Published: July 11, 2016
CORNING, N.Y. — Howard Terpning (b 1927) is, unquestionably, the most celebrated, honored, best-known contemporary artist of the American West. Not only do his paintings command the highest prices privately and at auction, but the prices they command — they routinely break the million-dollar barrier — are far higher than those of his nearest rivals.
It is a long way down from Howard Terpning.
At auction or in galleries, you might see one or two Terpnings. In print, you see many more, but there is no substitute for apprehending the scale, colors and textures of these paintings. You need to see an artist’s work en masse — in the paint — to get a real sense of what the art is after.
A gallery full of major Terpnings is a rare treat, so “American Masterworks of Howard Terpning: Highlights from the Eddie Basha Collection,” organized by curator of collections Kirsty Buchanan and at the Rockwell Museum in Corning through September 11, offers viewers an opportunity to see for themselves just exactly what it is that makes a master a master. There is a bonus as well: viewers of the show at the Rockwell get to see what attracted a major collector of Western art like Eddie Basha to Howard Terpning’s work, and what kept him coming back to Terpning over many years as their artist/patron relationship evolved into a fast, long friendship.
Howard Terpning began as many painters of his generation began: in illustration. Think Norman Rockwell’s (no relation to the Rockwells who started the Rockwell Museum) Saturday Evening Post covers. Think Haddon Sundblom’s Coca-Cola Santas. Think Time and Newsweek; think Field and Stream and Cosmopolitan. Think of all the stories and advertisements — TWA and Pendleton Woolen Mills, among others, in Terpning’s case — in those periodicals that needed artists to draw the reader’s eye, draw the reader in.
Terpning began there, in New York, when runners came into studio buildings looking for artists, when artists called a painting “a job,” when art was also a craft, a vocation as well as an avocation. The work that the best of the illustrators produced combines spectacle, visual attraction with narrative. When it works, as Terpning’s work works, you look at the image, but you stay for the story the image tells.
Part of Terpning’s success has to do with style. His paintings are broadly representational, but you would not classify them with Photo Realism, or with Impressionism. Paint, rather than line, creates a good deal of the drawing. Terpning moves the viewer’s eye through, across and around his canvases deftly via color, texture and the arrangement of elements in the composition. If you work at it a bit, spend a little time in front of one of his works, you can trace your own trail through his paintings.
And that is when looking at art becomes your journey, your path, your story. That is when your story becomes part of the story of the painting. That is when your story attaches itself to the story of the collector — Eddie Basha — who saw what you are seeing as he gathered these specific works.
While Terpning, who moved to Arizona in the 1970s, was making his way through the world of commercial illustration, Eddie Basha was getting a degree in history from Stanford University and building his parents’ grocery business into a national concern. Basha’s parents were among the first to address the needs of the Pima and other native peoples in Arizona. Nadine Basha, who now stewards the Basha Collection, says that Eddie often spoke of the Native Americans “coming in their buckboards to trade.” It was Basha’s Aunt Zelma who encouraged Eddie to begin collecting Western art. In 1971, he embarked on what became a lifelong passion.
Noted Western art scholar Michael Duty says, “More than a patron of the arts or an avid collector, Basha was a friend to the artists whose works he collected. His collection contains dozens of sketches, cartoons and illustrated letters sent to him over the years from artists who were also friends. While he routinely engaged them in discussions of their artwork, Basha was primarily interested in the artist as an individual.”
The idea of interest in the individual is crucial in understanding the motivation behind the Basha Collection and in understanding the reason for Howard Terpning’s success. Terpning long ago earned the sobriquet, “Storyteller of the Plains People,” as Duty explains in his foreword to the exhibition catalog. Describing the artist’s approach, aims and career, he writes, “A strong narrative is embedded in each of his paintings as they present the universal human struggle for survival. Implicit in this exhibition is the plight of the Northern Plains people. Terpning poignantly captures the images of individual strife while highlighting the tragic disappearance of a collective way of life. His focus is not solely on the historical accuracy of his paintings, but on sensitively rendering the stories of the Northern Plains tribes.”
