Picks and Pans Review: Celebrating the American Cowby

UPDATED 05/23/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/23/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

Real cowboy ain't Ralph Lauren, John Wayne or even Willie Nelson. Also, "It ain't roping and it ain't riding bronc and it ain't being smart, neither." Rather, "It's thinking enough about a dumb animal to go out in the rain or snow to try to save that cow. Not for the guy who owns the cow but for the poor old cow and her calf." This piece of down-home wisdom comes from a modern-day West Texas cowpoke, who's quoted in a catalog for the extraordinary exhibition The American Cowboy, now at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The show, supported by a $200,000 grant from the United Technologies Corporation, tells the story in multimedia fashion with 370 objects, among them paintings, woodcuts, sculptures, maps, children's toys and posters for both Wild West shows and movies. The exhibition attempts to put the myths surrounding the cowboy into historical perspective. The open-range cow puncher existed, for instance, only from the mid-1860s through the 1880s, when the introduction of barbed wire, among other factors, began to limit the need for human herders. At best, the cowboy's life was 16 to 18 daily hours of grueling and monotonous labor. Yet almost from the start America's writers and artists depicted him in wildly glamorous terms. A romanticized woodcut of a cattle drive appeared as early as an 1867 issue of Harper's Weekly, and the cowboy became, according to Lonn Taylor, the Museum of New Mexico deputy director who helped mount the show, "a medium through which America's changing social values were displayed. In the '20s, the decade of craziness, he became a daredevil entertainer. In the depression-ridden '30s he became an escapist fantasy. In the '60s and '70s he became a corporate spokesman." Perhaps the most poignant transition came in the '40s and '50s—during World War II and the Korean War—when so many men were away from home. At this point, suggests Taylor, "Cowboy actors and radio stars became surrogate fathers for American children, advising them on diet, health and behavior." Artifacts from this period include a Hopalong Cassidy thermos, place mat and cup, a Roy Rogers Flash-Draw holster, a Lone Ranger and Tonto vest-and-chaps set and a still of John Wayne from the 1944 movie Tall in the Saddle. The museumgoer will also be treated to Teddy Roosevelt's chaps as well as his polka-dot bandana from his 1912 campaign, Gene Autry's rodeo saddle and Will Rogers' beaver-skin Stetson. After Oct. 2 the exhibition will travel to the University of Texas in San Antonio, the Denver Art Museum, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta and the San Jose, Calif. Museum of Art.

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