Photography: Emigrants Crossing the Plains, 1867, By Albert Bierstadt, Oil on canvas; National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Gift of Jasper D. Ackerman/Image Courtesy the Dickinson Research Center

An art exhibition shows us that the western is as diverse as the films and art that fall into the genre.

For the curators of The Western: An Epic in Art and Film, the wider the net, the better to illustrate the western’s far-reaching variety. Thomas Brent Smith, director of the Denver Art Museum’s Petrie Institute of Western American Art, and Mary Dailey Desmarais, curator of International Modern Art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, collaborated on the show, which is the first major exhibition to examine the construct of the western and its evolution from the mid-1800s to the present through fine art, film, and popular culture.

You’ll find everything from the artworks of Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Remington to the classic films of John Ford and Sergio Leone, the contemporary works of Ed Ruscha and Kent Monkman to the modern films Django Unchained and No Country for Old Men. With a genre so adaptable and long-lasting, there’s something for everyone. “No matter what your age,” Smith says, “there’s a western you identify with.”

The variety is so astonishing that the question for the curators became how to frame an exhibition that would include the photographs of Carleton Watkins, the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, movies like Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, and the paintings of Ed Ruscha all in the same show. They did it through 160 works across many mediums, exploring not just cowboys and American Indians, bandits and brawls, pursuits and duels, but also gender roles, race relations, and gun violence.

If there’s a common denominator beyond the variety and adaptability of the western over more than a century and a half, it might be its function — and complexity. “The western always seems to be the place that America goes to raise its issues and work through them, which is pretty remarkable,” Smith says. “It’s a mirror through which the country looks back at itself.” And what we see, he says, isn’t necessarily clear-cut. “Anyone who goes into the exhibition thinking the western is a simple story of the cowboy in the white hat and the cowboy in the black hat will quickly realize the western was never that. It has never been simple.”

The Western: An Epic in Art and Film is on view through September 10 at the Denver Art Museum.

From the July 2017 issue.