Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
In the early 1900s, it was considered very “vogue” for people to get together, form groups and write manifestos together.
“It was a very 20th-century thing to do, and people were doing it all over the world,” said Christian Waguespack, the New Mexico Museum of Art’s curator of 20th century art. “New Mexico was no exception to the trend.”
A New Mexico Museum of Art exhibition featuring works from members of five artist collectives that dominated the state’s cultural scene during the first half of the 20th century will be on display starting this weekend and running until March. Waguespack described the survey as an example of the “breadth and diversity” of what was being created in New Mexico.
“You can see everything from the incorporation of European academic tradition in American art all the way to complete, non-objective abstraction all in one space and get an idea of how these people related to one another, to New Mexico, and how this one place was fertile enough to produce so many types of artistic expression and (how) they could co-exist.”
The groups, many of them existing concurrently, generally were each formed about one generation apart, according to Waguespack.
The first and one of the best known is the Taos Society of Artists, whose founding members first visited the area in the late 19th century and officially formed in 1915.
The exhibition ends with what was known as the “Stieglitz Circle.” Though not actually a formal collective, the group of modernist East Coast painters who both visited and settled permanently in the Land of Enchantment were associated with the New York gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, photographer and husband of Georgia O’Keeffe. It disbanded, so to speak, when Stieglitz died in 1946.
Before its end in 1927, the Taos Society of Artists’ 12 members were largely known for capturing local scenery, as well as Native American people and culture, in their paintings.
According to Waguespack, “American art was really starting to get legs” when the group formed. Its members were examples of artists who had trained in Europe, but rejected European ideas about what artists were supposed to paint. He cited a quote in an essay by member Ernest Blumenschein, who said the Taos artists came to the West in search of “stimulating subject.”
“We were ennuied with the hackneyed subject matter of thousands of painters; windmills in a Dutch landscape; Brittany peasants with sabots; French roads lined with Normandy poplars; lady in negligée reclining on a sumptuous divan; lady gazing in mirror; lady powdering her nose; etc., etc,” the quote reads.
Also featured in the exhibit is Santa Fe’s Los Cincos Pintores. Its five members, arguably the most famous being Zozobra creator Will Shuster – who came here in 1920 to heal from tuberculosis – were all young guys who arrived in The City Different around the 1920s looking to do something new with their lives.
Member Fremont Ellis had been an optometrist in El Paso before moving to Santa Fe in 1919 and painting landscapes, Waguespack said.
“They were really the Bohemians and the wild folks,” he said, with artistic styles that varied among the members. “I imagine they are the way the folks who are doing Meow Wolf now imagine themselves. The youngest, hippest crowd.”
The Rio Grande Painters group formed around the Great Depression as a vehicle to show modernist artwork in Santa Fe. Though Waguespack described this group as part of the era’s American Regionalist Movement – in which artists used modern art techniques to depict realistic looks at American culture – he said its members didn’t want to be thought of as sharing any one style or idea.
Works by the Rio Grande Painters that are part of the museum’s show include pieces from James Stovall Morris, who depicted scenes like a procession of penance in Truchas and a 1938 surrealist-like oil painting of people husking corn. Waguespack also mentioned the abstract landscapes of Cady Wells, who used and was influenced by Japanese brush techniques.
“His work is a really cool combination of Asian brushwork with modern ideas of composition and space,” he said.
The most visually separate from the other collectives was the Transcendental Painting Group, formed in Taos in the late 1930s by Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson. But not all of the members lived in Taos. Jonson lived in Santa Fe and later taught at the University of New Mexico.
They were the next generation of Taos artists, with an abstract, spiritual style. “The idea was to find a subject matter past what you would see in the physical world,” Waguespack said.
In the show is Bisttram’s large 1938 painting titled “Rio Grande Valley.” Astrological signs line the painting’s outer edge. The only pieces that aren’t paintings or works on paper being exhibited in the show are a series of boxes that include note cards with koans – riddles that Zen Buddhists use during meditation – made by Transcendental Painting Group artist William Lumpkins. Lumpkins is also the only artist from any of these groups originally from New Mexico, growing up near Clayton. He became enamoured with Zen Buddhism, according to Waguespack, after a Buddhist traveler stayed on his family’s ranch as a kid.
Painters associated with the Stieglitz Circle, according to Waguespack, were particularly interested in creating modern art that was about the United States.
“And, for a lot of them, New Mexico and the West represented what was quintessentially American,” he said, “which seems kind of hokey and naïve to us today, but for them most everybody was from the East or lived in the East and were working in New York,” he said.
“O’Keeffe always complained that you had these people like her husband Stieglitz, who wrote about creating the great American thing, but had never been west of the Hudson, and it’s true. They were really interested in coming West and exploring for something new.”
According to Waguespack, some of the artists in the show, like painter Marsden Hartley, only visited a few times. But others, like O’Keeffe, and New York artists Rebecca James and Andrew Dasburg, came to New Mexico and stayed for the rest of their lives.
Most of the artists used the landscape for inspiration, but Waguespack notes Dasburg’s cubist interpretations of adobe buildings and Hartley’s look at local subject matter, like pottery. James, he mentioned, was also known for picking up local techniques, such as Spanish Colonial reverse glass painting.
The artist groups all formed for different reasons, Waguespack says. The Taos Society of Artists and the Rio Grande Painters were what he called practical organizations, designed to help their artists exhibit and sell. Los Cincos Pintores had a passion to bring art to everyday people, setting up exhibition spaces in hospitals, factories and even the local prison. The members of the Transcendental Painting Group, he said, were mostly interested in creating a group to jointly explore philosophical ideas.
The scenes that the Taos Society artists were painting were considered the most modern at the time. As time went on, the painters who came out to New Mexico brought evolving styles. Waguespack said that while in today’s art world, making radical art typically means creating something that incorporates a social message, in the days of New Mexico’s art collectives, it was all about aesthetics or how you painted something.
That could have been flattening a surface, or making a piece with a cubist technique. Or, using O’Keeffe as an example, modernism meant “looking at a desert and paring it down to three or four colors or lines. That was radical,” Waguespack said.
He pointed out that in the 20th century, Santa Fe established itself as a hub for contemporary artwork. When the Museum of Art opened in 1918, it was designed to show off that kind of art.
“And it never really stopped,” he said. “It just evolved to fit the time that we lived in.”