I saw New Mexico for the first time in March of 1970 as I headed south through Raton Pass. It was love at first sight.
I was on spring break from Ohio University. I had never been as far west as Indiana before. I had been staying in Boulder, which I found to be just another suburb that happened to have mountains. It wasn’t the West of my movie-inspired imagination. Out of boredom and by chance, I started to drive south to see what else the West had to offer.
I had never seen such skies, light, colors or vastness as I saw that day crossing into New Mexico. I knew the plains to my left ended somewhere near the Ozarks, but that day I believed they were infinite.
I drove along the Cimarron River, through quiet canyons, then into Ranchos de Taos. Some hippies put me up at a commune overnight. I’d never seen adobe houses before. I didn’t know buildings could be bright pink or that window frames and doors could be turquoise. I thought to myself, I’m home. I moved to Albuquerque that August, and except for a painful 18 months in Connecticut for work, I’ve never left.
As you get to know the things you love, the romance fades. My newspaper career has been spent trying to understand why our state is so impoverished, why too many of our kids do so poorly in school, why we are so violent, why our government is so feckless. Days go by when I don’t notice the mountains or the sky.
So it was with some shock of recognition that I toured the Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company exhibit at the Harwood Museum in Taos last Sunday. Luhan and her circle – D.H. Lawrence, Carl Jung, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andrew Dasburg and many others – also came from other states and other countries in search of a romance with New Mexico.
Luhan, a wealthy heiress from Buffalo, N.Y., settled in Taos in 1918 and soon invited the great artists, writers, musicians and thinkers she had cultivated in New York and Italy to come experience “the dawn of the world.” She put artists up in her compound for months at a time. She assembled exhibits of santos and Native American art in the East. She published books and articles. The artist Marsden Hartley called her “a creator of creators.”
In the excellent catalog published for the Harwood exhibit, Lois P. Rudnick and MaLin Wilson-Powell say Luhan’s goal was to remake civilization. World War I had convinced her and other political and social radicals that the industrialized, capitalistic West could not be reformed; it had to be replaced. Political and social reform efforts had been fruitless, leading only to carnage. The new civilization would be built in northern New Mexico by borrowing from the ancient pueblo cultures and religions.
Luhan became aware of a highly misleading vision of New Mexico through the paintings of Taos Society artist E. Irving Couse. She sent her then-husband Maurice Sterne to investigate. He wrote to her, “Do you want an object in life? Save the Indians, their art-culture – reveal it to the world!”
Rudnick says Luhan believed “non-Anglo nonwhite cultures had laid the groundwork for a revitalized American civilization whose culture products would equal or surpass those of Europe.” The people she brought to Taos believed “Native and Hispano peoples offered a model of ecological, spiritual and artistic integration for an alienated and decadent Western civilization, which was invested in tawdry popular and middlebrow cultures.”
Victor Higgins was one of the artists Luhan introduced to New Mexico. “In the cities, men are careful, doing what others have done, bound by conventions, ringed round by tradition,” Higgins said. “The very air of Taos country, its nearness to big works of nature, drives caution from man’s brain.”
“In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new,” Lawrence wrote.
“The sky-scraper will scatter on the winds like thistledown, and the genuine America, the America of New Mexico, will start on its course again.”
Though Luhan remained in Taos until her death in 1962, most of her circle left New Mexico, but they left with an entirely new way of seeing, thinking and creating. The romance they took with them influenced their art the rest of their lives.
“Mabel Dodge Luhan and her ‘company’ have been excoriated for the many ways in which they contributed to the fantasy of New Mexico as the ‘Land of Enchantment,’ which has obscured its (still) ‘third world’ economic profile and racial inequalities,” Rudnick wrote. It was getting to know Third World New Mexico that ended my own romance and left me with a more complicated, more uneasy love affair.
Still, it is good to experience New Mexico once again through the eyes of the romantics who followed Luhan to Taos. It reminded me why I fell in love in the first place.
Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company will hang at the Harwood in Taos through Sunday. It will open at the Albuquerque Museum Oct. 28 and hang through Jan. 22.