SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico Transcendentalists show opens at Addison Rowe
When Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson co-founded the “Transcendental Painting Group” in 1938, they were expropriating a label that had been created 100 years earlier by a group of New England philosophers and spiritualists headed by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Examples of the non-objective art created by the New Mexico painters are on display all summer at Addison Rowe Gallery on East Marcy Street.
“These artists wanted their art to challenge the viewer to see art differently,” gallery owner Victoria Addison said in a statement. “Their work moved away from any sense of reality into a spiritual arena. They used unnatural colors in their paintings to express the spiritual realms of their work. Yoga, Buddhism and Theosophy were some of their daily practices and beliefs. This group started to push the boundaries of what American art was doing at the time.”
The New Mexicans were echoing their spiritual forefathers, who believed in an inherent goodness of both people and nature. The original Transcendentalists believed that society and its institutions – particularly organized religion and political parties – ultimately corrupted the purity of the individual. They had faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community could be formed, Emerson and others posited.
Bisttram and Jonson and their adherents believed in the incorruptibility of the then-nascent abstract art as an expression of man’s inherent nature. They exhibited together to advance the cause of non-objective art. European Modernism was their platform, with the Cubists and Vasily Kandinsky’s work heavily influencing the group’s style. They clearly defended and promoted abstract art and were the forerunners of late Modernism and Abstract Modernism.
Addison Rowe is showcasing works of five of the members: Bisttram, Walker, Jonson, Garman and Pierce.
James Emil Bisttram
Bisttram (1895—1976) was an American artist who lived in New York and Taos and was known for his modernist work. He was born in Hungary, near the Romanian border, in 1895. When he was 11 years old, his family immigrated to New York City. In 1931 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship to study mural painting. He studied in with famed muralist Diego Rivera in Mexico. Numerous mural commissions were to follow throughout his career (the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., the Taos County Courthouse and Roswell’s Federal Courthouse are among sites where he painted murals).
In 1952, Bisttram co-founded the Taos Art Association. In 1959, he won the Grand Prize for painting at the New Mexico State Fair, an award he delighted in. In 1970 he served as a judge and monitor for a statewide competition for art to be placed in the newly constructed Taos County Courthouse.
About 1935, only five years before his untimely death at age 35, Stuart Walker (1905-1940) converted to abstract art. Walker had studied at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis and for many years was a naturalistic painter. After he moved to Albuquerque, Walker frequently painted the state’s landscapes and the architectural forms of its churches, plus horses, native women and plant life.
When he turned to abstract work, Walker’s commitment was total. He was an original member of the Transcendental Painting Group. Walker was concerned with the convergence of planar forms and architectural structure. The exploration of rhythmic form in a painting – a parallel theme in Jonson’s work – became a major artistic interest. Walker hoped to appeal directly to the viewer’s senses.
Fellow members of the Transcendental Painting Group believed Walker had just begun to realize his artistic promise when he died.
Jonson (1891—1982) was an American-born Modernist painter known for his paintings of the American Southwest. He was born in Chariton, Iowa in 1891, and grew up in Portland, Ore. In 1913, Jonson was strongly affected by the avant-garde works displayed in the New York Armory Show, particularly the works of Vasily Kandinsky.
In 1922, Jonson visited New Mexico for the first time. He moved here in 1924 to focus on painting among Southwestern landscapes. In New Mexico, Jonson started the Atalaya Art School and the Modern Art collection at the Museum of New Mexico. In 1934, he began teaching art at the University of New Mexico. In 1938, he co-founded the Transcendental Painting Group with Bisttram, who like Jonson, had been a disciple of the artist Nicholas Roerich.
The Jonson Gallery at the University of New Mexico was established in 1950. Jonson retired from UNM in 1954. He died in 1982.
Garman (1914-2004) was well-known for his unique style of dynamic painting as well as his association with the Transcendental Painting Group. An extremely prolific artist, Garman dedicated his life to the study and production of non-objective, abstract painting. He sought to produce apolitical, non-representational paintings that would serve to transcend painting from the natural world.
Garman created paintings that he believed would not only achieve a type of spiritual beauty, but would provide the basis for an emotional exchange between viewer and painting.
In 1934, Garman worked at an archeological dig for a Depression-era Works Progress Administration project where he sorted pottery shards and developed an appreciation for the geometric forms and aesthetic of Native American craft design. His love for abstraction was further solidified after visiting a Vincent van Gogh retrospective and viewing the paintings of Kandinsky at the Art Institute of Chicago a year later. The artist began to compile his first set of abstract paintings during this time.
Garman joined the Transcendental Painting Group in 1941. Jonson played a vital role in the encouragement of Garman’s work and ideology, becoming Garman’s mentor.
Florence Miller Pierce
Pierce (1918-2007) was part of the Transcendental Painting Group in her 20s, and gained broader attention decades later with her Post-Minimalist works of tinted resin. Born Florence Melva Miller in Washington, D.C., on July 27, 1918, she moved to Taos at 18 to study with Bisttram.
She became a member of the Transcendental Painting Group and married fellow student Horace Towner Pierce in the late 1930s. They settled in Albuquerque in the late 1940s.
Pierce never stopped making art. She explored various media, during one phase making totem-like sculptures of balsa wood. Her work took a new direction in 1969, when she accidentally dripped liquid resin onto a piece of aluminum foil and became fascinated by the resulting shimmering light. From then on, resin was her main material.