At the Autry, Looking for the West

William S Hart
William S Hart | Photo: DJ Waldie

I went the other day to the Autry National Center in Griffith Park with a group of about 18 college students from Japan's southern island of Kyushu. After five weeks of summer study in Long Beach, they went to the Autry to look for the West.

Bob, the docent who led the students, was patient, careful, and thorough. He knew his stuff, although to hear him, the West seemed mostly to be what's in the vitrines and on the walls.

The students from Japan were polite, a bit shy, and perhaps uncertain of their English. They asked very few questions, and so I'm not sure what they found in the galleries of the Autry. I'm not even sure it was the West.

Story continues below

The Western stuff at the Autry has been conserved into presentability. Brass scabbards gleam. The folds of a gray gown fall regular and silken. A trim, tan, motorized buckboard from the turn of the 20th century looks as if it had come from the factory. Native American clothing and decorations seem, perhaps only to me, to have been preserved rather than to have come from anyone's life.

It's what happens to the past when the past is distilled into whatever was considered later to be too significant to throw away or was too insignificant to be deliberately cast in the bonfire of forgetting.

The past of the West at the Autry is a bar in the "Los Angeles" pattern from the Stockman saloon in Wibaux, Montana. The bar back is held up by two, voluptuous, mahogany caryatids. And it's a cardboard box of "120 Greenie Stik-M-Caps" sold by Mattel, Inc. The Stick-M-Caps were made to be used with Mattel Shootin' Shell cap guns that would be illegal in California to sell today.

Clearly, it's not the things themselves that are the West. It's the projection of the imagination onto the symmetrical wooden breasts and into the fetishized realism of a Mattel cap gun that makes those things Western. Take away the West of the imagination and nearly all the Autry's stuff collapses into placelessness and ordinariness.

Take the miner's overalls out of the vitrine and they're just a pair of old Levi's. Change the wall label on the lithographed beer advertisement, and we're not in Denver but in Brooklyn.

The West isn't even west at the Autry, although the tug of Frederick Jackson Turner's conception of an ever-westering "frontier" still shapes some of the narrative. For Native Americans, the West wasn't west of anything. It was the center from which they would be dispossessed. For Spanish and later Mexican colonial administrators, the West was the north. For Chinese immigrant labors, if they thought geographically, the West would have been the east.

The West isn't a compass direction, but it does have a point at the Autry: the advance of domesticity. We get there eventually, but stuff made western by association gets in the way. Rank after rank of beautiful pistols and rifles gets in the way. Men's work gets in the way, because we are led to imagine that even the worst of it was in some degree romantic. The daily lives of indigenous people, because they are imagined to have nothing to contribute except blame, get in the way.

The work of women - either pioneer or indigenous - is lost to me among the Colts and the chuck wagons and the barbed wire.

And when a home is made in the West in the final galleries, it's presented along with gaudy survivals of what we want the past of the West to be remembered by - a silver and gold parade saddle, contemporary western couture, and nostalgic art.

The gallery given over to representations of the West in popular culture occupied the Japanese students the most. The fictionalized West is an easily assembled kit of parts - laconic hero and even more laconic anti-hero, shootout and ambush, cattle drive and Indian raid, lawman and outlaw. Our Iliad; the Greek original, say the experts, was assembled from a similar kit of parts for ease of recitation.

The stripped down West of the popular imagination made sense to Sergio Leone. It seemed to make sense to the Japanese students. It made complete sense to the small children in the gallery, dressed in impeccable rigs down to the miniature, rowel-less spurs on the their little boots.

In a corner of the galleries set aside for Western art at the Autry is a temporary exhibition of photography by Kim Stringfellow. She's documenting the last moment of the frontier, which played out in the 1950s in the Morongo Basin (which includes Joshua Tree National Park). Under the Small Tract Act of 1938, parcels of up to five acres of federal land - waterless, remote, often roadless, too - were deeded to applicants who were required to "prove up" their grant with a structure.

Working-class >Angeleños took up these jackrabbit homesteads, although most did not plan to live in the Mojave Desert full time. The simple one- and two-room, shed like homes they built weren't much different from the adobe and wood frame ranch houses of the 19th century West.

The fate of these homesteads, when the owners grew old or moved from Southern California or tired of pioneering in a place that had no welcome, offers some perspective on our domesticated West in a time of drought and eventual desertification. In Stringfellow's photographs, home in the West is a ruin, ravaged by vandals, decomposing into a litter of asbestos shingles and desiccated 2-by-4s.

The Japanese students, battered into stupefaction in the way of all museum goers compelled to pay attention, walked past the photographs and wall text, still looking for the West.

Unquiet Spirits
Unquiet Spirits | Photo: DJ Waldie

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading