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Art Review

'Remington' Leaves Key Ground Uncovered

October 03, 1996|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Assembling a complete and thorough record of work an artist made throughout his entire career--every painting, drawing, print or sculpture that came from his hand, together with all the necessary documentary information about the circumstances of each object's creation--is no mean feat. But the compilation of such a record, called a catalogue raisonne, is of inestimable value for subsequent scholarship. You can't fully know an artist's work without recognizing the breadth of its scope and the specifics of its details.

At the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Griffith Park, a current exhibition attempts to give the public an idea of what goes into assembling an artist's catalogue raisonne. The occasion is the publication of "Frederic Remington: A Catalogue Raisonne of Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings," which has just been issued as a book and CD-ROM by the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., after 11 years of research by former director Peter Hassrick and curator Melissa Webster. Remington died young (he was 48), but he produced more than 3,000 works during the 20-plus years of his career.

Remington (1861--1909) was one pivot in establishing our turn-of-the-century idea of the American West. Although he lived and worked his entire life in upstate New York and Connecticut, he traveled several times in regions ranging from Montana to Texas, making sketches and photographs. Returning east he would use these visual notes in the fabrication of narrative illustrations for popular magazines, like Collier's, Scribner's and Harper's Weekly.

These illustrational paintings and graphics partly recorded the Western milieu of cowboys and Indians, which was rapidly vanishing. Likewise, though, his art was also a myth-making fabrication, which used the commercial press to establish an imaginary picture of the American West that promoted Remington's values and ideals.

His work also participated in the creation of an unusual market, specific to the newly emerging processes of mass culture. (Remington had early exposure to the phenomenon: His father had been a newspaper publisher.) The wide dissemination of his pictures in magazine reproductions established a potential popular market, which he satisfied through the production and sale of limited edition portfolios of his work. The commercial success of the portfolios, in turn, made more valuable the unique paintings on which the reproductions were based.

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So, there's no disputing that Remington was a figure of considerable cultural significance for his day. Yet, something else must be remembered too: Neither is there any doubt that as a painter, draftsman and occasionally sculptor, Remington is of virtually no artistic import.

By and large, the guy couldn't draw or paint worth beans. None of his relatively few sculptures are in the show and, surprisingly, only about two dozen paintings and drawings are on view. (The show presents numerous prints and reproductions, together with plentiful memorabilia, ledger books, photo albums and studio artifacts.) None are memorable.

Remington's most accomplished paintings, such as the famous "The Scout: Friends or Enemies," demonstrate that he was sometimes capable of endowing literary conventions with painterly bravura. But the limited selection at the Autry, which hasn't much that approaches the dramatic quality of "The Scout," is more typical of his pedantic style.

Pedantry's numbing tendency to adhere to an arbitrarily established set of conventional rules extends to Remington's later work, too, which is sometimes praised by his fans as embracing an Impressionist--and therefore, presumably, adventurous--technique. The painter of adventure goes on a painterly adventure, so to speak.

Unmentioned, though, is that Impressionism had flourished, peaked and gone into decline years before--and was thus as conventional as could be. Remington merely grafted a safely fashionable European style onto nostalgic pictures of the Wild West.

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So, I suppose the show would be more engaging if Remington, as the chosen example of a subject for a catalogue raisonne, were a better artist. If you're not a Remington enthusiast, it's hard to get excited by the show's explication of research.

It also rankles that candor is in rather short supply here. In an introductory video and extended text panels (I didn't listen to the show's audio guide), Remington is heroically portrayed, as both an artist and a man. That he was, in fact, a repulsive human being, virulently racist and anti-Semitic in his beliefs, is not acknowledged.

The historian David McCullough, in a frank catalog essay for a 1989 exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, pulled no punches. Among other examples he quoted from an ugly letter Remington wrote to a fellow xenophobe: "I've got some Winchesters, and when the massacring begins which you speak of, I can get my share of 'em and what's more I will. Jews--injuns--Chinamen--Italians--Huns, the rubbish of the earth I hate."

Remington's bigotry doesn't disqualify him for candidacy as the subject of an exhibition. But if the purpose of a catalogue raisonne is to establish the ground for a full understanding of an artist's work, then it would also seem essential that we look the artist in the eye.

* Autry Museum of Western Heritage, 4700 Western Heritage Way, (213) 667-2000, through Dec. 1. Closed Mondays.

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