Office Hours: An Interview with the Curators of Wild West

Peter Hurd, A Ranch on the Plains, 1954. Tempera on hardboard, 29 3/4 x 47 1/8 in. (75.6 x 119.7 cm). FAMSF, gift of the California Brewing Company, 54.37

Wild West: Plains to the Pacific, now open at the Legion of Honor, includes more than 170 works—from John Raphael Smith’s mezzotint, The Widow of an Indian Chief Watching Over the Arms of her Deceased Husband made in 1789, to photographs of the central valley taken by Matt Black in 2014—to trace an ever-changing sense of America’s frontier. We talked to the exhibition curators, Jim Ganz and Colleen Terry, about what visitors can expect.

This exhibition is made up entirely from works in our own collection. Does that present any special opportunities?

Jim Ganz: This is a chance to see some old favorites from the de Young in completely new contexts at the Legion of Honor, paired with works that they wouldn’t ordinarily be paired with. For example, Albert Bierstadt’s California Spring reflects the long tradition of European landscape painting, and it’s an idealized, bucolic view of the Sacramento Valley. Robert Bechtle’s Four Palm Trees, on view in the same gallery, was painted at Dixon, CA, only about 20 miles from the location depicted in the Bierstadt. 

Bechtle is a photorealist and Four Palm Trees is about the sprawl that happens in California, and the fact that so much of this region is really a desert. There’s nothing natural about the scene, and yet that’s what it really looks like. These are two paintings that never hang near each other—they’ve certainly never been in the same gallery.

Robert Bechtle, Four Palm Trees, 1969. Oil on canvas 45 x 52 in. Museum purchase, American Art Trust Fund.

Albert Bierstadt,California Spring, 1875. Oil on canvas, 54 1/4 x 84 1/4 in. Presented to the City and County of San Francisco by Gordon Blanding.

Are there other examples of tension between idealized and more conflicted views of the West?

Colleen Terry: In the third gallery of the exhibition we have a section devoted to agricultural practices, including a very large collection of fruit crate labels from the 1920’s and ‘30s, many of them featuring idyllic images of California. They’re a wonderful celebration of the bounty of the West.  But we also have a poster by a San Francisco-based artist named Ester Hernández, who grew up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and as a child harvested grapes that were destined for the raisin industry.

Many years ago, Ester was astounded to see her mother boiling water on a hot day, and it turned out that the water supply around her home had been compromised by high levels of pesticides. So she was inspired to speak out against modern agricultural practices, and specifically about the production of raisins, a food product we believe to be natural and healthy.

Ester Hernandez, Sun Mad, 1982. Color screenprint on paper, 22 x 17 in. Museum purchase, Judge George Henry Cabanis

This is a companion exhibition to Ed Ruscha and the Great American West at the de Young. Are there any explicit connections?

CT: We have five works by Ed Ruscha in this show, including four photographs in a section called “Paving Paradise.” This section is about the development of infrastructure, particularly bridges, roads, and parking lots.  Ruscha photographed vacant lots that were advertised for sale, but they’re no longer recognizable in the way he saw them back in the 1970’s. He’s spoken about this directly in an interview: “Early on, I took notice of vacant lots in the city. Now they all seem to be gone. The good old buildings of L.A. are held hostage by commerce.” Like quite a few of the works in Ed Ruscha and the Great American West, these photographs are partially about commoditization and other dramatic changes that we’ve wrought on this land. 

See Wild West: Plains to the Pacific at the Legion of Honor through September 11, 2016.

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