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Enchanted evolution: Documentary delves into how New Mexico affected the work of abstract artist Beatrice Mandelman

Bea Mandelman Rio Grande Gorgeca 1990s (Courtesy of The University Of New Mexico Foundation, Inc.)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Beatrice “Bea” Mandelman isn’t as well known as Georgia O’Keeffe or Mabel Dodge Luhan.

But she should be.

This is the exact reason Michael Kamins jumped at the opportunity to tell Mandelman’s story.

“When I learned about Bea’s story, it was a situation where you realize how amazing New Mexico is with its arts and history,” Kamins says. “I also wanted to continue to recognize the contribution of women artists. Bea is one of those great stories.”

Bea Mandelman and Louis Ribak Kodachrome slide ca. 1949. (Courtesy of Justin Locke)

“Poetry in Paint: Bea Mandelman in Taos” will premiere at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24, on New Mexico PBS.

The Taos resident was an abstract artist who was associated with the Taos Moderns.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, she studied art in New York City, where she was employed by the Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project.

In 1944, at age 32, Mandelman moved to Taos with her husband, Louis Leon Ribak.

Her arrival in New Mexico came at a time when Taos was going through a transition with art.

The group of modernist artists arrived and set a new course for the area.

Following World War II, Taos became an important crossroads.

Artists from New York and San Francisco found Taos a conducive place to work devoid of the distractions of the big cities.

Many of the modernist artists arrived in Taos with little if any knowledge of the earlier artists, as if inexplicably drawn to the area’s creative atmosphere.

Bea Mandelman, Dawn, 1960 (Courtesy of Gallery 203 Fine Art Taos)

While in New Mexico, her work began to be influenced by the area.

The subdued colors were being replaced by a brighter palette, with more geometric forms, an evolution from her abstract beginnings.

Kamins was drawn to Mandelman’s drive and poise.

“When I read, ‘One should try to live in a world where one must constantly play a role in creating that world,’ I thought it was interesting for a woman in the ’40s wanting to make that change. Creation is pure freedom.”

For the documentary, Kamins was able to view Mandelman’s work at the University of New Mexico Foundation, which received her collection.

He was able to sit at the Center for Southwest Research and read from Mandelman’s journals.

“When I read her journals, she came to life,” he says. “You can understand what she was excited about and (what she) wanted to accomplish with art.”

Kamins pored through the collection of artworks, personal photographs and previously unreleased journal writings for the documentary.

At one point, he found himself with too much information.

“It got to the point of weighing what stays in the film and what gets cut,” he says. “It was a tough process.”

Along the way, he was able to secure interviews with colleagues and longtime friends who knew Mandelman best – David Witt, Phaedra Greenwood, John Nichols, Alexandra Benjamin, and Brenda Euwer.

Bea Mandelman, Music ca. 1990 (Courtesy of The University Of New Mexico Foundation, Inc.)

“Bea would say, ‘I am trying to come up with a new vocabulary in art.’ So the question is, how to do that. But, it was a question that could not be answered in words. It could only be answered in paint,” Witt says.

Greenwood says, “There is a mystery to the artistic process and that is what she was exploring. And that takes courage.”

Nichols respected her hard work.

“She had a long life and a long life of not being recognized. She struggled with that,” Benjamin says.

Bea Mandelman (Courtesy of Charles R. Rushton)

Kamins agrees with her colleagues and friends.

“Bea didn’t have anyone holding her back,” Kamins says. “She was so passionate about that. She was painting every day. She wanted to find her own path and do her own thing.”

Kamins says one of his goals was to show off many of her works.

“In the post-wear years, everything is changing,” Kamins says. “Bea is that next evolution of New Mexico’s art history.”

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