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Taos Mission Church a rite of passage for most artists in New Mexico

“Old Mission, Rancho de Taos,” 1926, by Logan Herschel. (Courtesy of William R. Talbot)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Constructed between 1772 and 1816, the San Francisco de Asis Mission Church blossomed into a rite of passage for nearly every artist who passed through New Mexico.

Of all the artists who made New Mexico their home in the 20th century, many were awed by the landscape. Others turned their gaze to the architecture.

Open at Santa Fe’s William R. Talbot, 129 W. San Francisco St. by appointment, “The Printmakers at Ranchos de Taos” showcases works by three of those artists through September.

This artistic trio was captivated by both the form and function of the old mission church at Ranchos de Taos. These works by Ralph Pearson, Logan Herschel and Morris Blackburn show vastly different approaches to this iconic image at different times during the 20th century. All three use different printing methods: etching, woodblock printing and screen printing.

“Church at Rancho de Taos,” 1919, copper plate etching by Ralph Pearson. (Courtesy of William R. Talbot)

Pearson (1883-1958) produced “Church at Rancho de Taos,” 1919, as a copper plate etching. His economy of line rendered the sun-baked earth, its adobe construction and figures in motion. The image reveals the simplicity of a former time. Pearson was one of the earliest modern artists to establish himself in New Mexico. In his book, “Printmaking in New Mexico,” former University of New Mexico dean and art historian Clinton Adams wrote that Pearson brought his etching press to the state from the Chicago area in 1915.

Herschel’s “Old Mission, Rancho de Taos,” 1926, is a wood cut. The artist was one of the youngest founders of the Kansas-based Prairie Printmakers. Herschel shows the church in striking contrast and shadows. He bathes the façade in morning light as a shrouded visitor approaches the gate.

“He earned himself the nickname ‘The Prairie Woodcutter’,” gallery research and sales associate Nadia Hamid said. “He was prolific.”

“Adobe Mission (Ranchos de Taos Church),” screen print, 1962, by Morris Blackburn. (Courtesy of William R. Talbot)

Blackburn offered a modernist interpretation in “Adobe Mission (Ranchos de Taos Church),” 1962. Blackburn was one of the first artists to use screen printing in fine art prints. He took advantage of the inherit flatness of the process to define the bold geometry of the famous building. Juxtaposing color planes to represent areas of shadow and light, he defined the sculptural quality of the church’s apse and massive buttresses. Blackburn often turned to cubism, reducing his subjects to an abstract play of simplified forms.

“His piece is very different,” Hamid said. “He chose to do the back of the building. He refined his screen printing process so that each color he layered made it more cohesive.’

Georgia O’Keeffe once said of the old church, “Most artists who spend any time in Taos paint it. I suppose, just as they have to paint a self-portrait.”

“It’s almost like a living entity,” Hamid said. “It has to be re-done every year using traditional methods.”

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