ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “A” is for art. “A” is also for Albuquerque.
During the early 1950s, the Duke City’s rise in the art world was at its peak, reaching “A-plus” status.
As the city was growing, an artist population was being cultivated, led by the University of New Mexico’s Art Department.
Artists such as Raymond Jonson, Carl von Hassler, Pabilta Velarde, Betty Sabo, Lez Haas, Helen Hardin, Clinton Adams, Howard Schleeter, Frederick Hammersley, Richard Diebenkorn, Esquipula Romero de Romero and others were painting about a spirit and a place in a way no other medium can.
Their art ranged from modern abstract to landscapes and portraits, and many of them called Albuquerque their home.
Albuquerque’s rise in the art community is profiled in the documentary, “Painting Albuquerque.” The one-hour film airs at 7 p.m. on June 1 on New Mexico PBS Channel 5.
The documentary chronicles how Albuquerque’s art scene rose to rival the prestigious scenes in Santa Fe and Taos.
Behind the film are executive producer Michael Kamins and co-producer Anthony DellaFlora.
Kamins says the documentary came together well, because there are stories of both known and lesser-known artists.
“On the personal side of knowing many of these artists, is that I was inspired by them,” Kamins says. “As we found out more about each one, I thought people would want to know.”
For nearly a year, DellaFlora researched online and in the archives of the Albuquerque Museum. He then did about two dozen interviews in person before filming began.
“When we narrowed everything down, there were about 20 to 25 hours of footage,” DellaFlora says. “The only regret I have is that it’s only an hour. There’s so much more storytelling we’d like to do.”
DellaFlora says that, when production began, he wrote a 52-page script, which amounts to a four-hour series. He and Kamins then spent nearly a month whittling down the list and getting more focused on the exact direction.
“I think the thing that is most interesting is that the reputation that Albuquerque had in the ’50s began when modernism began taking over the art world,” he says. “Albuquerque was the place to be when it came to art. It lasted for nearly two decades and has since kept its place.”
The documentary follows Carl von Hassler, who arrived in 1922, as he played a pivotal role in cultivating Albuquerque as a place for art making. He is known for traditional landscapes and portraits of American Indians. He went on to influence a body of students. His murals at the KiMo Theatre are renowned and were one of Albuquerque’s first public artworks.
“Carl was the visionary behind it all,” Kamins says. “He was important into getting the scene off the ground.”
Much lamented by von Hassler and many others artists over the years, Albuquerque had a major problem to overcome – the lack of a permanent place for the community to see the great work being produced.
The documentary then hits on the venues that popped up around the city.
By the 1950s, Raymond Jonson, a Modernist painter known for his abstract paintings of the Southwest, was ensconced on the UNM campus in a combination residence, studio and gallery, which was intended to be a permanent art laboratory. After he retired in 1954, it became a lifeline for artists. This was also a time where UNM was churning out artists and art teachers.
And in 1953, The Albuquerque Modern Museum debuted. Yet, three years later the museum closed.
A decade after the modern museum opened, then-UNM Dean Clinton Adams enlisted photographer Van Deren Coke to launch the UNM Art Museum, where he curated shows and became the leader of the museum. The museum, which opened near the Albuquerque Sunport, was a quantum leap for Albuquerque because of the distinction of being the first permanent large-scale exhibition space in Albuquerque.
And in 1979, The Albuquerque Museum opened in Old Town, replacing the Sunport Museum.
This was also the time that the Tamarind Institute came to fruition at UNM, where it remains one of the top institutions in the world for lithograph.
Andrew Connors, curator of art at the Albuquerque Museum, says for the past five months, Albuquerque has been looking at itself and investigating the diversity and chaos of art making in the city.
The Albuquerque Museum, along with 516 Arts, Bernalillo County Public Art Program, City of Albuquerque Public Art Program, all participated in “On the Map: Unfolding Albuquerque Art + Design,” the new major permanent exhibit that opened earlier this year and takes up a third of the museum, looks at the history and future of art in Albuquerque.
He says the documentary, “Painting Albuquerque,” is an opportunity for a broader audience to see how profound art is in the city.
“There are so many great artists,” Connors says. “They worked together and knew each other. They built this scene from the ground up. Today’s artists continue to do the same thing. The community is thriving and there are many stories that need to be told.”
Connors says when the film project was starting Kamins sent out a questionnaire to a handful of people asking about their favorite artists.
“There wasn’t much overlap,” he says. “Everyone had a different list, which tells us about the talent here in not only Albuquerque but New Mexico.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Assistant Arts Editor Adrian Gomez can be reached at email@example.com.