How The West Was Drawn

For Arthur J. Phelan Jr., the American frontier isn't the stuff of myths. Instead, the artwork he's amassed depicts the Western experience with historic reality.

February 09, 2000|By Arthur B. Hirsch | Arthur B. Hirsch,SUN STAFF

No shots are fired in anger or scalps taken in Arthur J. Phelan Jr.'s Old West. Buffalo are not hunted to near extinction; neither the frontier's westward advance nor its blue-eyed pioneers are celebrated as heroic.

Phelan, raised and still living in Montgomery County, has his Old West, as Hollywood has its versions, as the National Museum of American Art's curators had theirs. For 30 years Phelan has been hunting paintings, drawings and photographs of what one authority on the subject called "a moving target": the American West.

The effort adds up to the Phelan Collection of Western Art, much of which is being exhibited at the Elizabeth Myers Mitchell Art Gallery at St. John's College in Annapolis through Feb. 18. It's the American West, all right, but not as presented in images of violence, dramatic landscape and grand symbols of manifest destiny seen in the famous work of Frederic Remington, Charles Marion Russell, Albert Bierstadt or Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.

By dint of temperament, historical interest and financial constraints, Phelan has been drawn toward images containing little action and less bombast, many made by people simply trying to record what they saw.

"Most of these guys were not flaky bohemians," says Phelan, who lives in Chevy Chase. "They were pragmatic people who were recording information. They were the video cameras of the day." What they brought back were depictions of forts, new towns, landscape -- many of them made in the manner of architectural renderings.

Phelan's kind of folk, it would seem. The former chairman of Government Services Savings & Loan in Bethesda is a man of conservative artistic tastes, unconvinced about the value of much 20th-century art and skeptical about artists whose aim is emotional expression.

His conversation about art is peppered with dismissive quips about "absinthe drinkers," Marxists in academia and the hazards of rampant deconstructivism.

Phelan's own artistic aspirations died young.

"I had tried to be a painter in the sixth grade," says Phelan. "One of my reasons for collecting was realizing I was a bad painter."

A slim man with a full head of steel gray hair, Phelan is 65 and looks years younger. Once he's outside the gallery, he starts smoking incessantly, frequently lighting the next Merit with the glowing end of the one he's puffing. You have to sit close to hear him. What you hear is enthusiasm for the pursuit of western pictures.

Phelan has traced the origins of works in his collection when it was not certain who made the picture or what exactly it shows. On trips out West he has driven around looking for the landscapes and buildings depicted in some of his pictures. Sometimes he finds them.

While an undergraduate at Yale he conceived a post-graduation plan. First 10 years: Make a million dollars. Next 10: Go into politics. Next 10: Become a philosopher.

He was a few years late on the million, never had much to do with politics. But some of his interest in western art has to do with a historical/philosophical position he discovered in college.

A turning point

That was the work of Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian whose name has become synonymous with a theory of how to best understand America. Look not to the European roots, said Turner, but to the American frontier. That was the crucible for all that is fundamentally American, Turner said.

Turner first proposed what has become known as the "Turner thesis" in 1893, three years after the U.S. Census Bureau said that the population had advanced and dispersed enough to render meaningless the very notion of "frontier."

By the time Phelan discovered it in the early 1950s, the thesis had drawn among scholars a following of supporters and detractors, many of whom objected to its sanguine and simplistic view of frontier virtues. One of Phelan's professors took issue with the thesis, which for Phelan only enhanced its appeal.

As did Phelan's first visit out West with his family in the early 1950s. They went to Cody, Wyo., to Seattle and down the coast to Southern California. For a kid who grew up among Maryland's rolling hills, it was a revelation.

"One of the things that bowled me over was the idea of a mountain arising from a flat plain," says Phelan.

After college he joined the Air Force and was stationed as a military historian at March Air Force Base near Riverside, Calif. The West branded his imagination. When Phelan began collecting art in the 1960s, he pursued his preoccupation with the West.

"The trouble with collecting is it becomes an obsession," says Phelan. "It's kind of like filling out a stamp album. You try to get something by all these people," he says, referring to the lesser-known artists of the American West, many of whom were there in the 19th century with geological, military and railroad survey teams.

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