ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The paintings of John Nieto thread the complex heritage of the Southwest through his own native ancestry, splashed in the primary colors of Matisse.
Open at Santa Fe’s LewAllen Galleries at 1613 Paseo de Peralta,
lewallengalleries.com, “John Nieto: The Legacy Paintings” showcases 34 works from the late painter’s estate through Aug. 29. Nieto died in 2018.
The artist traced his New Mexican ancestry – Mescalero Apache and Navajo, as well as Spanish – back 300 years. Across his career, he lived in Santa Fe and Corrales before moving near Dallas as his health deteriorated.
Nieto’s intensely fauvist palette emerged after he saw an exhibition at the Dallas Art Museum. French for “wild beasts,” the Fauves were a group of early 20th century modern artists whose work emphasized painterly qualities and bold color over the representational values retained by the Impressionists.
An enamoured Nieto traveled to Paris, visiting its museums to research the Fauvist leaders Henri Matisse and André Derain. His discovery of the Fauves and their use of saturated color to communicate emotional meaning proved crucial to his development.
A 1960 visit to the Mescalero Mountain Dance with his grandmother gave him the imagery he needed.
“On the way back, she said, ‘Will you do me a favor? Will you paint my people?’ ” LewAllen co-owner Ken Marvel said. “That’s when he realized he was going to
explore his Native American heritage in his work.”
A longtime Nieto collector, Marvel got to know the artist.
“He was incredible; he was always dressed in black,” Marvel said. “It had to do with his sense of the medicine wheel, and that part of the medicine wheel that has to do with spirituality. He was a quiet man. He was very much a meditative soul. But he was also a man of great humor. He would charm us with stories of Native American rituals – how animals are important in the Native American belief system; they are communicators, spirit guides.
“He was also a very learned man,” Marvel continued. “He would quote esoteric philosophers from French existential writings.”
The paintings on view all date from the ’80s through the ’90s.
“He loved color,” Marvel said. “He said Matisse said color is the wild part of art. He did not mix colors; he used them right out of the tube.”
The paintings “Hopi Potter” (1991) and “Mary from Acoma Pueblo” (1988), both acrylic on canvas, reveal his reverence for women.
“He attributed his career to his grandmother,” Marvel said. “That began a real respect, reverence for the feminine.”
Similarly, “Old Person” (1989), acrylic on canvas, with its electric profusion of saturated hues, is a nod to his elders.
“John had an enormous respect for wisdom,” Marvel said.
“Red Cloud (Sioux)” (1990), captures the dignified chief with a U.S. government medal dangling from his neck.
“The history of the Native American leaders also fascinated John,” Marvel said. “It was a legacy of broken promises. It was a survival John thought should never be forgotten. Even though many were dispossessed of their land, they always retained their dignity and courage.”
His “Yacqui Deer Dancer” (1994) also arose from the experience of a Mountain Spirit Dance.
“The man is probably the greatest American Fauvist of contemporary art,” Marvel said. “His work is a reliquary of history and dignity.”
Nieto also painted non-native portraits of Southwestern icons, including María Benítez and Georgia O’Keeffe. Nieto’s “Delegate to the White House” hung in President Ronald Reagan’s Oval Office until it was moved to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
Nieto received the New Mexico Governor’s Award for achievement in the arts in 1994 and Southern Methodist University’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2006. Today his work hangs in prominent museums across the country.