ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — From the Puyê petroglyphs to the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, New Mexico’s art has long intersected with history.
“A Past Rediscovered: Highlights from the Palace of the Governors” gathers images from the dawn of photography, historic retablos and bultos, beaded flapper dresses and a letter from Billy the Kid on loan from both the Palace and the New Mexico History Museum at the Albuquerque Museum through Oct. 20. The stories continue through rare firearms, images of Ansel Adams capturing famous landscapes, low riders and Gustave Baumann’s prints, woodblocks and tools. Will Schuster’s Zozobra armature model (1935-50) dangles like a wooden marionette.
Organizers have categorized the nearly 300 objects into sections on the history of the building, its Frey Angélico Chávez Library, the photo archives and its colonial collection.
The Palace of the Governors has been continuously inhabited for 400 years. Its adobe walls witnessed both the Spanish installation of Pedro de Peralta and the Spanish expulsion during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. The site embraced a short-lived Mexican identity from 1821-1846, later serving as both the home and workplace of territorial governors until the early 20th century and statehood. It emerged as a museum in 1909.
The visual journey through time begins with one of the Palace’s largest and most important objects, the Segesser II hide painting depicting the 1720 defeat of Spanish troops and their Native American allies in present-day Nebraska.
“They don’t know who painted it,” Albuquerque Museum curator Josie Lopez said. “They think they were local artists, which implies they were Native American or mestizos.”
The Spanish Colonial collection features religious paintings from Mexico and Peru, as well as New Mexican images of saints depicted on wood with natural pigments. The objects include a bulto or three-dimensional sculpture of Our Lady of Guadalupe painted and carved by José Rafael Aragón, ca. 1820-62. Aragón was known for carving meticulously detailed faces.
“These objects have a devotional and religious significance,” Lopez said. “They’re also deeply imbedded in the culture.”
Aragón “was one of the most prolific,” she continued. “He was born in Santa Fe and it was a family tradition.”
The Palace’s photography collection dates from Eadweard Muybridge’s classic images of galloping horses ca. 1872-1885. (He was a pioneer in the photographic study of motion.) J.R. Riddle’s 1885 “General View of Albuquerque” shows a vast plain dotted with a few homes as a man gazes at what looks like a small village from a slope.
Other photographs pose questions. Ben Wittick’s posed portraits of Native Americans make no cultural distinctions. In a studio portrait, a White Mountain Apache man wears a Navajo-crafted squash blossom necklace. Wittick used the same prop in multiple portraits of subjects from various tribes. Viewers cannot assume an object was made, used or even owned by the subject. In 1990, Wittick’s great-granddaughter donated his props, including the necklace, to the Palace, providing a rare form of documentation.
Visitors also can meet New Mexico’s most famous outlaw through a letter he wrote to then-Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace. William H. Bonney (a.k.a. Billy the Kid) was a Lincoln County ranch hand who found himself in the nexus of the Lincoln County War with its feuds, corruption, vigilante justice and cattle rustling. A toxic combination of bravado and spite prompted him to seek vengeance after the murder of his boss.
Bonney left a trail of dead bodies. In about 1879, he wrote to Wallace offering information on a murder in exchange for a pardon. He tried again in 1881. He escaped jail (again) only to die in a shoot out with Pat Garrett in July 1881. His letters still flow in neat cursive loops.