If you venture to the Autry as Southern California dries out from all the recent rain and flooding,
you might notice a brand new sculpture welcoming you as you head to the plaza. It’s The Conqueror, a monumental horse’s head cast in bronze in 2005 by the renowned Western artist George Carlson.
The sculpture is one of two recent additions to the Autry plaza, and it represents an expansion of sorts.
“We’ve only recently started really to acquire some exciting pieces (of contemporary art),” said Amy Scott, the Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross curator of visual art at the Autry. “This is an aspect of the collections that we can conceivably build.”
The second new acquisition is Eagle III (2004–8) by Gwynn Murrill, a limestone and bronze sculpture of an eagle set on a high pedestal that now stands near the Mary Pickford Education Center.
The Carlson sculpture, which replaces Richard Greeves’ Bird Woman, a 2001 bronze sculpture of a Native American woman carrying a cradleboard, is one of two monumental sculptures that begin to pull the Autry’s collection in new directions, Scott said. The other, an older acquisition, is also a representation of a horse: Deborah Butterfield’s seven-foot-tall Red Branch from 2007, of Manzanita wood branches cast in bronze, which now stands in the Autry lobby near the stairwell leading to the permanent galleries, framed by a large window.
“They are both pieces that walk the line between abstraction and realism in ways that our collection has not necessarily traditionally done,” Scott said. “They’re both representational pieces; they are also both highly abstract. And then further… both of those pieces represent one of the most significant things that the artist has done and certainly the most significant thing we have by that artist in the collection.”
Monumental art is not something that the Autry has a lot of, given that its focus — as well as its building design — is geared not just to the art of the American West, but also to its history. There is no contemplative sculpture
garden, for example. Instead, there’s a plaza that, besides providing an outdoor place to rest, hosts concerts, dance performances and festivals. So it poses some challenges as well as opportunities in terms of installing works of art.
“We are trying to bring the museum experience outside,” Scott said. “Part of (the process) is just strategic thinking on how can we get these pieces out and how can we make them visible as soon as possible.”
Of course, the plaza’s multiple functions mean that the question of where a sculpture goes is more than just an aesthetic decision made by the curators. Designers, planners, even security officers contribute.
“That space gets used so often by so many different groups that there’s sort of a practical flow issue,” Scott said. “With big public spaces like that, security gets involved sometimes. They’re worried about people climbing things and hanging on things and possibly hurting themselves …. It’s more complicated than just putting a painting on a wall.”
Scott says acquiring the Carlson piece, and more works like it, is a chance to explore more contemporary directions in a genre of American art that is sometimes seen as strictly representational.
“(The Butterfield and Carson sculptures) are stylistically and conceptually a little different and a little more diverse, so you can look at them from multiple perspectives, which is not the case with everything in the Autry collection,” Scott said. “They add another dimension.”