Modern artists flocked to New Mexico, bringing fresh ideas and drawing from its cultures and landscapes across the 20th century.
Open at the New Mexico Museum of Arts, “Western Eyes: 20th Century Art Here and Now,” explores how artists ranging from John Sloan and T.C. Cannon to Georgia O’Keeffe and Fritz Scholder responded to the state’s rich heritage and stunning terrain, imbuing their work with styles informed by national and international trends.
“The common thread is beginning at the early 20th century, art in New Mexico was a national and international dialogue,” curator Christian Waguespack said. “At no point was New Mexico provincial. It has always been engaged in the most forward-thinking trends of the time.”
Most New Mexican art lovers know the story of the broken wagon wheel that prompted Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips to stay in 1898, eventually forming the influential Taos Society of Artists.
The exhibition will allow visitors to see unexpected works by artists they think they already know, Waguespack said.
“For example, there are works by Gustave Baumann, but they aren’t the Baumann you expect,” he continued.
The Santa Fe artist is known for his prints of glowing aspens and luminous landscapes.
“We’ve got this great painting he did in the 1960s,” Waguespack said. “It’s completely abstract.”
O’Keeffe’s section compares her earlier, more representational Lake George and New York paintings to the work she produced in Abiquiú. Her “Desert Abstraction (Bear Lake),” a 1931 oil on canvas, is so pared down that curators have been uncertain how to hang it.
“Which side is up?” Waguespack asked. “There’s no objective way to see it. O’Keeffe would often hang her paintings different ways. For O’Keeffe, it was about form and color.”
Attempts to clarify the issue failed when the artist visited Santa Fe.
“At the museum, somebody asked her about it and she said, ‘Yes, that’s mine.’ ”
“It happened at a time when artists were playing with abstraction. The painting is really more about O’Keeffe’s vision rather than the lake itself.”
Taos Society of Artists member Victor Higgins was a New Deal artist who painted the mural “Moses the Law Giver” at the former Taos County Courthouse in 1934.
“He studied with Diego Rivera and brought Mexican approaches to political art,” Waguespack said. “It’s an international dialogue between Taos and Mexico City.”
The exhibition displays Higgins’ preliminary painting of the piece.
T.C. Cannon’s (Kiowa/Caddo) “Washington Landscape with Peace Medal Indian” (1976) exemplifies the influence of Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts on Native American painting. Cannon enrolled in IAIA in 1964, where Scholder (Luiseño) was one of his teachers.
“They created a voice and an aesthetic for themselves,” Waguespack said. “I love it because it’s very indicative of how the Native American artists were taking control of the way Native Americans were represented. They were engaged with the art of the time; he’s being influenced by Pop and Expressionist color.”
Cannon was inspired by a chief who traveled to Washington, D.C. to collect a peace medal.
“He’s got a top hat – a symbol of white fashion,” Waguespack said. “He makes us think more critically about the peace medal and the top hat.”
A former Chicago set designer, Raymond Jonson is known for his modernist absraction-meets-theosophical spirituality Transcendental paintings of the Southwest. After visiting New Mexico in 1922, he returned home and painted its landscapes. His 1917 oil on canvas “Light” reveals a more representational side to his work.
“It’s a landscape, but it looks so modern,” Waguespack said. “It was incorporating the ideas of the Transcendental Painting Group and (the Russian non-objective painter Wassily) Kandinsky in Europe.”
The show also reveals how the Ashcan School founder John Sloan’s palette shifted after he came to New Mexico. The artist spent his summers in Santa Fe for 30 years. The desert landscape inspired a new concentration in his rendering of form.
“We think about 20th century art as about this place,” Waguespack said. “But almost everything that happened here had broader connections.”
Taos Society of Artists’ first president E. Irving Couse studied art in both New York and Paris. He spent his summers in Taos, where he painted Native Americans. The exhibition includes c. 1920 oil on canvas “The War Bonnet.” The painting shows a pueblo man holding a Plains war bonnet.
“There are people who have a knee-jerk reaction” to the painting, Waguespack said. “They have this idea that Couse was doing the Edward Curtis thing.”
The photographer provoked criticism by mixing tribal regalia and promoting the cultural stereotype of the so-called “vanishing Indian.”
But Taos Pueblo members often traded with the Plains tribes.
“People in Taos were trading for beautiful moccasins and bonnets because they were desirable objects,” Waguespack said. “We have this idea that Native people lived in isolation from each other. It isn’t as far-fetched as he thinks it is.”