SANTA FE – Artists have flocked to New Mexico’s kaleidoscope of color and light for generations.
To dovetail with the city of Santa Fe’s “Summer of Color” celebration, the New Mexico Museum of Art is opening its vaults to a spectrum of open landscapes bathed in vibrant hues.
“Colors of the Southwest” opens on Friday, March 6, at the museum.
Curator Carmen Vendelin has focused on 73 works, mostly landscapes dating from the early 20th century to the present. The exhibition encompasses a veritable who’s who of early and contemporary New Mexico artists, including Gustave Baumann, Fremont Ellis, William Penhallow Henderson, Victor Higgins and Sheldon Parsons, the first director of the Museum of New Mexico.
The show also features work by Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Robert Henri, Gerald Cassidy, Eddie Dominguez, Kate Krasin, Dorothy Morang, T.C. Cannon and Fritz Scholder. The artworks range from paintings, photographs, prints and watercolors to ceramics.
Many of the artists faithfully rendered colors specific to local geography, with the sun imparting extremes of vivid hues as well as muted, bleached effects. The imagery is instantly recognizable as Southwestern, with craggy rock formations, mountaintops and desertscapes. These landscapes often combine the two divergent streams of Romanticism and Realism.
“There are qualities of light you don’t get other places,” Vendelin said. “It reminds me of the Impressionists in that it changes daily.”
E. Martin Hennings’ “The Rendezvous” (1939) glows with a thicket of golden aspens amid a meeting of American Indians and their grazing horses. A student at the Art Institute of Chicago, Hennings moved to Taos in 1921. The move changed his hallmark from a dark Symbolist mysticism to a more luminous quality, Vendelin said. He achieved this using brighter colors applied in thin layers.
Louise Crow worked in Santa Fe between 1918 and 1921, yet her c. 1919 portrait of “Yen-see-do” looks strikingly contemporary. The color planes in her subject’s clothing boldly flatten the form against the picture plane. The blue mountains offer both a sense of distance and depth.
Along with Impressionism and post-Impressionism, Fauvism influenced American Modernists. These artists were influenced by scientific developments in color theory. Fauvist art usually employed flat, vivid hues. New Mexico’s adobe architecture and desert landscapes seemed made for Modernists working to flatten and abstract figurative motifs.
Many Southwestern artists explored their love of color well beyond recording their direct observations. They inherited nonobjective ways of using color from the late-19th-century Symbolist ideas of Paul Gauguin and the early-20th-century writings of Wassily Kandinsky, as well as the vibrant palettes of Fauve artists such as Henri Matisse.
An unofficial member of the Transcendental Painting Group, Dorothy Morang was highly influenced by Kandinsky’s theories of nonobjective art. In “Sunrise,” (1940) she created an abstracted landscape with an expressionist palette that is distinctively Southwestern.
“She’s playing around with color relationships and math in the relationships between the forms,” Vendelin said.
Contemporary painter Kate Krasin’s “Flying Red Buffalo” (1977) is one of a series of silkscreen prints the artist made from 1977 to 1997. Inspired by Japanese woodcuts, Krasin preferred a more intimate scale than the traditional epic Western vistas. Her crimson creature seems to leap with joy against a cotton ball sky.
Santa Fe artist Billy Schenck creates Western Pop imagery sometimes tilting toward the kitsch. His cinematic composition “Coming Down from the Mountain” (1993) embraces that aesthetic in a flood of color.
“This looks like it could be a Western with the hero riding off into the sunset,” Vendelin said. “There’s a lot of artists here who romanticize what they imagined the past was like.”
The “Summer of Color” includes the museums and institutions around Santa Fe’s Plaza as well as those on Museum Hill. Many of these focused on a single color: red at the Museum of International Folk Art, turquoise at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, indigo at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, silver at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian and orange at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden.