SANTA FE, N.M. — Joseph Traugott stretches out his Tony Lama boots and peers around a New Mexico Museum of Art gallery filled with plastic-wrapped boots, paintings and photographs propped against walls and the sounds of an old-time cowboy singer crooning “Have I told you lately that I love you.”
He’s helping put the finishing touches on the new exhibit “Sole Mates: Cowboy Boots and Art,” which opens Saturday. It’s taken about three years for Traugott to pull the pieces together.
“It’s such a broad topic and it just raises so many interesting ideas about who we are as modern people and why is it that the West is such an icon of America,” said Traugott, the museum’s curator of 20th-century art.
Cowboy boots are one of America’s most recognizable icons, said Jim Arndt of Santa Fe, who’s made a career of photographing cowboy boots. He’s collaborated on five boot books, published a cowboy boot calendar for 15 years and collected about 100 vintage pair.
“Americans have a love affair with the cowboy, and always have … whether it comes from the freedom, just being part of the Wild West,” he said.
The exhibit ranges through more than a century of the cowboy icon, from 19th-century illustrator Frederic Remington to the cowboy of 1950s television and movies to the West in modern art and photography, where motorcycles and pickups replace horses.
Many paintings, drawings and lithographs come from the museum’s own collection. There also are postcards, magazine illustrations and ads, works of art on loan and, of course, boots — about 50 pairs symbolizing changing attitudes of the West.
Arndt said cowboy boots probably developed from a utilitarian, high-top boot to protect people riding through brush. Early ones in the vein of what’s now recognized as a cowboy boot started around the Civil War.
Pam Fields, chief executive officer of Stetson, which makes boots as well as hats, said cowboy boots developed a narrower toe so riders could slip in and out of stirrups and an undercut heel to keep their foot where it belonged.
“Fashion being what it is, people began to play with the leather, began to play with the stitching, began to play with appliques and designs — the ’fancifying’ that happened after the 1880s,” she said.
From there, boots went “from cattle drives to rock ’n’ roll, or dusty old boots to couture” worn by everyone from cowboys and bikers to models and everyday people, Arndt said.
Titles or lines from cowboy songs introduce exhibit sections. A photograph of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson opens “I See By Your Outfit That You Are a Cowboy.” Richardson leans back, feet on desk, showing off the contemporary version of the New Mexico State boot, part of a line of boots for each state originally created by Acme Cowboy Boots after the Second World War.
Richardson’s boots will be displayed, along with three-quarters of a pair belonging to the photographer Eliza Wells Smith. Her Irish wolfhound ate the other quarter, so a photo of the dog hangs with the boots, Traugott said.
The origins of the cowboy myth are explored in It Was Once in the Saddle I Used to Go Dashing, focusing on Remington woodcuts that illustrated Theodore Roosevelt’s tales of cowboys and western life in Century magazine. A rare pair of 1880s boots and an open copy of the long-defunct magazine complete the display.
His Hat Was Throwed Back and His Spurs A Jangling covers nostalgia in the early 20th century with larger-than-life depictions of cowboys. One impressionistic oil from the 1930s shows cattle being butchered in Taos to feed the locals.
A Fair Lady From the Plains is “about romance, it’s about fashion, it’s about allure,” Traugott said.
A postcard of a cowboy and an adoring woman illustrates romantic notions from the early 20th-century’s dime novel period. Pages from a 1950s catalogue for western wear portray both men and women with impossibly small waists.
A photograph of a woman in a short denim skirt and cowboy boots plays off “the commercialization of the West to sell commercial products, this sort of faux fashion photography that we’re used to seeing in magazines,” Traugott said.
Then, making the point men as well as women are attracted to cowboys, two lithographs show homo-erotic images of cowboys.
A series of black-and-white photographs of ranch life opens “I Went My Own Way.”
“I think what’s good about these images you see that the women in the scene are doing exactly the same job as the men are doing,” Traugott said. “And that plays strongly against the kind of romantic stereotype of the West only being for men.”
One photo shows the feet of a man and a woman wearing the same style boots. “And all of a sudden you realize the gender line has completely disappeared,” he said.
The display also has humour: a 1930s postcard shows two cowboys leaning on a fence, eyeing a woman in chaps strolling by. The caption reads: “Somebody oughta tell her she’s supposed to wear something under them chaps.”
What’s Become of the Punchers We Rode With Long Ago views the West through the eyes of contemporary artists.
A Patrick Oliphant cartoon of former president Bill Clinton portrays him as Billy the Kid. It hangs next to an early 20th-century photo postcard of a cowpoke wearing essentially the same getup, a colorized postcard photo of Billy the Kid and the same image incorporated into a Justin boot ad.
A glittery lithograph of a cowboy wearing red boots on a bucking bronco mirrors the red sharkskin boots the artist, Luis Jimenez Jr., wore to a formal White House dinner with president George W. Bush.
“So he wore his red boots with his tuxedo, and the president wore black boots with a tuxedo,” Traugott said.
But black-tie boots notwithstanding, true cowboy boots still have to work, Fields said.
“There’s lots of lovely boots that look cowboyish,” she said, “but they’re not designed to be great roping boots or great riding boots or the kind of boots you can get off your horse in a hurry.”