ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When a Taos dirt road broke that apocryphal wagon wheel trapping Bert Phillips and Ernest Blumenschein in 1898, Albuquerque was already a thriving industrial city.
With no disrespect to the Taos Society of Artists founders, Albuquerque has been steadily pushing the cutting edge of artistic boundaries, first as a nexus for the distribution of goods and food for the military. The arrival of the railroad, the University of New Mexico and later arrival of scientific laboratories and technology seeded the area as an artistic incubator.
“Up in Taos, they were celebrating a broken wagon wheel and creating images that could have been made 200 years ago,” Albuquerque Museum curator Andrew Connors said.
“Albuquerque was finding authenticity in the present,” guest curator Joseph Traugott added.
The citywide exhibition “On the Map: Unfolding Albuquerque Art and Design” aims to shatter the myth of Albuquerque as Santa Fe’s artistically challenged stepsister with an expansive collaboration at 27 sites, including galleries, institutions and public art programs. “Visualizing Albuquerque: Art of Central New Mexico” at the Albuquerque Museum is its nucleus.
The exhibition argues that with the post-World War II boom years, an influx of California modernists established, then crystallized, a progressive vision leaving the Santa Fe and Taos art colonies a shadow of romantic sunsets and pretty pueblos.
“Albuquerque gets its voice when a group of California modern artists comes to the university and transforms the art program at UNM,” Traugott said. “They started an active crusade for modernism.
“A part of Albuquerque became this sort of hip artist neighborhood,” he continued. “These people were contemporary and they made modern art. It was a hotbed.”
They also invited their friends.
Raymond Jonson began teaching at UNM in 1934 and converted his basement into a gallery. In 1950 Richard Diebenkorn moved from California to Albuquerque to earn his master’s degree on the GI Bill. He became immediately engulfed in another war pitting conservative professors against abstract modernists.
The faculty failed him for hanging abstract expressionist paintings for his 1954 graduation show. Jonson threatened to quit over the issue and academics relented. Diebenkorn went on to global fame.
Agnes Martin moved from New York to Albuquerque to enroll in the UNM graduate art program in 1946. At first she produced traditional New Mexican scenes. But the small watercolor “New Mexican Mountain Landscape, Taos” (ca. 1947) presents the mountain as a monolythic force, not a pastoral postcard. After returning to New York, she developed her mature style of grid-based paintings. Her fame exploded internationally after she returned to the state in 1967.
In 1961, Clinton Adams launched the real California invasion after becoming dean of the College of Fine Arts. He and printmaker June Wayne organized the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles in 1960, transferring it to UNM in the late 1960s. Adams’ faculty additions included Frederick Hammersley, who foiled the seriousness of geometric abstraction with pun-like titles like “Sacred and Pro Fame” (1978).
This was an aesthetic that shunned commercialism. Albuquerque artists found day jobs; sometimes their work never left the studio, Traugott said.
“I think people will be astounded by the work rather than the names,” he added.
Forged by assassinations, the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, the modernist’s children created more politically charged work.
Photographers Patrick Nagatani, Will Wilson and sculptor Luis Jiménez represent more recent innovations.
Nagatani captured the link between art and politics with his “Nuclear Enchantment” project, a series of composite photographs investigating the state’s nuclear issues. Wilson’s “How the West Is One” (2012) shows two photographic versions of himself, one in a cowboy hat and vest, the other draped in Native American jewelry, his long hair tied in a ponytail. His work argues that each of us is an amalgam of both past and present.
Today the post-gallery generation turns websites into Internet galleries.
“It’s hard to summarize what Albuquerque’s about,” Connors said. “Albuquerque is much closer to an art center like New York than Santa Fe is. Here in Albuquerque they aren’t household names. But they are in Berlin.”