, an annual sale held in Arizona that spotlights classic and contemporary Western, wildlife, and sporting art.
The Contemporary western art market has come a long way since Captured Ponies first changed hands in 1977 for $7,000. Bill Nebeker, president of the invitation-only group Cowboy Artists of America (CAA), describes how grim things were in 1965, when the organization formed. “It was a difficult road for the early guys,” he says. “They sold their paintings out of their cars. No museums at that time showed any Western art whatsoever. Most were into cubism and modernism. Realism was not a big thing then.” During a November 1964 jaunt to a ranch in Mexico, the men who would become the organization’s founding members bandied about the notion of an art show. The National Cowboy Hall of Fame (now the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum) in Oklahoma City hosted the first in September 1966. “The first show was an exhibit, strictly, not a selling show. The turnout was amazing,” says Nebeker, a sculptor who joined the group of about 20 artists in 1978 and is serving his fourth term as its president.
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