SANTA FE, N.M. — Beatrice Mandelman traded Manhattan for Taos just as New York exploded into the center of modern art.
But the political prints she produced as a Works Progress Administration artist would resonate throughout her career, surfacing again in the vibrant collages she produced in the 1960s.
The Harwood Museum of Art is celebrating what would have been the Taos modernist’s 100th birthday with twin showings of “Bea Mandelman: The Social Realist Prints” and “Bea Mandelman: Collage” through Oct. 14.
Fresh from New York’s Art Students League, Mandelman began working for the WPA in 1935, first on murals, then with the print division. Like many of her contemporaries, she focused her art on people struggling to survive during the Depression. An acute draftsman, she produced politically driven images of industrial scenes, men building roads and a striking portrait of a woman selling pretzels on the street from a cart.
“It’s a person that really doesn’t have any opportunities but to stand in the cold and the wind and sell pretzels from a cart and (about) how demeaning that is,” said Alexandra Benjamin, executive director of The Mandelman-Ribak Foundation. Mandelman’s rural scenes of farms, barns and small villages illustrate a longing for simpler values. These representational prints are decades removed from the later abstraction she would become known for.
“The WPA really created a renaissance of printmaking in the U.S.,” Benjamin said. “It was a piece of art anyone could own. They liked the idea of art going to the proletariat.”
Like many of the artists in her circle, Mandelman was a solid leftist who befriended the major figures of Abstract Expressionism: Willem deKooning, Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. By 1941, her works would hang in important exhibitions in the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
She married fellow WPA artist Louis Ribak in 1942. In 1944, they headed for New Mexico to visit Ribak’s teacher and mentor John Sloan in Santa Fe. Finding Santa Fe too congested, they headed for Taos by train and stagecoach and settled there.
In 1944, Taos was known as an art colony, but had no galleries exhibiting modern art. A new influx of New York and California artists during the late ’40s and ’50s would change this forever. Mandelman, Ribak, Agnes Martin, Ed Corbett, Oli Sihvonen and Clay Spohn would become known as the “Taos Moderns.” To survive, Ribak and Mandelman started a school.
“They landed in Taos and decided they needed to start from scratch,” Benjamin said. “So they started drawing and painting the landscape. They started the Taos Valley Art School and offered printmaking.”
Artists flocked to the school from across the country to study under the G.I. Bill.
Mandelman started making collages in the 1950s.
“It was a very playful way of working and that really appealed to her,” Benjamin said, “– the freedom and the experimentation. They didn’t have much money. It’s a poor man’s medium. You don’t need linen, brushes and oil paint. That was liberating to her. She always felt frugal about buying white canvases.”
The collages would become her earliest abstractions. They are redolent in color and focused in composition. Mandelman added texture to some with shredded cardboard.
“There’s this reductionism,” Benjamin explained. “You’re layering parts over parts. Her paintings are very informed by her collages.”
There are also hints of the political ideas she developed as a younger artist. The WPA crowd was fervently leftist, usually for the Communist Party. Ribak was a founding member of the John Reed Club and illustrated for The Masses.
But when asked about her political affiliations later, Mandelman would deny it.
“When they first got here, they were followed by the FBI for years,” Benjamin said. “They were dogged during the McCarthy era.”
The school lasted until 1952 — despite Ribak’s insistence that it follow no ideology — when an informer reported back to the FBI. Suddenly, it no longer qualified under the G.I. Bill and enrollment dwindled.
“She was political, but she kept it very close to her chest,” Benjamin said. “That had a big impact on her. She denied that it happened.
“I don’t think of them as social liberals who wanted to overthrow the government,” she added. “They were political people who got persecuted for it.”
But by the 1960s, Mandelman broke her own silence. The collages began to reflect an anti-war sentiment and her concern for Civil Rights. Her old Social Realist tendencies re-surfaced, specifically in the piece “Vietnam,” with its geometric forms and slogans such as “Support the Resistance.”
“The work IS hard-edged because the world is hard-edged now,” Mandelman said in Robert Hobbs’ book “Beatrice Mandelman — Taos Modernist.”
“The artist answers the time, projects and makes an emotional statement about the period. It’s not a soft feminine period. The fiestas are over. The celebrants have gone home. It is time to face reality.” She was quoted as saying the “calm” of the geometric form was her reaction against the disturbing currents of the world.
“I was dazed by the indifference and the horror of what was happening. It was therefore urgent that I say something about war, peace, violence and survival,” she said.
“She was very opinionated,” said Benjamin, who got to know the artist when she organized and cataloged hundreds of Mandelman’s prints and canvases. “But I think she had been so hurt by politics, she didn’t go there on her own.
“She was funny and smart and she read a lot,” Benjamin continued. “She was very concerned about the way the world was going.”
Mandelman would work up until three days before her death in 1998. She was 85.