ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The ghosts of Duchamp and O’Keeffe haunt Ciel Bergman’s paintings, forming the maps and tributaries of an artist’s life.
“The Linens” gathers 48 acrylic paintings by the late Santa Fe artist in a never-exhibited series at the Center for Contemporary Art Tank Garage through April 29.
The exhibition spans the minimal aesthetic that defined Bergman’s “Spiritual Guide Maps” (the exhibition’s original title) to bolder explorations of feminism and sexuality from 1970 to 1977. The series would jump-start her career, leading to a place in the 1975 Whitney Biennial and multiple teaching and gallery offers.
Bergman grew up in the Bay Area, married at 19 and moved to Germany at the time of the building of the Berlin wall. She visited as many European museums as she could, discovering the work and criticism of Marcel Duchamp, who would influence her for the rest of her life. Duchamp was a French-American painter, sculptor and writer whose work is associated with Cubism, conceptual art and dada, surrealism’s precursor. Dada questioned longtime assumptions about art.
“He was a huge critic of painting,” curator Angie Rizzo said. “He was the father of postmodernism. She was trying to figure out why she painted if painting was dead. A lot of critics and artists were rebelling against it.”
Bergman struggled to distill her work, suppressing all signifying imagery in favor of contemplation. By 1973, symbols begin to creep into the Guide Maps, and the paintings grew progressively less “empty.”
The stark midseries”Poetry Plagued by Comprehension,” 1974, plays with contradiction.
“It is about how sometimes a poem is more powerful if you don’t understand it,” Rizzo said. “I really love that piece because of the simplicity of the composition.”
In 1972, Bergman traveled to New Mexico to visit O’Keeffe. Their five-hour conversation changed her life.
“It was one of the most influential experiences for Ciel,” Rizzo said. “I think she saw herself in O’Keeffe.”
So much so that the artist built a studio at the base of O’Keeffe’s beloved Cerro Pedernal in 1994. She moved to Santa Fe in 2006.
With its ragged dapples and blotches of color accenting X and Y shapes, “Debriefing with Rrose” (1974) references Duchamp’s female alter ego Rrose Selavy.
“He did a whole photo series in character, in drag,” Rizzo said. “She’s playing with feminism and the balancing of the sexes. She was a single mom focusing on her art career.”
The letters might refer to chromosomes or map coordinates. An “X” appears in blue as if it were an X marking the location of treasure on a pirate’s map, while “portholes” dot the surface.
“Photodocumentation of Tools Used in the Performing the Fifth Ascent (Black Tool),” 1976, resolves the series in a metaphor for both Bergman’s life and career. The artist based the piece on the book “Mount Analogue” by René Daumal.
“It’s an allegory of reaching a peak of yourself and how it’s impossible to get to the summit,” Rizzo said. “You have to jump into the darkness. I see it as a metaphor for what ‘The Linens’ did for her career.”
Bergman’s work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Oakland Museum of California, among others.
She died of lung cancer in 2017.