Fine art

The cowboy artist of Taos

Curator to illuminate the life and times of W. Herbert ‘Buck’ Dunton

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Mary Lyon, the spry receptionist of the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House, said the current exhibition of artist W. Herbert “Buck” Dunton is resounding. “He used a variety of mediums and did them all very well and was a real cowboy who knew what he was doing painting horses and saddles. He lived the life he depicted in his paintings.”

Lyon said the reaction to the show from locals and tourists has been positive. Because of this response, the exhibit has been extended – and the museum has arranged a special presentation with the exhibition’s guest curator, Michael Grauer, associate director for curatorial affairs and curator of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas. Grauer plans a lively lecture tracing the artist’s life on Saturday (Oct. 14), from 5:30-6:30 p.m. at the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House, 227 Paseo del Pueblo Norte.

The title of the current exhibition, “Twilight of the West,” was inspired by a quote from Dunton, lamenting the mythos of the American cowboy leaving our culture. “The West has passed, mores the pity. In another twenty-five years, the old-time westerner will have gone too, gone with buffalo and the antelope. I’m going to hand down posterity a bit of the unadulterated real thing if it’s the last thing I do, and I’m going to do it muy pronto,” he wrote.

This is the first time in the museum’s history – and in the history of Taos – that there has been such a comprehensive exhibition of Dunton’s work. Most of his work is in small collections, with the majority residing in Texas. The Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas, houses more than 400 of his works. The exhibition and lecture are a noteworthy opportunity to see the breadth and scope of Dunton’s talent while meeting a distinguished authority on the art and artists of the Southwest. Grauer is assembling a catalog of Dunton’s works.

Grauer said he was drawn to Dunton because “he was a tragic figure who died young and he was an underdog who fell between the cracks.” The Taos Society of Artists, which began meeting in 1915, was primarily a group of illustrators who sought solace from their commercial work and the people they saw as the corporate overlords of New York City.

Dunton was a founding member, and in the historic photographs of the TSA, he is “the guy in the hat in the back,” a metaphor for his career path, in which he lived on the edge of poverty. He painted true to his subjects, not glamorizing them with multiple props or modeling that was out of context, according to Grauer. Additionally, he was not a self-promoter, which also contributed to a life of financial despair.

It was Ernest L. Blumenschein, a member of the TSA and an illustrator himself, who suggested to Dunton in 1912 that he visit Taos. Two years later, Dunton permanently relocated. Dunton said about Taos, “This is the ideal place for me because there are more varieties of atmosphere than I have found in any other place. There are several varieties of sage and cactus for backgrounds, according to the elevation that you choose. The Taos Indians are as fine types as I have ever seen and if one wants to paint a Mexican picture, he can get a background almost anywhere near Taos.”

Dunton’s work is technically masterful. His use of classical painting techniques paired with distinctive mark making is indicative not only of skill level, but also the man who was behind the skill. His use of chiaroscuro aids in the romantic depiction of the West through timeless depictions of its warmth and dynamism. At a time in history when world politics have become alienating, Dunton’s simple romanticization of the world around us might be a timely contributor to the show’s successes.

Grauer’s passion for revitalizing Dunton’s status in the art world stems not only from his work, but also from similarities he sees between himself and the artist. Grauer is an avid outdoorsman who hunts and fishes like Dunton, and unlike the artist, who did live part of his life as a cowpoke, Grauer also aspired to be a cowboy.

“Dunton is dead,” Grauer said. “He can’t speak for himself … but I can speak for him.” Grauer is close to the artist’s grandchildren. In 2015, he was asked to represent the family at a Taos Society of Artists descendants’ roundtable discussion that was hosted by The Couse-Sharp Historic Site.

Grauer said he would like the exhibition he curated and his lecture about Dunton’s work to be the impetus for the artist “to become a part of the Taos Artists Society conversation.”

Admission is $12. Refreshments will be served after the lecture from 6:30-7 p.m.

For more, information, call the museum at (575) 758-2690, ext. 101 or visit taosartmuseum.org.

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