SANTA FE – Thomas Hart Benton’s black train slices across the desert, a ribbon of smoke snaking above the box cars in a talismanic trail.
Benton’s 1926-27 composition slices the sky, the desert foreground and the maze of hills behind it in horizontal bands. But as the eye wanders around the painting, that coal black slice draws the iris back like a raven on a wire.
Benton is one of 15 artists exhibited in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s “Modernism Made in New Mexico.” The show traces the work of artists from Thomas Moran to John Sloan, Edward Hopper, John Marin, Cady Wells and Raymond Jonson, all of whom found inspiration in New Mexico’s rugged landscapes. Like O’Keeffe, they developed a radically American style of modernism grounded in a regional sense of place.
Although Benton called himself “the enemy of modernism,” his painting reveals many of the precepts also adopted by O’Keeffe.
“The bands of color are totally modernist,” curator Carolyn Kastner said.
Benton showed a deep understanding of optical oscillation; the set of patterns riveting the eye as it looks for meaning.
The darkest horizontal line in the middle of a composition always reigns, even while the eye wanders around the corners of a painting.
“No matter where you look, it always dominates the surface,” Kastner said. “That’s the animal part of us. An artist who understands that will play with it. O’Keeffe does it with color.”
In “The Black Place” (1936), O’Keeffe lures the eye through the dark slashing “V” representing her favorite spot between a mountainside geometry of grays, creams and pink. The actual “Black Place” is located about 150 miles west of Ghost Ranch. O’Keeffe regularly camped and painted there with her friend Maria Chabot.
“It’s actually a shade that should recede,” Kastner said. “She’s developing the ability to move your eye across the surface. You just hop back and forth.”
O’Keeffe created “Bear Lake, New Mexico” (1930) a year after her first trip to the state while staying with Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos. Mabel’s husband, Tony Lujan, a native of Taos Pueblo, took her to sacred places normally unavailable to nonresidents.
A seemingly bare tree reflects gradations of light torching from ground level then fading into darkness. Pinpricks of stars sparkle through the branches.
An unseen campfire provided the light source.
“By eliminating the source of the light, she creates this mystical scene,” Kastner said. “This is a decidedly modernist experiment with a new subject.”
O’Keeffe also painted “Black Hollyhock Blue Larkspur” (1930) while staying with Luhan.
“She writes about walking past these,” Kastner said. “Look at the center of that flower. It forms this pentagram right on the surface. It just pops right out to greet you.”
“Horse’s Skull with White Rose” (1931) is a confection of whites, creams, grays and browns set against a stark black background.
“It’s like a Renaissance painting,” Kastner said.
“In 1929, she says she is captivated by the bones” in New Mexico, she continued. O’Keeffe shipped a barrel of them back to her New York studio after her first visit to the state.
New Mexico’s vistas worked their magic on other modernists as well. Robert Henri used his 1916 Santa Fe visit to reinvigorate his career. George Bellows and John Sloan, both friends and colleagues, followed his lead. More radically modern artists followed, including Marsden Hartley and Andrew Dasburg.
During the next decade a flurry of modernists arrived, including Josef Bakos, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Raymond Jonson, John Marin and Cady Wells.
Among the artists who visited, only Dasburg, Jonson, O’Keeffe and Sloan settled here permanently. O’Keeffe created abstract compositions hovering on the surface of the canvas, still remaining true to the contours and vivid colors of New Mexico.