Friday, December 13, 2013

Postscript on Previous Posts Regarding the New Mexico Museum of Art and the Stories It Tells

An Early Photo of the New Mexico Museum of Art, c. 1917
The image above was featured on the cover of the January, 1918 issue of Art and Archeology Magazine, and it's one of the first widely distributed pictures of the New Mexico Museum of Art, a building which appears to be nearly identical today.

Recent picture of NMMOA (from WikiMedia)
Part of the ethos of Santa Fe Style seems to be to preserve things "as they are" forever, which is a curious ethos when you think about it, especially in this land of mud and wind and endless sunshine. The Museum is consciously built in Santa Fe's New/Old Style. It's not built of adobe but of burnt brick and concrete with a cement stucco coating.  It's a near duplication of the New Mexico Pavilion at the Panama Pacific Exhibition of 1915 in San Diego, California, which in turn was styled after the Acoma Pueblo Mission Church originally built in the 1600's -- with a few other elements thrown in for variety. (Specifically, the second floor balcony on the facade of the St. Francis Auditorium is taken from features found on a number of other Pueblo mission churches.)

Acoma Mission Church, c. 1914

New Mexico Building, Panama Pacific Exhibition, San Diego, 1915
The New Mexico Building in San Diego's Balboa Park still exists (as the Balboa Park Club), though it has been expanded and remodeled over the years.

The Acoma Mission Church (San Esteban Rey) was in near ruins at the time its forms were adapted for exhibition spaces in San Diego and Santa Fe, but it would be restored some years later under the direction of John Gaw Meem, arguably New Mexico's premiere architect in the Santa Fe-Pueblo Revival Style.

San Estevan Rey, Acoma Pueblo, 1941, Ansel Adams image
The Museum houses an extensive collection of New Mexico paintings, much of it provided by the artists of the Santa Fe and Taos Art Colonies themselves or donated from private collections by benefactors at the time of the Museum's opening and over the years since.

I've written quite a bit about the Museum building and parts of its collections and will probably continue to write about them for the foreseeable future. I'm actually charmed by the building, and the art it contains is some of the most intriguing I've seen, though unfortunately, the Museum does not regularly display the majority of its early acquisitions.

These are some of the paintings mentioned as early as 1917 or 18 as part of the museum collection:

Pueblo Pottery, Henry Balink, 1917

Tesuque Pueblo, George Bellows, 1917

Cui Bono?, Gerald Cassidy, c. 1911

Dieguito Roybal, Robert Henri, 1916

Santa Fe Hills, Leon Kroll, 1917

There's nothing particularly revolutionary about these paintings, and the artistic movement they represent is that of  Southwest Realism, you might say, whereas I myself am much more drawn to early non-representational art such as that pioneered by Wassily Kandinsky.

Yet these somewhat contemporaneous works by artists in New Mexico also appeal to me. I think it is perhaps because these paintings -- and many others along their lines -- seem so clearly at home in their setting at the Museum. I'd say they were 'honest,' but I don't think that's quite correct. Honesty, in the context of art at the time and now is a relative thing. And at the time, 'honesty' in the depiction of Southwest genre scenes and people, particularly Indians, was a matter of interpretation.

Taos Pueblo War Chief, Julius Rolshoven, 1917 (El Paso Museum of Art)

The painting above, for example, was included in the initial collection at the New Mexico Museum of Art, and while it is certainly a technically competent work, and while it may accurately depict the physical appearance of a Taoseno Indian, the attire of the individual is entirely wrong. The Taos War Chief would not have worn a plains Indian war bonnet -- except as directed by an Anglo photographer or artist, and for a fee.

And yet paintings like that above were considered at the time to be accurate and honest depictions of the generic "Indian" -- at least as Indians were expected to appear by Anglo arts patrons.

In 1916, the following was written by Paul A. F. Walker regarding what was known as "The Santa Fe-Taos Art Movement:"

In other words, it was a not-so-nearby "faraway place," exotica in America, and it was dying to be painted. Note that in this early telling of "how art came to New Mexico,"  Joseph Henry Sharp is the pioneer; Ernest Blumenschein came afterwards -- after hearing thrilling tales of the Southwest from Sharp in Paris at the Academie Julian.

Thrilling, isn't it?

If one wanted to be taken seriously as an Artist (Big A) in those days, one went to Paris and trained at one of the Academies. One had no other choice in the matter.

One cannot consider the Santa Fe - Taos Art Colonies without a nodding acquaintance with  Edgar Hewett and Frank Springer, twin giants in New Mexico's late 19th/early 20th Century history. Hewett and Springer together literally created New Mexico's autonomous art-archaeology-anthropology community through active efforts and financial contributions.

