"A Particular Kind of Truth As the Culture Wars Rage, a Rare Victory Over Routes of Knowledge" (1991) / Washington Post
In 1991, when a hotly contested exhibition called "The West as America" opened at another Smithsonian site, the National Museum of American Art, it was still considered radical for scholars to talk to mainstream audiences about "inventing 'the Indian.'" The exhibition argued that underneath the nation's glorious westward expansion, into lands inhabited by native peoples, was a darker agenda, with complex threads of racism, romanticism, religious triumphalism, economic exploitation and imperialist aspiration. The show's curators looked hard, methodically and critically at some of the most beloved imagery in the mainstream American art consciousness -- images of the Noble Savage by painters such as George Catlin and Charles Deas, and the darker, stormier visions of Frederic Remington. This was proudly revisionist history, but the nation wasn't ready. The Smithsonian was roundly savaged by critics. This newspaper led the charge, declaring that "with the sort of tortured revisionism now so stridently de rigueur in academia, [the exhibition] effectively trashes not only the integrity of the art it presents but most of our national history as well."
When "The West as America" catalogue was published, Alex Nemerov contributed an article quoting Remington on the merits of using violence against unruly minorities: "I've got some Winchesters and when the massacreing begins," he wrote to a friend, "I can get my share of 'em and whats more I will." By "em" he said he meant "Jews - inguns - chinamen - Italians - Huns, the rubish of the earth I hate." But when the National Gallery presented an exhibition of Remington's paintings last year - a very popular exhibition - they did so mostly in the absurdly abstract yet ecstatic language of Art Appreciation. The exhibit was focused on the painter's "nocturnes" - studies in light and composition and surface control. Remington, the cultural and historical actor, was gone, and his reputation was restored to a more convenient category: great artist. In the words of gallery director Earl A. Powell III, "Remington sought to capture the elusive silver tones of moonlight, the hot flame of firelight, and the charged interaction of both."