Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Pondering Art in New Mexico: W[h]ither?

Under Construction, c. 1917, New Mexico Museum of Art

Having attended all of the talks this year on "The Artists' Century" at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, the last one yesterday, I've been pondering questions of art and artists in New Mexico in ways I never have before.

This is a good thing, for despite my doddering antiquity, I still enjoy learning new things, looking at things in ways I haven't before, and meeting some of the people who have influenced the course of -- for lack of a better word -- history.

I expect the list of talks and speakers to be taken down from the Museum website, but for now, here it is, and I'll try to go through them one by one.

As some of my readers know, I have something of a connection with the fine arts community in New Mexico through artists I've known mostly in California who came to New Mexico years ago. I've also met many artists in New Mexico over the years, some of whom are New Mexico natives, not California transplants. Though it seems in considering "art in New Mexico" there's no way to avoid a California connection.

In California, I presented a number of art exhibitions in conjunction with theater productions and on occasion, separately as stand alone events. Interestingly, just before we moved to New Mexico from California, the house next door to ours -- where Old Joe had lived most of his hundred-odd years, a wonderful man in every way -- was sold to the Curator of European Art at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento (the Oldest [Public] Art Museum in the West -- don't you forget it!). We only had a chance to chat a few times, but they were quite enjoyable chats.

My knowledge of New Mexico's art history has been relatively limited due to the fact that I concentrated my interest on living and recently dead artists and their works. I made the observation that "New Mexico is filled with art and artists," chock a block. I don't want to say that most people don't notice, because I don't know whether they do or not -- though I once heard some tourists in Santa Fe complaining that "there's nothing but galleries" in the City Different -- but I can say clearly that this is in total contrast to the situation in California, where there are still discreet "artists colonies," tucked away here and there, and a real confusion over what "art" is and is supposed to be and what function art might --or might not-- have. There is still real suspicion of artists among the Important People, many of whom feel that artists are people to avoid or dismiss, their work to be disparaged or ignored. (On the other hand, if the artist is "famous", they and their work are to be lionized and fawned over even if it is crap.

 This is particularly true in Sacramento where I lived, but it is characteristic throughout the state, and it was a constant struggle to implant the idea of art and artists as something to foster and encourage in the cultural consciousness. If it didn't make money for someone, too bad, so sad, who needs it?

It's a very -- very -- different situation in New Mexico. I'm convinced it's because Art (in the widest sense) is a multi-billion dollar industry here, a significant percentage of the New Mexico economy, and is integrated into the fabric of New Mexico's culture in ways that simply aren't the case in California.

But that doesn't make the arts world here either easy or particularly nice. It's highly competitive, exclusive and exclusionary, and occasionally destructive of the very things and people it claims to honor. While I don't want to go all the way over this edge just yet, the more I learn about it, the less I like it.

We live in one of the "empty quarters" of New Mexico that has no art. There are no galleries, no tourist havens, no well-known artists have their hermitages here, there is no arts community or arts training that I'm aware of close by, and so far as I know, there are very few practicing amateur artists in any medium in the vicinity. It's just not what people do here.

I've pointed out that our house is filled with paintings, almost all of which were brought here from California -- and we have far more paintings, prints, photos and etchings than we can display on the walls. We even own a few sculptures. This is very unusual, almost unheard of, among most of the local folks, though some of the area ranchers and pols have nice collections of art. In other words, collecting art, owning art, having art, enjoying art, and perhaps even creating art is an elite activity, something the common folk just don't do. Or at least they're not considered likely to.

I've never considered art particularly "elite" at all, finding the whole idea of the pretensions that go with art and artists to be absurd, and presuming that given the pervasiveness of art and artists in (most of ) New Mexico the pretensions and pretentiousness of so much of the Serious Art World would be limited or absent in New Mexico.

If I learned nothing else from the talks at the Museum this year, I learned that I was deeply wrong about that.

Oh, so deeply wrong!

Let's get to the talks, then, shall we?

  • October 7: Early Years—Taos and Santa Fe
Curator of Education, Ellen Zieselman, will discuss the impact that the AT&SF Railroad, The New Mexico Museum of Art and a broken wagon wheel had on the art of New Mexico.
Ellen is quite a character, and this introductory educational effort by herself was... well... in character.

She barely mentioned Santa Fe at all in her talk, preferring to focus on the legend of Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips and the Broken Wagon Wheel on the High Road to Taos in 1898, The Event that brought Art (Big A) to New Mexico. Prior to which, there had been nothing. Nothing but the Railroad at any rate and their stupid little calendars and Indian gimcracks. Oh, and the Harvey Hotels, particularly the Alvarado in Albuquerque. Nothing that Mattered, in other words. And No One Who Mattered.