Springer was the benefactor who sold Carlos Vierra the land just outside of Santa Fe on which to build his house in the New/Old Santa Fe Style in 1918, for just a dollar. It was the first residential example of the Style, they say, in the City Different. The house was known to local wags as "The Ruins."

The real estate listing for Carlos Vierra's house several years ago was the impetus for me to learn more about the early days of Santa Fe's arts colony and what has developed from it.

Carlos Vierra completed some of the murals designed by Donald Beauregard for the auditorium at the Panama Pacific pavilion and thence intended for the Saint Francis Auditorium at the Museum. These murals and the auditorium which houses them are captivating in their own right, consciously evoking the appearance and the spirit of an ancient mission church in New Mexico but transforming it for secular use.

Today, Donald Beauregard -- who died in 1914 -- is as highly regarded as any artist at the Museum. He was unable to complete more than sketches for the murals; they were completed by Kenneth Chapman and Carlos Vierra according to the indications of Beauregard's sketches.

The St. Francis Auditorium murals are treasured as much as, perhaps more than, the Will Shuster murals which decorate the patio of the Museum.

While attending a reception one evening at the Museum, I was struck practically speechless by the sight of the building's masses against the deep turquoise sky and sunset lit clouds through a second story window. It was extraordinary and for me at the time, it was breathtaking. I didn't have a camera and didn't take a picture, but the image has stayed with me. I thought at the time, and I think now, that the image I saw out the window was as striking as any of the art works held by the Museum. If not more so.

Yet at that reception I saw something that really shocked me, and I'm not easily shocked, especially when it comes to (Big A) Art. Some of the works ("") in this show are simply embarrassments. I was OK with -- but disappointed in -- the water-color blobs on note paper that are featured in the blurb on the show, but I was literally shocked to see two lengths of railroad tie or house beam side by side, untitled, but made of "Wood," being presented as... Art. Conceptually, I have no problem with it, but visually it didn't work. There were other works in this exhibit that failed almost as miserably as that one, and overall, the show tended to discredit the whole idea of Art and collecting art.

I look around our own adobe home at all the works of art we have on display (not to mention all the ones stacked in storage) and I imagine someone seeing them could ask why I bothered to collect them.  "They aren't very good, you know." Some of the paintings are relatively primitive, some are quite nice, but none is by a "recognized" artist, at least not one I know anything about. Most of the paintings are landscapes -- some of deserts, but many of lush green areas or sea-scapes. There are a number of distinctly California landscapes, including Death Valley, the redwoods of the North Coast, and a foggy view of the ocean from the bluff above Marina Del Rey (though it always reminds me of the cliff at Arroyo Grande.) Some of the paintings are of parks in Sacramento, and one is not a painting at all, but an art print from the 1940's of the Mojave in bloom in springtime -- when it is surprisingly green.

There are photographs on display as well. One shows the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers at Harper's Ferry -- a gorgeous sight that we were lucky enough to see in person one very stormy day when we took a day trip from Baltimore. Another shows Half Dome at Yosemite, also a gorgeous sight that we were privileged to see in person many years ago. (There were so many people crowding Yosemite, though, we never went back.) There's a photo I took of the Aztec Motel (now demolished) on
Central Avenue in Albuquerque when it was still a highly decorated folk-museum. There are a number of photos of Ms Ché in various settings, including Hazel's Place up in Cuba. There are photos I took of mining works in Grass Valley, CA, the Experience Music Project building and the Monorail track in Seattle, and autumn leaves on the ground in Sacramento. There is a stunning photo of an interior at Pueblo Bonito taken by an Indian photographer from New Mexico as well as a mountain photo by Ansel Adams. There's a photo-assemblage taken at Meteor Crater some years back. We also have some Georgia O'Keeffe posters, but I think only one is on display. 

We have half a dozen or so R.C.Gorman works in one of the bedrooms (I'm sure there are more because some are still in tubes).

And on and on. It's a varied collection, to say the least, and looking at it now, I see it as representative of our lives, or at least part of our lives, of some of the places we've been, or places we would have liked to visit. What's surprising is that so little of what's on display has anything to do with theater where we spent so much of our lives. We have quite a lot of theater memorabilia to be sure, but with a couple of exceptions, it's all in storage.

I've started sketching again, and pretty soon, I think I'll be ready to try painting once more. It's been years, though, since I did any art works myself, so I'm not at all sure what will come forth from my efforts now, in my dottage.

But I'm glad I'm in a place where art of all kinds is appreciated, even if I don't necessarily care for some of it. And I'm even gladder that I'm still learning...

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