Mabel Dodge Luhan catalyzed American modernism as a creator of creators.
Generous, nurturing, difficult and maddening, the Taos salon hostess was the Gertrude Stein not only of the Southwest, but of the American culture of her time, biographer and co-curator Lois Rudnick argues in the exhibition “Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West” and its companion book.
The exhibition opens at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos on Sunday, May 22, then moves to the Albuquerque Museum from Oct. 29 through Jan. 22, 2017. It ends at Luhan’s birthplace Buffalo, N.Y., on March 10, 2017.
The only child of a Gilded Age couple, Luhan created a “Paris West” in the American Southwest. She brought modern art to northern New Mexico, putting Taos on the national and international map, Rudnick said.
From 1918-1947, she influenced legions of European and American artists to discover new aesthetic, social and cultural perspectives on modern life.
Salon hostess, art patroness, writer and self-appointed savior of humanity, Luhan positioned herself as the magnet drawing such stars as Georgia O’Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, John Marin, Leopold Stokowski, Martha Graham and Marsden Hartley into her gravitational orbit.
“She was an artist at creating living space where people could create things they’d never imagined before,” Rudnick said. “I call her an artist of life.”
The wealthy hostess had already reigned over one of the most famous salons in American history in New York, a nucleus of pre-World War I luminaries who supported avant-garde ideas in the arts, politics and society.
In New York, Luhan wrote for leading modernist publications such as photographer/impresario Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work magazine and the leftist journal The Masses as she immersed herself in the bohemians of her era.
The ever-restless heiress spent time in Provincetown, Mass., where she met and married Maurice Sterne. She soon banished him West to New Mexico, a place she heard about from Gertrude Stein’s brother, Leo.
Within weeks, Sterne wrote her a letter that began “Dearest Girl – Do you want an object in life? Save the Indians, their art – culture – reveal it to the world!”
Mabel rented a Taos home in 1918. She fell instantly in love with both the town and Antonio Lujan of Taos Pueblo. She sent Sterne back to New York and married Tony, her fourth husband, in 1923.
Tony Lujan designed and built a four-room adobe that eventually swelled into a 17-room compound on her 12 acres of meadowland called Los Gallos in honor of the ceramic roosters perched on the compound’s roof.
Luhan was a pioneer, a trailblazer who preceded arts and intellectual havens like the Aspen Institute, Rudnick said.
“She wanted them to make use of the culture and the physical properties of New Mexico. They put these marginalized groups at the center of modern culture,” Rudnick said.
Those groups included Hispanic artists and dancers and the Penitente culture, as well as pueblo artists and dancers. Before the modernists’ arrival, artistic depictions of American Indians were often highly romanticized and often staged.
Luhan fed and nurtured the arts by setting up conditions in which artists could meet and interact. She also provided financial and social support. She was soon one of the great promoters of visual arts in the country.
O’Keeffe arrived in Taos in 1929. She was overjoyed by the landscapes and people she encountered; she would move to New Mexico permanently in 1949.
In the past, she had painted New York skyscrapers and the Texas plains. Soon her canvases turned to New Mexico’s mountains, mesas and skies.
Hartley fell instantly in love with the American Indians he encountered, calling them the first American artists. Soon he grew characteristically disillusioned with both Santa Fe and Taos, an attitude he adopted wherever he lived, Rudnick said.
Convinced that America was too commercial, Lawrence arrived in New Mexico determined to create his own utopia.
“He was a hippie before there were hippies,” Rudnick said. “Mabel invited him so he could be John the Baptist to her Jesus. He found her way too bossy and way too manipulative.”
Adams discovered his distinctive clarity and depth after meeting the photographer Paul Strand, another Luhan protégé. Before New Mexico, his prints had been softly focused re-creations of Stieglitz’s style. Afterward, they sharpened into the boldly dramatic contrast that clinched his fame.
That Luhan’s contribution to American moderism isn’t more widely acknowledged lies in a cascade of cultural and social attitudes. American culture ignores people who don’t produce, Rudnick said.
Then there was the sexist attitude toward rich women who hosted salons. East Coast opinion-makers viewed New Mexico as a backwater where nothing of significance could possibly occur.
Rudnick placed at least part of the blame on Mabel’s often thorny personality. She regularly fell out with the artists.
“She was bipolar, and that had a lot to do with her behavior,” Rudnick said. In a manic phase, Luhan was convinced she could save the world with her Utopian visions.
“When she was depressed, it was horrendous,” Rudnick continued. “She wrote an essay about what it was like to feel like you are absolutely nothing.”
Lithium was unavailable until 1964.
“She was often unbelievably generous,” Rudnick said. “And then she could turn on people for absolutely no reason.”
When Luhan died at home in Taos in 1962, few paid attention. She was buried in Kit Carson Cemetery, her impact on both New Mexico and America largely forgotten. In 1970, Dennis Hopper bought the house in another era of creators and seekers.