SANTA FE – Fed by both the Alfred Stieglitz circle and Mabel Dodge Luhan, by the 1920s New Mexico had spiraled into a vortex of American modernism.
The New Mexico Museum of Art’s “An American Modernism” gathers works by Ansel Adams, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Raymond Jonson, Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Cady Wells and Edward Weston, among others. The exhibition opens on Friday, Oct. 2.
This selection of nearly 50 paintings, drawings, prints and photographs illuminates conflicting themes and artistic techniques ranging from photography to oil, watercolor and printmaking.
Photography curator Katherine Ware has organized the works into four themes: industry, nature, urban and rural to illustrate the artists’ struggle to identify subjects defining contemporary American life and art.
Modernism emerged in Europe as the continent churned through the dramatic social changes fomented by the Industrial Revolution. The controversial movement rejected traditional artistic styles and subjects in favor of a distinctive visual language using abstraction, formalism and flattening.
After the carnage of World War I, a small interconnected group of vanguard New York artists were determined to create their own uniquely American aesthetic removed from these European roots. Their efforts would pull New York to the epicenter of the art world.
The legendary art society hostess Mabel Dodge Luhan lured a galaxy of the avant garde to her Taos salons, including O’Keeffe, Hartley, Adams, Arthur Dove, Marin and writers such as D.H. Lawrence and Willa Cather. Luhan was familiar with the paintings of Picasso and Matisse through Gertrude and Leo Stein in Paris.
She found their equivalent in Stieglitz’s 291 New York gallery, then considered the center of the American avant-garde.
One of the most outstanding photographers of his day, Stieglitz also was a patron and mentor to important and innovative painters like Marin, Dove, Hartley and O’Keeffe, whom he eventually married.
Luhan visited Stieglitz often and wrote for his Camera Work magazine.
Both Stieglitz and Luhan siphoned modernists from Manhattan to New Mexico, where they played key roles in the development of American modernism. Luhan provided both space and solace for her guests, becoming a critical incubator for the movement, Ware said.
Many artists seized upon the camera as the ideal machine-age instrument.
Louis Lozowick’s “Untitled” (1933) lithograph showed tracks rolling into Manhattan carrying goods from the Industrial Age.
Forever associated with Yosemite’s Half Dome, even Adams joined the trend with “Factory Building San Francisco,” circa 1932.
Strand’s “Badlands Near Santa Fe” (1930) illustrates the “Nature” portion of the exhibition with New Mexico’s geologic distinction in reaction to urban mechanization.
“Many of these Easterners had never seen the Grand Canyon,” Ware explained.
Wells’ watercolor “Untitled” (1938) is a fractured New Mexico landscape divided by mountain peaks and roiling clouds above curvaceous valleys of farms and fields.
Andrew Dasburg’s watercolor “Sangre de Cristo,” circa 1933, takes a similar geometric approach, carving valleys beneath the triangular mountain range in bold swipes of paint.
The visual language of abstraction and flattening dominate many of the works. Jonson’s drawing “Stream of Light” (1933) turns a natural phenomenon into a conical shape, while Stieglitz acolyte Strand turned “The White Fence, Port Kent, New York” (1916) into a lace-like repetition.
Adams’ “Frozen Lake and Cliffs, Sierra Nevada, California” (1932) turns nature into an architectural form.
“It looks like a frieze,” Ware said. “There’s no perspective.”
The formalist portion of the exhibition includes Weston’s curvilinear “Coolidge Dam, Arizona” (1937) and Willard Van Dyke’s 1933 “Hornos, Taos Pueblo.”
“It’s a picture of something that exists, but they’re not trying to describe it,” Ware said. “They’re focusing on the shape.”
For these artists, New Mexico was uniquely American.
“Most artists involved in defining American modernism came to New Mexico or had direct contact with those who worked here,” Ware said. “Though many of them visited from other parts of the country, their time here was central to their efforts to forge a national vision and voice.”