Robert Ellis exhibition reveals the transition of his work from pure abstraction into realistic landscapes

“Man in Nature No. 7,” 30 x 48 inches by Robert Ellis, oil on linen, 1962. (Courtesy of The Robert M. Ellis Art Collection Trust)

Robert Ellis was the kind of artist who spent much of his life nurturing the New Mexico art community but never received much recognition for his own output.

The Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum aims to correct that disparity with “Into Nature,” a survey of the late artist’s work. The exhibition will hang through Aug. 29.

“Untitled View of Taos Mountain,” 46 x 36 inches, oil and pencil on canvas by Robert Ellis. (Courtesy of the Robert M. Ellis Art Collection Trust)

Ellis was a professor of art at the University of New Mexico and the first director of the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos.bright spot logo

But after earning his master’s degree at the University of Southern California, he became curator of education at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum.)

At the time, abstract expressionism and minimalism roared throughout the California arts community in a tidal wave.

When Ellis took the UNM job, he shifted into a very different aesthetic climate.

“The art in the ’60s in New Mexico was radically different from California,” guest curator Brianne Clarkson said.

“Rio Grande Gorge No. 16a,” 29 x 42 inches by Robert Ellis, oil stick on paper, 1982. (Courtesy of the Robert M. Ellis Art Collection Trust)

At UNM, the artist focused on realism, photo-realism and surrealism.

“He talked a lot about that because it was so different here,” she added.

“He tried to retire; he didn’t really retire very long,” Clarkson continued. “The Harwood Museum quickly roped him into becoming their pseudo-director, which became permanent in 1990.”

Ellis expanded the Harwood’s galleries from three to seven. A friend of the famed abstract painter Agnes Martin, he secured the works for the museum gallery dedicated to her art.

“Man in Nature No. 2,” 68 x 100 inches by Robert Ellis, 1962. (Courtesy of the Robert M. Ellis Art Collection Trust)

While he led the Harwood, Ellis began teaching plein air (outdoor) painting at the old Mabel Dodge Luhan house.

The exhibition reveals the transition of his work from pure abstraction into more realistic landscapes.

“When he moved to Taos, he was very reluctant to paint the landscape,” Clarkson said. “He was intimidated by it.”

“San Cristobal Valley No. 31,” 84 x 84 inches, oil on canvas by Robert Ellis, 1985. (Courtesy of The Robert M. Ellis Art Collection Trust)

He finally produced the “Rio Grande Gorge” in oil stick on paper, all fine lines and dotted trees, as well as “San Cristobal Valley No. 31,” a diamond-shaped oil on canvas, its sky dappled with clouds above the snowy landscape.

These compositions often produced a spacious bird’s-eye view of a grid of fields positioned in front of mountains set along a high horizon line.

“You get his hand in it,” Clarkson said. “It’s immaculate and it has incredible detail. This landscape did have a profound impact on what he saw.”

In contrast, the show includes several green and brown abstract pieces echoing his California influence. His tree series emerged when the Pasadena Art Museum sent him to Paris. The “Man and Nature” paintings came from the West Coast, where he was informed by the greenery that surrounded him.

“They’re kind of related to the idea of spring,” Clarkson said. “You can see the large brushstrokes.”

Ellis returned to abstraction and Albuquerque when his wife died in the late 1990s. He also traveled to Greece.

“This was a trip he and his wife had always wanted to go on,” Clarkson said. “He was really struck by the blue skies and the white columns.”

Ellis died in 2014 at age 92. The exhibit features artwork from the 1960s to the 1980s, set up the Robert M. Ellis Art Collection Trust.

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