A new exhibition at the Tucson Museum of Art shows how pop culture is still remaking the prototype of the American West
By Peter O’Dowd
The American West has always been anchored in myth. When Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their famous expedition, past the Mississippi River and deep into the Louisiana Purchase, the third president hoped the men would send back tales of mastodons roaming the plains.
The misperceptions and legends have persisted ever since, and they set the backdrop for a new exhibit at the Tucson Museum of Art.
Western Heroes of Pulp Fiction: Dime Novels to Pop Culture spans more than a century of artwork that tracks how the American psyche has been captivated by the iconic — if not stereotypical — characters of the West. The cowboy with the square-cut jaw. The damsel in distress. The Mexican bandit. You can conjure these images so easily in large part because dime novels, pulp magazines and comic books captured the genre long before you were even born.
The popular dime novels of the mid-19th century were more concerned with adventure-seeking scouts and frontiersmen than the lowly cowboy, says Christine Brindza, the exhibit’s curator. Think Buffalo Bill, not John Wayne. “Cowboys were looked down upon as a lower-class position,” she says. “‘Cowboy’ was a derogatory term.”
That changed with Owen Wister’s The Virginian. In 1902, the first true Western ever written recast the cowboy into the heroic, chiseled character we know today. Around the same time, Brindza says the dime novel starting fading away, comic books began to take their place, and the transformation of the hero continued. The artists who worked in these mediums almost always captured their heroes in action — perhaps a sales pitch to potential readers at a crowded newsstand. The danger on these covers often feels imminent but unseen, lurking just outside the confines of the page.
Brindza’s favorite piece is a 1934 R.G. Harris cover for Thrilling Western Magazine. Harris paints a young, scowling sheriff, red kerchief tied around his neck, breaking through the swinging doors of a saloon, guns blazing. To Brindza, the image perfectly captures the masculine mystique of the American West. It’s also an image that’s become outdated at a time when racial and gender biases are breaking down.
The exhibit comes full circle with contemporary artists like Bill Schenck, who puts his own irreverent spin on yesterday’s pulp magazine covers and films. In one piece that pokes fun at the genre’s misogynistic past, a cowboy with his six-shooter drawn politely propositions the woman he appears to be rescuing. “You don’t always have that Euro-American shoot-from-the-hip kind of hero anymore,” Brindza says. “You can have women heroes. You can have heroes from different ethnicities.”
Which is to say that modern artists are finally catching up with the often-ignored truth that Westerns have always known: Our heroes are just people.
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If you go:
See Western Heroes of Pulp Fiction Oct. 24–Feb. 14 at the Tucson Museum of Art. For details, visit tucsonmuseumofart.org.