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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The contemporary Western art market sprouted from these efforts, as well as those of pioneering dealers such as Trailside Galleries, which cohosts the Jackson Hole Art Auction. The market grew strong enough to support many more galleries, auctions, and museum shows west of the Mississippi, and grew vital enough to withstand the demise of the illustration industry—where early CAA members honed their skills and made their livings—and weather the decline of the Western as a force in pop culture. This month, the group’s 50th-anniversary CAA exhibition and sale will take place at the Oklahoma museum. “The last three years have been phenomenal for us,” says Nebeker, noting that the 2014 show, which featured 100 works by 24 artists, totaled $1.2 million. A comprehensive exhibit of CAA art is also on display at the newly opened museum Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, in Arizona.
Many contemporary Western art stars are, or were, CAA members. Martin Grelle, another auction favorite, is on the active roster, while Terpning has moved himself to the emeritus list. But the market is strong enough to support practitioners outside the group. Liang’s background is atypical. Born, raised, and trained in China, he came to America in the late 1980s and continued his schooling in Boston. In 2001, he pulled over at a Massachusetts Turnpike rest stop and was spellbound by a brochure with a picture of a Wampanoag tribesman on the cover. He subsequently visited the Wampanoag Homesite in Plymouth, Mass., and began exploring Native American life. He appreciated the tribe’s respect for nature and high regard for the elderly, which reflected the values he had grown up on in China. He later shifted his focus to the Plains Indians and moved to California, but he kept portraying Native American scenes. “For me,” he says, “every painting has a story to tell.”
Terpning’s story is less exotic but still different from his active Cowboy Artists colleagues, many of whom are self-taught. The G.I. Bill underwrote his postwar art schooling and he went on to a successful illustration career, tackling countless magazine and advertising assignments as well as creating movie posters for Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, The Sound of Music, and The Guns of Navarone before leaving commercial art behind to paint images of the American West and the Plains Indians. He befriended Stuart Johnson, owner of the now-44-year-old Settlers West Galleries in Tucson, Ariz., who approached Terpning in 1975 after spotting a Native American portrait of his in a Tucson gallery window. The piece was so magnificent, the dealer nearly rear-ended the car in front of him.
Terpning ultimately asked Johnson to serve as his exclusive gallery representative, a role Settlers West has held since the late 1970s. “He only does one at a time, and the time spent on research is probably longer than it takes to paint the painting,” Johnson says. “I think what makes Howard stand out is if you take all that he’s done on the American West, maybe 800 to 900 paintings, I don’t think you’d find two that resemble each other. They tell a story, and they never tell it the same way each time. He always seems to come up with a different twist.”
This inventiveness attracts collectors such as Roe Hatlen, the retired founding chairman of the restaurant company Buffets Inc., who has pursued works by Terpning and other masters of contemporary Western art since the late 1980s. Hatlen has hosted him, Liang, and other artists at his private camp. Hatlen’s first Terpning, a 1979 work titled Stopping Along the Flathead, lured him partly because it reminded him of his childhood in Montana, where he was raised by an artistic mother who ran a gallery of her own. “If it had been called Stopping Along the Mud, who knows where we’d be today?” he jokes. Collecting Terpning has evolved into a family pursuit, with Hatlen’s children sharing his love of the artist’s work. He recalls buying a large Terpning at a Cowboy Artists show for his daughter in 1992, when it was offered via the “intent to purchase” technique, in which the names of qualified buyers are placed in a box and one is drawn by lot. “It was the most expensive painting in the show—I nearly had a heart attack,” he says. “But I saw the look in her eyes.”
“Howard is a national treasure and a once-in-a-lifetime artist,” Hatlen continues. “He’s unequaled in his honest and sensitive portrayal of American Indians. I think he’s very undervalued. In my opinion, his work is still a great buy.”
There is some concern about whether the contemporary Western art market will maintain its momentum. “As of now, it’s great and strong, and we think it’s going to continue that way for a couple of years at least. But at some point, it may drop off,” says Alissa Ford, director of California and Western art for Heritage Auctions in Dallas. “Is the next generation going to want to collect contemporary Western art? It’s something we think about a lot as experts.” Regardless of what happens to the genre, Ford says Terpning will remain blue chip. “Howard Terpning is going to be one of those guys people will always want as a part of their collections,” she says. “He produces such a small amount, it should protect his market for a long time after he’s no longer with us.”
And the art of the West will endure too, even if the contemporary market’s Pony Express pace slows to a trot. “The whole history of Western migration—man against nature, man against the elements—it’s a recurring theme that’s always been popular,” Johnson says. “People like the narrative of the painting. They like to zero in on it. So few can do that kind of work.”
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The market for contemporary Western art has giddyap and gone in recent years. Here are the leading annual auctions, gallery shows, and selling exhibits held at museums.
Cowboy Artists of America 50th Annual Sale and Exhibition
October 8 to 10, 2015
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City;
Members of the CAA offer new works, such as Splittin’ Em Up (below) by Tom Browning. Last year, 123 pieces collectively fetched $1.2 million.
The Great American West Show
November 21, 2015
Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, Ariz.; settlerswest.com
New works by 53 artists, including Terpning and Liang, will be offered at this annual show.
Masters of the American West Fine Art Exhibition and Sale
February 6 to March 20, 2016
Autry National Center of the American West, Los Angeles; theautry.org
This long-standing contemporary Western art exhibition and sale has bestowed awards upon Terpning and Liang.
Scottsdale Art Auction
April 2, 2016
Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, Ariz.; scottsdaleartauction.com
Launched in 2005, it notched a world record for a Terpning at auction three years ago.
Prix de West
June 10 and 11, 2016 (tentative)
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City; nationalcowboymuseum.org
The Prix de West highlights the depth and breadth of Western art.
The Coeur d’Alene Art Auction
July 23, 2016
Reno, Nev.; cdaartauction.com
More than 160 world auction records have been set at this annual sale of fine Western and American art, which debuted in 1986.
Jackson Hole Art Auction
September 16 and 17, 2016
Jackson, Wyo.; jacksonholeartauction.com
Held during the Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival, the auction usually features a fresh painting from Liang.