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NM Museum of Art expands Transcendentalist collection

“Beyond Civilization to Texas,” 1950 oil on canvas by Robert Gribboek. (Courtesy of the New Mexico Museum of Art)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Transcendentalist Painters pushed art beyond Modernism into new concepts of space, color, light and spirituality.

These New Mexico artists ignored the stunning Southwestern landscapes and portraits of traditional American Indian life to forge something different by turning their gaze inward.

The New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe has announced the irrevocable gift of eight works of art by members of this Taos-based group from the William Dailey Trust and Dr. Nicole Panter Dailey. The pieces are not yet on public view.

The works include four abstract paintings by group co-founder Emil Bisttram, including “The Flaming One” from 1964; two canvases by Robert Gribbroek, including “Iris” (1935); and the museum’s first acquisition of a piece – an untitled pencil drawing from 1940 – by the group’s secretary, Dane Rudhyar.

“They’re very rare pieces,” said Christian Waguespack, curator of 20th century art.

Bisttram’s “The Flaming One” is particularly significant, he said.

“They were moving toward art beyond the physical world. They were dealing with something abstract and metaphysical.

“If you look at the almond shape, it kind of looks like the mandala figure that’s in medieval and Renaissance Christian art. It was the source of the halo.”

Bisttram believed spirituality could be forcefully expressed in abstract terms. He thought the supreme experience for an artist came at the moment of transcendence at the time of original creation.

The museum already owns several works by Bisttram; his style varied wildly, moving between representation to abstraction, Waguespack said. He constantly cajoled his viewers to “use your imagination” and “see what you can make of it.”

Gribbroek was a layout artist and cartoon painter for MGM and Warner Bros.

“He’s not in a lot of collections,” Waguespack said. “There’s one in (the University of New Mexico) collection. “There’s an interesting push and pull between the commercial cartoon art and the really sophisticated Transcendentalist art.”

The Transcendentalists included co-founder Raymond Jonson, Horace Towner Pierce and Florence Miller Pierce, William Lumpkins, Agnes Pelton and Stuart Walker. The group showed at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939, and at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1940.

The Transcendentalists acknowledged European Modernism as their source and borrowed from everyone from the Cubists to the Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky, generally credited as the pioneer of abstraction.

The stresses of World War II scattered the members until the group faded by the end of 1941.

The New Mexico Museum of Art holds more than 90 works by the Transcendentalist group.

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