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Abstract art exhibit embraces seismic shifts

“Kin Nah Zin #233,” 1983, is a collage on paper by Emmie Whitehorse. (Courtesy of Blair Clark)

“Kin Nah Zin #233,” 1983, is a collage on paper by Emmie Whitehorse. (Courtesy of Blair Clark)

California and New Mexico artists transformed their states into artistic epicenters through the sleek edges and cool vocabulary of abstraction.

“Material Matters: Selections from the Joann and Gifford Phillips Gift” pairs these seismic shifts through about 25 paintings at the New Mexico Museum of Art beginning April 17. The gift of 16 paintings by California-based artists hang with about nine works from New Mexican painters, with abundant cross-pollination.

California artists helped redefine abstract painting through experimentation, transforming unusual materials into bold statements in the 1960s and ’70s. These innovators reached well beyond paintbrush and canvas by incorporating solar burning, glue, wood, fluorescent light, glass and resin into their arsenals.

As New Mexico emerged as a national art center in the 1980s, its redefinition of fine art produced a similar convulsion. Major artists shifted the focus from traditional landscapes and portraits to the sharp lines and sophisticated lexicon of abstraction.

“It represents a zeitgeist of a time period in each location,” curator Merry Scully said.

Many of the West Coast artists – especially Richard Diebenkorn (who spent time in both California and Albuquerque), Allan McCollum and John McLaughlin – redefined abstract painting.

“Chartres,” 1984, by Allan Graham is of wood, canvas, pages from the Navajo New Testament and water-based pigment.

“Chartres,” 1984, by Allan Graham is of wood, canvas, pages from the Navajo New Testament and water-based pigment.

At the time, California was newly emerging as a national art center.

“There was a lot of experimentation,” Scully said. “Artists were making bold statements and working in innovative ways. The art galleries and institutions were re-shaping themselves.”

Abstract classicist McLaughlin was a pioneer in minimalist and hard-edged painting.

Crossover reigned; Los Angeles artist Ron Cooper moved from California to Taos. His work explores light, reflection, transparency, and color through fluorescent lights, neon, and glass.

In New Mexico, Allan Graham (also known as Toadhouse) worked in both Albuquerque and Santa Fe. His “Chartres” (1984) climbs in a cathedral of wood, paint and copies of the Navajo New Testament.

“The piece is very architectural,” Scully said. “Chartres has the arching buttresses and the physical structure differentiating it from other architecture of that time. There’s that reference to that undulation.”

Graham and his wife ran a South Valley gallery in the warrens of an old Albuquerque hotel. When he and his son decided to dig an underground kiva/meditation spot in back, the subterranean room lured toads, giving him his pseudonym.

“Figures With A Purple V,” 1976, is a lithograph by Eugene Newmann. (Courtesy of Blair Clark)

“Figures With A Purple V,” 1976, is a lithograph by Eugene Newmann. (Courtesy of Blair Clark)

Emmi Whitehorse’s work is nothing like so-called Navajo “traditional” art. The Santa Fe artist’s nonobjective collage, “Kin Nah Zin #223” (1983) gathers the whimsical motifs of Miró in fractured geometry and splashes of color.

Eugene Newmann’s lithograph “Figures with a Purple V” (1976) explores triangulation in both the figurative and symbolic sense on multiple levels. The multiple “Vs” could be letters, or they could represent the symbol for less than/greater than.

Newmann’s work hovers between abstraction and figuration, banishing boundaries in both categories. The artist moved from California’s Monterey Peninsula to northern New Mexico in 1972. Both he and Richard Hogan shattered the stereotypes of “Santa Fe style,” with its yowling coyotes and calico gekkos, propelling the city into a nexus of sophisticated art.

“Both of these time periods felt like seismic shifts,” Scully said. “Artists were taking chances, redefining their media, breaking ground and making works that would eventually reverberate nationally and internationally.”

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