Westward Ho

Trains and cars and planes, oh my! TMA show traces history of Western travel

The Sunset Limited used to glide into town round about midnight.

For years the storied train from New Orleans stopped in Tucson at the witching hour and pulled into Los Angeles after dawn. Caught up in the romance of the midnight run, my son and I hopped on board one night years ago, and headed west through the dark, toward the California light.

A train that travels perpetually west, always aiming for the promised land, stands as good a metaphor as any for the epic history of America's western migration.

A big show at the Tucson Museum of Art, The New Westward, uses art to look at the evolution of transportation in the west. Traveling through time, from the late 19th to the late 20th century, it first zeroes in on the trains that transformed the landscape, turning small settlements into cities and pristine wilderness into industrial sites. Next come the automobiles that put the passenger trains out of business, and finally the airplanes whose speeds would have floored the riders of the first transcontinental train in 1869.

The opening painting in this entertaining multimedia show, which takes up all the upper galleries at the TMA, dramatically illustrates the competition between these different modes of travel. In "The Great Race," a 2015 oil on linen by Steve Atkinson, conveyances of all kinds are dashing through a landscape of sagebrush and rust-colored cliffs and distant blue mountains.

A pair of massive horses are moving at a brisk trot, hauling a covered wagon, but they're already losing the race; a steam locomotive belching black smoke has already zoomed far ahead. A Model T Ford is gaining on the train, though, and so is a bi-plane—a double-winged plane from the Wright brothers' era. A cowboy on a horse is still in the lead, but not for long: he's turning in his saddle and looking back at the machines that will be his undoing.

Curated by Christine C. Brindza, TMA's curator of the art of the American West, the show has 50 works—paintings, photographs, sculpture, video, weaving— divided into five parts, beginning with the trains.

The impact of the railroads on western development was profound. Backwater Tucson was changed forever when it got its tracks in 1880, just 11 years after the last spike was driven into the Transcontinental Railroad, connecting the nation's East to West

The new cross-country tracks allowed passengers and goods to travel from New York to Los Angeles in six days, a speed then nearly incomprehensible. And the trains were literally the engine of Manifest Destiny, helping the U.S to "open" Native American lands to conquest and settlement.

A grainy photo from Bisbee circa 1890 pictures a steam engine moving diagonally down the tracks. It's an early example of an artist's delight in the perennial appeal of train tracks disappearing into the distance. And it's a reminder that mining in western towns like Bisbee relied heavily on the railroads to transport ore. Roy Strang's expressionist "Train Station," painted around 1950, touches lightly on the early industrialization of the west. It conjures up a smoky train blustering its way through a wide western landscape, its billowing exhaust marring the hills and clouds.

But the few historical works are outnumbered by contemporary pieces filled with nostalgia. Lori Putnam serves up a painterly "Early Train," a 2015 oil on linen that bathes a 1920s Streamliner locomotive in the pink light of early morning. Other paintings conjure up the architectural impact of trains on towns, in charming images of train stations, underpasses and restaurants. Bruce Cody's "American Reflections," a painting of a redbrick city that's the twin of Flagstaff, pictures the rails slicing right across a street at a train crossing. Red-and-white barriers stand at the ready, prepared to stop the cars when the next train turns up.

The artworks about the automobile meditate on classic western road trips. Ansel Adams, not usually one to picture a landscape altered by humans, has captured the joys of the open road in a view of a roller-coaster rural highway in Nevada. Michael Goettee experiments with outsider materials in "Red Butte with Tourists," a 2016 mixed-media piece that points out collateral damage from tourism. Rejiggering an early Maynard Dixon painting, Goettee replaces the Dixon cowboys riding past the butte with station wagons and tour buses. But Goettee has hand-carved the little vehicles out of wood and mounted them on a shelf below the painting, the better to highlight their alien presence in the wilderness.

Other artists tackle the vernacular architecture that sprang up to accommodate tourists doing the grand western tour in cars. Motels, neon signs, roadside diners and gas stations sprang up. A vintage diner located inside a beached railroad car—a common structure that embodied the victory of the automobile over the passenger trains—is the star of "Royal Diner," by John Baeder a serigraph from 1980.

Works about the Great Depression remind us that western travel was not always about pleasure: often travelers were propelled by desperation. In "Boys on the Road," a 1936 photo by Hansel Mieth, a female photojournalist, two penniless men riding the rails peer out of a boxcar. They're waiting for the train to start, and maybe change their luck. A Dustbowl mother and children, en route to California, pose roadside in their car in "Oklahoma Migrants," another 1936 photo, this one by Arthur Rothstein.

Woody Guthrie, the troubadour and wanderer, is pictured here riding a produce truck in "Glory Bound," a 2004 painting by Jim Vogel. In his 1937 song "Do Re Mi," Guthrie warned the Dustbowl migrants that California was not the Garden of Eden they'd been promised.

As Guthrie pointed out, the western myth doesn't always match the reality. That's what I found when my son and I rode that midnight train to the Garden of Eden. The legendary Sunset Limited turned out to be dirty, and slow. The Border Patrol boarded in California farmlands and held the train prisoner for a full hour while they hunted for undocumented farmworkers. The snack bar ran out of food. And the train pulled into LA's Union Station eight hours late, not at daybreak but at day's end, when the California light gave way to darkness.