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‘Painting was his life’

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John Nieto

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Painter John Nieto died in Texas on Wednesday after a long battle with congestive heart failure.

The longtime Santa Fe artist was 81.

A mainstay of Santa Fe’s Ventana Fine Art on Canyon Road, Nieto was considered the first artist to bring a fauvist sensibility and color palette to images of Native Americans and the animals of the West.

French for “wild beasts,” the fauves were known for their boldly colored canvases and simplified forms. They included such artists as Matisse, Derain, Chagall, Braque and Vlaminck.

“I would call his a very contemporary fauvist style with a graphic influence because his degree was in graphic arts,” Ventana sales manager Wolfgang Mabry said.

When Nieto was in school at Dallas’ Southern Methodist University, he saw a fauvist exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art.

“He was so impressed that he immediately went to Paris and all the museums,” Mabry said.

His work caught on “like wildfire,” drawing collectors from all 50 states and across the globe, especially in Germany, France and Japan, Mabry said.

“We carried his work for 33 years,” gallery owner Connie Axton said. “He was prolific. He worked every day, even when he was ill. He’d say, ‘I have all these ideas in my head; I’ve got to get back to the studio.’ Painting was his life.”

Nieto lived in Santa Fe until he moved to Rockwall, Texas, to be closer to Dallas-area hospitals.

Nieto’s father was a Methodist minister; he had 14 brothers and sisters. He was part Hispanic and part Native American; his grandmother was Apache, Mabry said.

Nieto moved to Santa Fe in the early ’80s.

“He had exhibits at the Kennedy Center,” Axton said. “He met Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office. He had a show in 1981 in Paris.”

He presented Reagan with a painting that hung in the White House.

He created a series of homages to the artist who inspired him, including Picasso, Van Gogh, Botticelli, Vermeer, Dürer and De Kooning.

Picasso was inspired to invent cubism after a visit to an exhibition of Oceanic and African art in Paris.

“What John saw was an ethnic artist doing ethnographic subjects,” Mabry said.

Nieto managed to produce 20 new cubist paintings in advance of Ventana’s 2018 Indian Market show, Axton said.

Today, his work hangs in the Smithsonian Institution, the Dallas Art Museum, the Houston Art Museum, the Heard Museum, the New Mexico Museum of Art and the Albuquerque Sunport.

He is survived by his wife, Renay, and his four children, Anaya, John, Quint and Laura.

Services are pending.

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