Fire. Smoke. Chemicals. The din of heavy equipment. Workmen wielding hammers in a dimly lit factory.
The High Museum of Art exhibition “Go West: Art of the American Frontier From the Buffalo Bill Center of the West” was seeded in the early 1970s in an industrial place that looked nothing like a new frontier or a pristine museum.
Michael Shapiro, now the High’s director, was researching paintings and sculptures for the opening exhibit at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum. That led him to Roman Bronze Works in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Frederic Remington’s acclaimed sculptures of characters and scenes from the American West were cast starting around 1900.
“The shock of seeing the foundry environment was really profound,” Shapiro recalled. “It felt like a medieval experience in the late 20th century. It was about as far from an art environment as anyone could imagine. And there wasn’t an artist in sight.”
But the encounter put Remington, and by extension Western art, squarely in Shapiro’s sights.
It led him to write a Harvard graduate school paper on the exacting sculptor and the foundry run by a skilled Italian immigrant who could achieve his specifications. Later, that evolved into a dissertation on the relationship between American artists and their foundries, for which Roman Bronze Works’ owner lent Shapiro turn-of-the-century casting ledgers thought by Remington experts at the time not to exist.
Building a reputation as an expert on Remington sculpture while still a graduate student, Shapiro gave a talk that led to an invitation to organize a 1981 show on the subject for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. The exhibit and the accompanying catalog he authored shared the title “Cast and Recast: The Sculpture of Frederic Remington.”
Shapiro established that the casts created during Remington’s fruitful collaboration with Roman Bronze Works — before his untimely death at age 48 in 1909 from complications following an appendectomy — were more nuanced than those created posthumously, and thus more valuable.
In essence, Shapiro changed the market for Remington’s 22 sculptures, created in a sprint of remarkable inspiration and productivity between 1895 and 1909.
At the same time, Shapiro forged friendships among other scholars and curators of Western art. Four decades later, those bonds helped steer “Go West” — 258 paintings, sculptures, photographs and Native American-made objects — from the Buffalo Bill Center in Cody, Wyo., to Peachtree Street.
New York City raised and Ivy League educated, Shapiro is no one’s idea of a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy. But in a field prone to dismiss Western art as prosaic, he is a true believer. Especially in Remington, whom he calls “daring” and “gifted,” and especially in the artist’s sculptures. Shapiro also favors his late paintings, showing the artist transitioning from wide-screen realism to subtle impressionism.
“He hadn’t been, and hasn’t been to this day, properly recognized for being a really courageous artist,” Shapiro said.
“Go West” includes five Remington sculptures, 19 of his paintings and even a Winchester rifle owned by the native New Yorker who lived most of his life in the East. (That’s except for an early stint as a Kansas sheep rancher.)
Shapiro is particularly taken with one of Remington’s bronzes included in the show, “The Broncho Buster” (1895), the artist’s first sculpture and, remarkably, the most popular one of the Western genre.
Already well established for his illustrations and paintings, Remington pushed into three-dimensional art-making, bringing Western scenes to life in clay models that were cast at the foundry.
Being a relative novice at sculpture may have had advantages, as Remington pushed for unrivaled realism, such as in the painstaking pitch of the bucking beast depicted in “The Broncho Buster.”
The sculpture’s cantilevered balance “was unconventional and challenged American artistic practice,” according to “Go West’s” wall text.
“To have your very first sculpture be what I would consider to be the most famous American bronze of the 19th century, that’s just mind-blowing,” said Shapiro, who presided over the uncrating of “The Broncho Buster” at the High like a tyke at a candy shop. “I can’t think of any other artist whose first work became the best of its type.”
As he mastered this new form of expression, Remington frequently tweaked his clay models of “The Broncho Buster” and other early pieces between castings.
By the time he created “The Cheyenne” in 1901, he was capable of showing the horse in full gallop, with all four hoofs off the ground. The piece, a casting of which is also included in “Go West,” was inspired by English photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneer stop-motion images of horses.
“Sculpture by its very definition always has to, just like human beings, concede to gravity,” Shapiro said. “But Remington didn’t make that concession. He was fighting a fight that most sculptors never even imagined.”
Remington knew he was pushing the possible. In 1905, he sent a hand-made Christmas card to Roman Bronze Works founder Riccardo Bertelli. The sketch shows Remington with the proposed bronze “The Outlaw,” a challenging composition of a cowboy on a bucking steed, its hindquarters raised.
“Can you cast him?” the artist asks on the card.
“Do you think I am one of the Wright Brothers?” Bertelli responds.
But beyond the technical achievement, Shapiro appreciates that Remington was making a statement through works such as “The Broncho Buster” about how the “wild” West had been tamed by the turn of the century.
“There’s a kind of heroism, but there’s a kind of nostalgia, that’s to say the closing of the West, (as represented by) the bronco rider coming down,” Shapiro said. “It’s exuberant but he’s hit the top of the arc and he’s about to come down, and the stirrups are swinging up in the air. Many historical details are there.
“There’s the detail yet there’s the epic saga as well.”
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