Thursday, December 5, 2013

Art In New Mexico? Who Sez? Where? Why? Starving Artists Edition

Carlos Vierra, painter of New Mexico scenes, c. 1917
On to the next talk at the New Mexico Museum of Art's series, "New Mexico: The Artists' Century."

  • October 21: Depression and War Years
Independent Scholar, Lois Rudnick, has organized a session including presentations by Kathy Flynn of the National New Deal Preservation Association and Tey Marianna Nunn, Visual Arts Director at the National Hispanic Culture Center.
Now, this talk was really outstanding, I thought, in part because it got into aspects of Art (Big A) in New Mexico that I'm intrigued with and drawn to, including the Transcendental Painters and the extraordinary works of Hispanos during the Depression and War Years -- and before.

The premise basically was that were in not for New Deal programs (almost too many to list), Art (Big A) in New Mexico would literally have withered away. The support that had previously existed was scant to begin with, and when the Crash came, artists would have starved if not for the PWA, WPA and Kaune's (a well-known Santa Fe grocery store that extended credit to artists who stuck it out.)

Both Kay Flynn and Tey Nunn have produced extraordinary books, Kay's dealing with the wealth of New Deal art works still on view in New Mexico (and some that have been lost, like the murals at the now-demolished Santa Fe Indian School.)  Tey's book, called "Sin Nombre" -- "Without Name" -- details the wealth of Hispanic art that came from workshops all over New Mexico thanks to New Deal programs, although much of it wasn't recognized at the time as "art" -- largely because it was done by Hispanos, not Anglos. Consequently, much of it was classified as "crafts" and produced "namelessly." Tey has spent years tracking down the artists and giving them names. But much work is still to be done.

The Transcendental painters are really closest to my own artistic conception, and despite the fact that they were disbanded by 1941, thanks to the War, they continue to influence non-representational art in New Mexico and all over to this day.

They were strongly influenced by the philosophy -- if not necessarily the style -- of Wassily Kandinsky, one of my own major influences. The Transcendental painters were led by Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson; the group included a  number of other Europeans as well as -- surprisingly -- women, something previously unheard of in the New Mexico art scene (not entirely true, but few women had ever been included in the numerous Artists Colonies and Societies that sprang up following the Fateful Broken Wagon Wheel, regardless of the fact that powerful women (Mabel Dodge Luhan anyone?) were instrumental in bringing artists to New Mexico and maintaining artists once they were here.

And then there was Georgia O'Keeffe.

Oh, right. Her.

Women have always been crucial to New Mexico's Art (Big A) world, as artists and as marketing representatives and as inspiration. Sometimes, though, the focus has been on the menfolk to the exclusion of the gals.

Part of the problem -- in my humble estimation -- is that it is the nature of markets, especially Art Markets, to be exclusionary rather than inclusionary. Marketing "exclusively" is a fundamental tenet of galleries, isn't it? I've only known one community of artists that actively pursued the notion of inclusion rather than exclusion. And it actually didn't last very long.

The New Deal kept the Art world alive in New Mexico, and it was a major factor in the revival of New Mexico's Spanish art (or craft) heritage -- which had long since been eclipsed in the eyes of Anglo art patrons by the high profile granted to Pueblo pottery and Navajo weaving and silversmithing and the profits derived from it. It was as if, for many years, Anglos simply ignored the Spanish presence in New Mexico, not simply their artists and arts production. Consequently, the Hispanic arts in New Mexico withered and for a time almost vanished.

There is still discrimination according to Tey Nunn, and when I asked her why that might be, apart from just plain racism, she couldn't be sure. I would guess that to the extent real discrimination still exists (and it does) it's due more to "tradition."

What has always been shall always be...

Part of that tradition comes from the attitude of Anglo art patrons (and to an extent Anglo artists) when the Art markets in New Mexico were established in the early 1900's, mostly by Anglos to please themselves. At the time, Mexicans were considered inferior. In those days, Spanish speaking New Mexicans were classified as "Mexicans" -- and thus by definition "inferior." They did not create Art in the sense that Anglos appreciated and collected it. To the extent they did anything creative (and as "inferiors" it was almost unknown for them do "create" anything apart from babies -- haha) they did crafts. Their little chip carvings and devotional statuettes and their primitive paintings of saints on boards were hardly "artistic." They were barely even craft, and most of it was done well before the arrival of the wagon trains and merchandisers from Back East.

Once manufactured goods arrived in quantity, local production by Hispanos -- except as favored and fostered by Anglos -- all but ceased. The New Deal programs revived the traditional Hispanic arts and crafts. The revival of Spanish - Pueblo architecture  which which was continued and expanded by New Deal programs also assured the re-establishment of traditional Hispanic decorative arts.

But these traditional arts, as important as they were and are, were by nature self limiting. At what point, one may ask, were Hispanic artists permitted to deviate from tradition? Decades later, it's still a quesiton, one that will come up in later explorations of The Artists' Century.

By raising questions like this and by pointing out the importance of the New Deal to the survival of Arts (and crafts) in New Mexico, and by featuring the brief Transcendental movement, this talk perhaps was the most important and informative of them all.

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