The first thing you notice when you encounter this painting is how enormous it is. Over five feet high and nearly twice as long, it gets its own wall at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas. The colors are brilliant and the lines are so straight you fancy the artist laid the painting out on a flat canvas like a roofer, popping chalk lines that laser out from the right low corner nexus to explode in the bright, imagined desert sun. Then you notice the half-torn western magazine in the corner, a real magazine that seems wind-tossed yet somehow fixed into permanence and attached like collage to the painting. The western magazine sold for 10¢ originally; the price is emblazoned on the periodical’s upper left hand corner. On the pumps you can see that 10¢ tax is applied to the gasoline. Other numbers, price per gallon, etc. cannot be read. Just the one: 10¢.
I had a very strong emotional reaction to this picture the first time I saw it. Puzzling, I know. It is so simple. It looks like a postcard, almost, and that is part of it. My father was a man with a firm belief in a fresh start. Whenever things got difficult or he perceived that he had somehow been wronged it was suddenly time to pack up the car with as many of our things as we could fit, and hit the road. Usually we went back and forth between Louisiana and Washington state. Apparently fifteen hundred miles was an almost perfect distance for the shedding of a reputation in those days. Standing still just gave the world a chance to disappoint you, and my father wasn’t having it. Like the cowboys in the stories he figured he just needed to keep moving. Move on and there’s a chance that this time he will get it right. This one time, let him get it right.
But for me, I loved those trips. Traveling in the car was great. Those were the days before Interstates, when you had to interact with the rest of the country whether you wanted to or not. Those were the days when Route 66 and 287 were paths to magic, where a bad statue of a dinosaur might just make you stop your car and visit some gimcrack tourist trap selling phony tomahawks and cardboard tom-toms. We were terrible rubes in those days, and the west was wide open and mostly empty. The postcards were either landscapes of impossible splendor or jokey cards with Jackalopes and randy cowboys. Kids pleaded for a dime to buy souvenir decals for the back windows or stood at display cases in coffee shop checkouts looking at thirty different kinds of candy bars from a dozen different makers.
And all this traveling, all this starting over, was powered by gasoline. Cheap gasoline made everyone a pioneer. Is it any wonder this picture is painted in red, white, and blue? We were, and I think we still are, the United States of Fossil Fuels. There are no people in this picture and that is how it should be because America is about the corporation now, and Standard Oil is where that kind of thinking started in earnest. John D. Rockefeller is our true founding father. He gave birth to Standard Oil. A good Baptist he tithed every week, and as we all know the tithe is ten percent. 10¢ of every dollar he made went to the church. And he grew famous for handing out dimes to adults he’d meet on the streets. He only gave children a nickel, but for adults 10¢. Meanwhile his company monopolized the industry for a while, wrecked businesses and lives, while he became the single richest individual in human history: richer than Croesus; richer than Solomon. And all the other corporations looked to Standard Oil for inspiration and the world got a little smaller every day, dime by dime, until now the kid stands at the checkout and there are maybe a dozen different candy bars, tops, from two makers and we call that progress. And fifteen hundred miles might as well be next door because your reputation goes wherever you go, available to anyone with a keyboard, and there are no fresh starts for any but the young, and we call that progress, too.
This painting evokes my youth, and cries with me a little bit reminding me that the west that was so alluring before is almost gone now. Reminding me that the western cowboy image we all identified with is almost gone as well.
Wind-tossed, half-torn, and sold for a dime.