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Jolly Rancher fortune to thank for stellar collection of Western art

For decades, the Denver Art Museum regarded so-called "Western Art" with amused contempt. Oh sure, the buttoned-down academics who ran the museum a generation ago might have said, "It's pretty, it's pleasant, it's technically competent, and the ignorant multitudes love it, but it's not really much good." So they concentrated on other areas, accepting the occasional gift of a Western piece, but rarely seeking to acquire them.

Times change. Far from ignoring the historic art of the American West, the D.A.M. has been aggressively expanding its holdings, hoping to create one of the finest institutional collections in the world. When the Daniel Liebeskind--designed addition to the museum opens three years from now, the Western collection, housed in vastly expanded galleries, will be literally the first thing that visitors will see.

And if you're gonna spend $62.5 million of the taxpayers' money (Denver voters are a little more generous to the arts than their country cousins in the Springs!) on a new building, you'd better have something to put in it. And thanks to Bill and Dorothy Harmsen, that won't be a problem.

Over a period of nearly 40 years, the Harmsens collected Western art and artifacts. If you ever bought a package of Jolly Ranchers (remember that tangy hard candy that sticks to your teeth?), you helped 'em assemble the collection, since that's where the money came from. And what a collection it is! -- literally thousands of paintings, drawings, lithos, not to mention Native American art and artifacts of every description. Thanks in part to the then-art establishment's disdain for things Western, the Harmsens were able to acquire magnificent pieces for a fraction of today's values. And in an act of incredible generosity, Bill and Dorothy gave the whole collection to the D.A.M. as an unrestricted gift.

Even though the museum received this gift several months ago, they've scarcely had time to examine it. They've chosen a couple dozen of the most notable pieces for the present show, which, like an appetizer at a five-star restaurant, pleasantly foreshadow the delights to come.

It's easy enough to choose the best piece: George Catlin's "The Cutting Ceremony (Self Torture in Mandan Okipa Ceremony)." Catlin, who traveled to the American frontier in the early years of the 19th century, executed a number of canvases depicting the lives of the Mandan tribe. A few years later, the Mandans were literally wiped out by smallpox; nothing remains of them save Catlin's paintings. And this one, showing men suspended from the ceiling poles of a ceremonial lodge by wooden hooks piercing their pectorals, is both a brilliant work of art and an important historical document. It's certainly not for the squeamish.

Raymond Johnson, hardly a traditional landscapist, is represented by a 1927 depiction of Acoma Pueblo. Gaunt, angular, brilliantly colored, it's one of his very best.

The more traditional William R. Leigh's "Greased Lightning," probably painted as a magazine illustration around 1915, is a thoroughly delightful rendition of a cowboy being thrown from a horse; it's dramatic, beautifully composed, good-natured and funny. You don't even have to go to the museum to see it; in a canny PR move, the museum has reproduced it as a mural on the side of a downtown building.

Far less polished than most of the exhibition pieces, but still quite wonderful, is John Mix Stanley's 1853 oil, "Kidnapped." This painting embodies most, if not all, of then-contemporary prejudices about the West, and its aboriginal people. A pair of mounted Native Americans, having just kidnapped a surprisingly ugly white baby, is in full flight from the baby's distraught father. It's interesting to note that, in deference to the artistic conventions of the day, all three horses are shown with all of their feet off the ground. And as you may recall from your school days, it was not until forty years later that Edward Muybridge's pioneering use of stop-motion photography proved that, indeed, horses in a full gallop do have all of their feet off the ground. By happy coincidence, some of Muybridge's photographs are on display in an adjacent gallery, proving only that it sure is great to be a major art museum!

Of the so-called "Taos Ten," a group of artists who worked in and around Taos in the early years of the 20th century, Ernest Blumenschein is one of the best. His work has gone from being expensive to unaffordable to astronomical, so we're fortunate that the Harmsen collection includes a particularly good example: "Eagles Nest Lake, New Mexico." Painted from high above this mountain lake, flocks of geese enliven a peaceful and pastoral view. Blumenschein can take the tritest of subjects, like this one, and make it fresh and alive, make you see it as if you'd never seen it before.

Of all the painters who worked in the region in the 19th century, Worthington Whittredge is the least typical, and in many ways the most interesting. He was uninterested in the mountains; he preferred the deep silences, and Edenic innocence, of the plains. His masterpieces (notably "Indian Encampment on the Platte, near Denver") are beyond compare; and even minor works, like the Harmsen's "In the Rockies," are quiet little gems. "In the Rockies," a depiction of three startled deer retreating into the forest, looks oddly familiar. It should; according to curator Ann Dealy, it was probably painted at the site of the Chief Hosa exit on I-70 west of Denver!

Well, things change, and not always for the better, but the D.A.M.'s acquisition of the Harmsen collection is an unmixed blessing for all of us who enjoy historic Western art. What's on view now is pretty great (and we've left out the Henri, and the Moran, and the Alfred Jacob Miller, and the E. Martin Hennings, and the . . . but you get the point), and what's to come should be even better.

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