Friday, October 25, 2013

Re: Catching Up -- Trancendental New Mexico

Emil Bisttram, "Indian Ceremonial" 1959

As a member of the New Mexico Museum of Art, I attend talks up in Santa Fe periodically that delve into the rather intricate questions of the origins and development of (fine) art and the artists specific to New Mexico.

The most recent talk I attended was geared to New Deal artists and arts projects in New Mexico and their legacy for the present. Kathryn Flynn and others presented the case that without the New Deal projects, almost all artists would have left New Mexico because there was no market for (fine) art any more thanks to the Depression. Some artists were literally starving or on the verge of starving. Were it not for the good graces of merchants like Santa Fe grocer Kaune's, and the credit they provided to artists during the toughest times, the situation for artists in New Mexico would have been much more perilous prior to the advent of New Deal programs like the WPA and PWA.

If they did nothing else, the New Deal projects and programs maintained a core community of artists in New Mexico through the Depression, and for years the the federal arts programs and projects replaced the market that had disappeared due to the financial collapse. Even so, at least one artist of renown and repute "gave his life" for the WPA. Gerald Cassidy was commissioned by the WPA (or perhaps it was the PWA, or even some other program, accounts vary) to paint murals for the Federal Courthouse in Santa Fe. He was painting them on canvas in a poorly heated warehouse on the edge of town. The heating equipment was malfunctioning, though apparently he didn't know it. Carbon monoxide was being released by the heater into the warehouse while he was working and he was getting sick day by day. He would go home and recover sufficiently to return to his work the next day, only to get sick again. Finally, he got sick and didn't recover. He died in 1936 of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Emil Bisttram, "Transcendental Abstraction," 1937

In 1938, a group of artists got together in either Taos or Santa Fe -- the record is somewhat muddled -- to form a new association called the Transcendental Painters Group (or sometimes called Transcendental Artists). Unlike previous artist associations in New Mexico, this one included women as full members. Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson were the principals, but other artists included Agnes Pelton, Lawren Harris, Stuart Walker, Ed Garman, Horace Towner Pierce, Florence Miller Pierce, Robert Gibbroek, William Lumpkins, and Dane Rudhyar. Their work represented a dramatic and radical departure from the representational style of picturesque "Southwestern Scenes" that had become the standard of work by practically all the "serious artists" in New Mexico since Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips broke a wagon wheel on the Road to Taos forty years before.

The work of the Transcendentals was forthrightly modernist, non-representational, and totally different from any previously known New Mexico "serious" art. It was deeply influenced by the abstract works of Wassily Kandinsky -- among others.

(Actually, I'd suggest that the earliest non-representational art in New Mexico that may well have influenced the Transcendental Painters is to be found in the pottery decoration and weaving of the Pueblo Indians and their Anasazi ancestors. The Indians' fresco mural paintings were -- I believe -- not known at the time. The Indian murals are a hybrid of representational and nonrepresentational images, much like rock art throughout the region.)

The philosophy of the Transcendentals was to get beyond the surface of things and paint -- for lack of a better word -- the Spirit. To... transcend... the superficial. Their works anticipate abstract expressionism and later arts movements away from representationalism, but because of WWII, which was looming on the horizon when the group was formed, the Transcendental Painters disbanded by 1941. The artists who were part of the group -- most prominantly Bisttram and Jonson -- would continue working in their "transcendental" style for the rest of their lives -- well into the 1970's and '80's.

Emil Bisttram, "Abstract", 1940

(I should point out that Jonson and Bisttram also worked in representational styles and Bisttram painted a number of murals for the New Deal arts projects in New Mexico and elsewhere in the country. Jonson became a noted professor of art at UNM, and a gallery for his many thousands of works was established there during his lifetime.)

The "transcendental" style itself goes in and out of favor in the arts field, partly -- in my view -- because it is essentially timeless. Works the Transcendentals did in the '20's, '30's and '40's can seem as fresh now as when they were originally painted, and (unless you're an expert) there is often no way to tell exactly what time period the paintings were done as the artists maintained a stylistic consistency in their nonrepresentational works throughout their long careers.

The Transcendental Artists in New Mexico anticipated art movement and styles that would come to the fore after WWII -- like abstract expressionism, etc.

At the time they were working together in New Mexico, they were consciously breaking free of the realistic/representational style of painting that was already a tradition. They had a difficult row to hoe, and yet, because their works were so strikingly different than anything else being done in New Mexico, they were hailed -- and exhibited -- in prominent galleries (including what would become the Guggenheim) in New York. When they tried to get their works shown in Paris, however, WWII intervened and many of their works were lost.

As I've mentioned many times, today the fine arts are an industry here, a very important industry for the overall economy of New Mexico, yet it's one that is sometimes taken for granted. The place is chock-a-block with artists of all sorts, primarily visual artists and writers, but since I'm from a performing arts background, I tend to pay close attention to performing arts and artists as well as visual and literary artists.

The arts realm here can be a very heady environment because the level of talent is so high, and the arts are so widespread and respected. It's sometimes hard for me to believe the arts are as well-regarded in New Mexico as they are, since most of the places I've lived in were difficult -- to say the least -- places for artists to survive.

The United States is not a very friendly environment for  "serious" artistic endeavors, and the primary art markets are often vicious and hostile toward newcomers/outsiders. New Mexico is an important part of the US art market, so it partakes of some of the hostility and viciousness that characterizes the markets in New York and Los Angeles. On the other hand, there is a tradition of welcome here that is often absent elsewhere.


  1. Interesting confluence. I recognized Dane Rudhyar's name as the mentor to one of my favorite astro-philosophers, Rob Brezsny. He also founded the field of transpersonal astrology. I didn't know he was a painter, too.

    1. I added a link to Dane Rudyar's biography which may help clarify the linkages you mention.

      Theosophy was part of the philosophy of the Transcendentals, thanks largely to Bisttram's interest in it. But there are threads throughout the movement.