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Essay: The American West

Richard Rodriguez admires paintings of the American West.

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    The Anschutz collection of Western art recently began a nationwide tour at the Denver Art Museum. To see these beautiful paintings is to wonder about the place called the American West, a place where I grew up, but have never seen.

    The American West was never a place exactly. The border of the West kept changing in the early decade of the 19th century as a young nation ventured farther into the forest. Crucial to the meaning of the West is a sense of movement: The cowboy on horseback, the wagon train, the stagecoach rushing.

    Nearly every painter in the Anschutz collection was born well to the east of the Mississippi. Many were trained in Europe or were influenced by Europe. Albert Bierstadt's "Wyoming" is indebted to German romanticism, Childe Hassam's "Sand Springs Butte" to French impressionism. Some painters could not stop seeing the east when they came West. George Bellows' "New Mexican Pueblo" resembles a New York tenement, but truly nothing in Paris or New York could prepare the artist for the scale they found in the West, the grandeur of nature, the aloofness of nature.

    Americans called this land "virgin," which is only to say that the West seems oblivious of human intention. A strange combination of exhilaration and terror colors some of these landscapes. Perhaps they seem hyperbolic to us, we who fly over these peaks at 37,000 feet, easy enough today as we drive in air- conditioned cars to forget the excitement this land inspired, and the fear and the necessity the newcomer felt to carve his will on the soil, or to cut open the mountain, or to light the dark.

    Americans to this day in the West are afraid of the immense dark. How else to understand the garish light of Las Vegas? Americans are afraid of heights. How else to understand these gardens and tract Houses huddled along the front range?

    One of the most interesting things about the American West is that it is also El Norte. Millions of Hispanics today, like Latin Americans in centuries past, leave the meaning of this land within a different myth. Whereas the American West is a landscape discontinuous from the east coast, El Norte is continuous with the landscape and within the same time zone as Mexico.

    Nor is El Norte a region of solitude, as the West traditionally has been a lure for the loner. El Norte is a place of settlement. Look, the Indian Spanish settlements of New Mexico that attracted so many American painters in the early 20th century are crowded with flashes of color. They seem a continent removed from the muted shades of the cowboy West.

    In El Norte there are church fiestas and Indian festivals and crowds in the pueblo square. In the cowboy West, if one sees crowds, the crowd is most often in movement, like this parade of easterners headed for the California gold fields.

    Otherwise, it is the loner who travels the West. But whether the artist find himself in the West or in El Norte, the task was typically American: To imagine the landscape and not simply record it.

    Seen in this way, Georgia O'Keefe's beautiful "Red Hills" is as American in its freedom to imagine the land as a planted golf course on the desert floor. The artist becomes kin to the ranchers who would dig into the earth, and the miners who would cut open the mountains, and the environmentalists who would put a fence around several thousand acres and declare it wilderness.

    At the center of the competing visions of the land stands the Indian. The 19th-century Indian is under attack from newcomers who are fighting back. By the early 20th century, the Indian stands watching the artist. The Indian stares out from Walter Ufer's witty self- portrait. She becomes a figure of irony. I stare back at her impassive face, and all the images of the painted land rush past in my mind, rivers and mountains and cowboys and mission churches. In her laconic regard of the painter, she is witness to the place that was neither El Norte or the American West, the land we will never see.

    I'm Richard Rodriguez.


    The exhibit recently closed in Denver, and will reopen in the spring at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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