This talk was focused on the Taos Society of Artists as it was established by Blumenschein and Phillips at the turn of the 20th Century, and how that effort -- above all -- established Art (Big A) in New Mexico once and for all. Everything -- everything -- flows from that broken wagon wheel high in the Sangres one sunny afternoon in 1898.

Well. OK. I was familiar enough with the Legend, but... what Ellen was loathe to mention, and no one else brought it up either, was that this Event and the Taos Society that grew from it, had little to do with Art (Big or Litte A) and practically everything to do with markets.

And the markets for New Mexico art and artists came about in large measure because of Blumenschein's connections in New York. Phillips had connections, too, but he stayed in Taos, Blumenschein didn't. Blumenschein kept going back and forth between New York, Europe, and New Mexico, getting People Who Mattered to notice this little out of the way corner of the savage frontier where Art was possible, Art was being done -- by himself and Phillips, if by no one else -- and where a Colony of Artists (Big C, Big A) could be established.


It's mostly about the Marketing, it's not about the Art. That would take care of itself -- once the markets were provided.

Why New Mexico? First of all, it is remote and isolated, and there was no burden of expectation as there was in the Art Capitals of the East and Europe. In other words, New Mexico represented Freedom(!), at least compared to what artists knew in the vipers' nests of the arts as they were in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries in Europe and New York.

Pristine. Clean slate. Tabula rasa. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Second, The Light! My god in heaven, The Light! Even for me, it's sometimes overwhelming. You don't necessarily know when The Light is going to appear, but you know without question when it does. Is it possible there is no other place on earth to match the matchless Light of New Mexico? I don't know, but I've never experienced it any place else, and it's breathtaking.

Then there's the Sky, that hard, intense blue Sky that goes hand in hand with the Light. Again, there is nothing else like it. It is a Sky that will change in a moment to dappled cloud, to intense storm, and back to hard, intense blue again. And then there are the Sunsets. Oh my god, the Sunsets! Even better, though rarely seen by the bon vivants, are the Sunrises. Oh my great god the Sunrises! Not to forget the Stars in the Heavens. Don't let's forget the Stars, oh please no.

Oh, but then there's the Land, the incomparable Land of enchanted mesas and arroyos and mountains and rivers and there's the People, too, the People who grow out of the Land, are part of the Land, are the Land, as much as any other attribute we could name.

There is nothing like this Land and Sky and Light and People back East. There isn't even thought that there could be anything like it.

An Artist has to paint this. Or photograph it. Or somehow capture it in stone or metal or wood.  

Has to.

Before it goes away. The thinking was, all this majesty was going to disappear one day, just go away. To some extent, perhaps, just that has happened. On the other hand, there is still plenty to draw artists hitherwards. Plenty.

A Colony of Artists was established in Taos by Blumenschein and Phillips thanks to that Fortuitous Broken Wagon Wheel in 1898, and from that everything -- literally everything -- that has come since sprang.

That's the legend at any rate.

Up to a point, it's fine, but she left out... well... Santa Fe. It didn't all spring from Taos, it sprang from Santa Fe, too, and I pointed out that we were meeting in a building and an auditorium in that building where the man who is called The First [Anglo -- never mind that he was Portuguese] Artist In Santa Fe painted some of the murals that decorate the walls, a building that was located across the street from where he had his studio, a photography studio by the way, that he'd purchased for a few hundred dollars in order to have a way to make a living while he recovered from tuberculosis, a disease that was once rampant, and that drove so many Artists (and Others) to New Mexico to begin with. It didn't all come from Taos and the Art Colony there.

Carlos Vierra moved to Santa Fe in 1904, suffering from tuberculosis. He purchased a photography studio on the Plaza in Santa Fe in 1905, and there set up his business. He's called the First [Anglo] Artist in Santa Fe because he'd been classically trained at the Hopkins Institute in San Francisco and worked as an illustrator in New York before becoming ill and moving to New Mexico -- as at the time the dry air of the place was considered healthful and curative for consumptives like himself.

As influential as the Taos Society was, the Santa Fe Artists Colony that grew up around Carlos Vierra and the many other artists who eventually flocked to the dusty little town down the hill from Taos was perhaps more fundamental to the development of Art (Big A) in New Mexico, because what came about in Santa Fe through the efforts of Vierra and those who joined him and came after him was far broader based, somewhat more inclusive, and led directly to the establishment of the New Mexico Museum of Art first at the Palace of the Governors, then across the street in its own building, the very building where we were gathered to learn about The Wonder of It All.

Yet Vierra and Cassidy and Shuster and Baumann and Cassidy and Ellis and all the rest were barely mentioned at the talk on "The Early Years" in Taos and Santa Fe. Barely a whisper was said...

Yes, well...

I must stop here for today because of my other obligations, but I will attempt to continue this series shortly... and I'll attempt to get some links and illustrations into this post before too much longer, too...

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