But what Terpning also captures is a flash of the inner lives of the subjects of his paintings, a quality that can only be achieved when an artist has plunged into a subject he or she feels deeply about — and for — and then works closely with his or her models to convey that feeling. In other words, the people in the paintings are not merely picturesque elements that embody some activity in some past era. The subjects of the paintings come to life, as characters on a page do, and ultimately come alive, as people in our lives are.
“Gathering Sage for the Sun Dance,” for example, shimmers with light. Terpning dots the white sage flowers with subtle textures, impastos that dance across the canvas, as if in anticipation of the Sun Dance to come. The eye moves sinuously through the generations of women, from eldest to youngest, from foreground to background, gradually lightening from purple to white. The women smile to themselves, inwardly; we make of their thoughts what we will. But then, just for contrast, the topmost woman looks off left, shading her eyes — at what we can only speculate — and that leads us to the two riders — men — at top left, one of whom looks at whatever the woman sees in the distance. Someone or something is coming. Time intrudes on this almost timeless, almost outside of time moment. Something about this painting make me think of the ladies in white dresses you see in Chase, Benson or Weir at the turn of the Nineteenth Century.
With the kind of light and beautiful modeling you might see in J.H. Sharp, “Medicine Man of the Cheyenne” is strongly composed, but deft touches such as the almost dry brushed smoke and the quick daubs of paint that emblazon the areas where sunlight has penetrated the tipi mark this as a masterpiece. The medicine man, in Terpning’s conception, seems to be invoking the sun’s healing powers — and the sun is responding.
Works like “Find the Buffalo” and “My Medicine is Strong” (the favorites of my 14-year old son, who accompanied me on my road trip to Corning) have an elegiac aspect. In “Find the Buffalo,” the hunters look to an all but invisible toad on a rock for some sign — perhaps of water? — that might lead them to a herd. In “My Medicine is Strong,” the dark palette and the complete isolation of the warrior in what seems to be a vast, impenetrable landscape suggest that he is trying to will his power to work for him and for his people.
Eddied Basha’s faith in his eye for quality has turned oil paint into oil — or, if you prefer, gold. The record for a Terpning at auction is $1,934,000 at the 2012 Scottsdale Art Auction. On the same day, at that same auction, a second Terpning brought $1,710,000. On the heels of that sale, another painting sold for $1,705,000 at the Coeur d’Alene auction in 2013. Last year, a Terpning achieved $1,496,000 at the Jackson Hole Art Auction. Paintings by Terpning have held their value through the recession. Indeed, if anything, they seem to have added value. Prices for Terpnings at auction are often commensurate with works by established masters like Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell
See the Terpnings in person if you can. There have never been, as far as I know, this many of his works in one place on the Eastern Seaboard. Apart from these, the Rockwell Museum, celebrating its 40th anniversary, is a tidy institution with some truly spectacular artworks in its permanent collection, including several fine Catlins and Morans, a spectacular Bierstadt of Mount Whitney, W.R. Leigh’s heroic “Buffalo Hunt” and dozens of exquisite paintings by the Taos Society of Artists and noted Modernists. Down the road, the Corning Museum of Glass, the most extensive collection of its kind in the world, offers a unique mix of science, art and history.
When you are in Arizona, visit the Basha Collection in Chandler. With more than 3,500 museum-quality works, it is one of the largest privately held assemblages of American art. This collection features the work of such celebrated artists as John Clymer, Tom Lovell, Joe Beeler and James Reynolds, and is recognized as the most comprehensive repository of works by members of the Cowboy Artists of America. You can learn more about the collection at www.eddiebashacollection.com.
A Smithsonian Affiliate, the Rockwell Museum is at 111 Cedar Street. For information, 607-937-5386 or www.rockwellmuseum.org.
Jim Balestrieri is director of J.N. Bartfield Galleries in New York City. A playwright and author, he writes frequently about the arts.
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