Only after looking over my shoulder as I left the Denver Art Museum did I realize the irony of the exhibit "Painters of the American West." As usual, the blue neon Qwest signs flooded the Denver skyline.
Behind both the art exhibit and Qwest, publicity-shy but firmly in charge, is Philip Anschutz, at last count the nation's sixth-wealthiest individual. He gained his first fortune in the oil patches, his second in the railroads, and then leveraged installation of fiber-optic lines along 25,000 miles of those old Rio Grande and Southern Pacific tracks into this third fortune. With 38 percent ownership of Qwest, that's likely to be his greatest fortune of all.
Along the way he has acquired paintings of the American West, everything from Albert Bierstadt to Georgia O'Keeffe. Of the 107 paintings culled from his 650-piece collection for this exhibit, some are merely interesting, but most have astonishing power.
The West of mystical promise is seen in Bierstadt's orange-hazed mountains towering above a genteel Green River in Wyoming. The West of grim realities is seen in Charlie Russell's Blackfeet warriors lashing captives through the frigid brush. The peculiar West is seen in Ernest Blumenschein's bloodied Penitentes, replicating the pain of Christ, lugging a cross below the visually rhythmic and metaphoric Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
This is a wonderful exhibit, full of powerful paintings. Most telling, however, are the absences. These paintings have no railroads, the primary civilizing agent of the West. Gone, except for Hispanic border towns and the mud-walled villages of the Pueblo tribes, are cities. Only a ramshackle, abandoned mine at Colorado's Cripple Creek represents mining.
Nowhere are there Swedish lumberjacks, Irish freighters, or Chinese gandy dancers. We see farmers only if we understand that a wagon train on the prairie in 1845 would likely have been hastening toward Oregon's Willamette Valley. We see Mexican vaqueros chasing longhorn cows, but never a Basque herding sheep. We see glorious mountains, but no well-tended rows of corn, fields of alfalfa, or hills of winter wheat.
Our art dwells on a few simple stories, made simpler through repeated tellings. We have the fur trappers, the wagons west, the cavalry-and-Indians stories. Then we have the last cusp of the frontier, before Indians stayed on reservations and cowboys worked between fences. We have the conflicts among people, and we have the individual, at home in an indifferent but powerful environment.
The code has been so clear for so long that Thomas Moran painted his defining Children of the Mountain in 1872, five years before he actually visited the Rockies. It's so strong that when we do celebrate our mining history, the image is always of a bearded prospector astride a mountain creek, exulting with gold in his pan.
That time lasted briefly, soon replaced by the plodding, methodical and - can we even say this without shuddering? - industrial work of corporate mining. Yet industry gets no attention in the Anschutz Collection. These painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries disdained the industrial, tightly peopled cities of the East. In the West of their minds, they exalted open spaces and individuality.
The romantic depiction of the West is no accident. Many paintings were essentially advertisements. Purchased by railroads and commissioned by state tourism boards, the paintings were foisted upon the American public. The subliminal message was the West as a place of opportunity, a place to visit and a place to settle.
We bought the goods, and the mythology remains with us even now. It helps explain why we are developing our mountain valleys and desert plateaus the way we are, each of us with a plate-glass window to the mythic frontier. We have enshrined wilderness the way we once venerated orderliness. Inspired by painters, we disdain the urban and industrialized East, while we romanticize the West that isn't and largely never was.
That Philip Anschutz presents this vision of Beauty is the ultimate irony. These paintings come to us from his fortune made in subduing these remnant frontiers.
Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He lives in Denver.
The exhibition runs through March 4 at the Denver Art Museum, and moves next to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where it opens May 1.