Saturday, December 7, 2013

Tile Houses, The New Mexico-California Connection, and UNM-Albuquerque

We lived a few blocks from this house in Sacramento. The video truly doesn't do it justice. I took some pictures of it myself, but what has become of them, I don't know. It was long enough ago, I'm not even sure I used a digital camera. Maybe one day, I'll find them. Then again, maybe not. I never knew more than the sketchiest information about it, nor did I ever know who owned it or why it was covered in such elaborate tile work. It's not just the house itself. The whole property is covered with tile and sculpture, making the site in its entirety a work of art. I was told that the project was being done by an instructor at the nearby community college, but who, exactly, I never found out.

There's a tile house in Albuquerque as well, though I'm not exactly sure of its location. I have the address, but I've never been out to Beverly Magennis's Tile House, and the owners (Magennis's daughter and son- in-law) are said to be less than keen to have visitors pass by or drop in, even though the house is an Albuquerque Cultural Resource site.. It seems to be the way with those who make tile houses: make spectacles of the house, then hide. Magennis taught ceramics at UNM for many years, and she spent eleven years tiling her house in Albuquerque before she moved out. One day, no doubt, it will be open to the public to gawp at, but for now...

Beverly Magennis was featured in the next talk on "The Artists' Century" at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Beverly Magennis is highly regarded you see. She would be featured again in the last talk in the series, but first some commentary about this one:

  • November 4: UNM / Albuquerque
Retired MOA Curator of Art, Joe Traugott, will discuss the important moment in NM art history when “art moved south” from Santa Fe and Taos to Albuquerque. Learn how the GI Bill and the growth of Albququerque changed the face of NM art history.

A dapper gentleman stood before the assembly in one of the galleries at the New Mexico Museum of Art, a gallery that used to be the Women's Board Room, a gallery dominated by Tasha Ostrander's heroic 1996 work, "Seventy-three in a Moment" -- a ten foot circle made up of 26,645 cut paper butterflies. Don't laugh. It's amazing. And very moving.

The gentleman spoke to the multitude: "What do you think of when I say 'Albuquerque'?" [I paraphrase the gentleman throughout this piece, and may sometimes interpolate...]

I thought that was an interesting question. Here we were in Santa Fe, and in Santa Fe it sometimes seems that some residents are both hidebound and housebound. They can be rigid in their beliefs and tastes, and they don't go anywhere unless it's to Europe or Los Angeles or the South Seas.

Albuquerque? No. Not unless one has to.

The first answer: "The airport!"

Someone chimed in, "It's called the Sunport!" Modest chuckles from the crowd.

"Sandia Labs!" cried someone else. "Oh yes! The labs!"

"Kirtland; the Air Force base."

"Yes! How about UNM? That's in Albuquerque!"

The gentleman nodded. "Yes, yes, all those represent Albuquerque, don't they? How many of you go to Albuquerque for art, though?"

A hand or two was raised.

"Yes. Not many. And at one time, there wasn't any art in Albuquerque. It was a commercial town, whereas Santa Fe was home to an active artist colony from the early 20th Century. Who would even think of Albuquerque as a home for art? There were no galleries, no museums, and consequently there were no artists. [Translation: there was no art market in Albuquerque, and no market outside Albuquerque for works by Albuquerque artists.]

"Not until art instruction and programs began at the University of New Mexico under Raymond Jonson in the 1930's, and even then, it wasn't as if art flourished...."

We were told that Jonson used to drive down from Santa Fe where he lived, drive down to Albuquerque the 60 miles or so  on the tortuous La Bajada route along the Old Route 66. It took hours, three, sometimes four hours, one way. And Jonson would drive down and stay in Albuquerque for a couple of days to teach his classes at UNM, then he'd drive back up the hill to Santa Fe, hours and hours on the tortuous route, only to turn around and drive back to Albuquerque a few days later. Finally, he decided he'd had enough of that and moved to Albuquerque permanently. His house on the UNM campus became the first Raymond Jonson Gallery.

Though we were left with the impression that Raymond Jonson was "the first [Anglo] artist in Albuquerque," later on in the talk, it turned out there was already an Art Faculty at UNM prior to Jonson, and they were suspicious of his "radicalism," and particularly they were suspicious of those who Jonson recruited to come to the University to teach and demonstrate and show their art. Particularly they were suspicious of those who came from California, which they did. In their multitudes. Well, hand-fulls at any rate. Much of UNM's resident and visiting faculty came from California, mostly Southern California, and their styles came to predominate.

The gentleman was asked why? What was the faculty suspicious of?

Well, it was the "contemporary" style that they worked in, didn't we see? Jonson himself was a contemporary artist, and he had little use for the standard and traditional styles of the early Santa Fe and Taos schools of art, styles which we still see in galleries practically everywhere in New Mexico.

Because the traditional and representational styles of art were so well-established in Santa Fe and Taos, contemporary and non-representational styles would find a home -- but not necessarily a welcome -- in Albuquerque. At least at UNM. Eventually. Once the Old Guard relented or died off.

But the establishment of an art meliu -- or is it market? -- in Albuquerque would have to await the demolition of the Alvarado Hotel in 1970. This seemed like the most astonishing thing I'd ever heard in New Mexico, and I've heard plenty of astonishing things in my time.

What on earth did the destruction of the Alvarado Hotel have to do with the establishment of an art market (or meliu) in Albuquerque?

Simple, we were told: the Alvarado was the place where the important people of Albuquerque congregated, and "art" there, to the extent it existed at all, consisted of Indian pottery and the other stuff sold from the Indian Room; that and a few paintings (in the traditional Southwest Style, of course) and little else. That was the limit of "art" at the Alvarado, and until the Alvarado was gone, claimed the gentleman, any other art that might arise could not have a home. Once the Alvarado was gone, however, the world opened up.

Preservationists bridle at this astonishing notion. But there you are. The destruction of the Alvarado was one of the most egregious examples of Urban Renewal -- among so very may of them -- in what we now think of as an American hey-day. When I first came to Albuquerque in 1982, the Alvarado was long gone, and the site was a dusty parking lot. Years later, after the Santa Fe Depot that had been next door to the Alvarado burned down, something of a replica building would be erected on the site, The Alvarado Transportation Center, but no matter the evocations of what used to be, what's there now lacks the spirit of the original.

Something lost, something gained? Perhaps so, yes. And then again...

But for the efforts of the University, there would not be an Art community in Albuquerque, or so we were told, and were it not for the destruction of the Alvarado Hotel, that community would have no outlet.

Were it not for the [World Famous] Tamarind Institute, furthermore, which relocated from Los Angeles to Albuquerque, there would be less notice of the Albuquerque art community than there is.

And so we learned about all the printmakers and painters and sculptors and so on who came out of Tamarind and UNM and formed the backbone of the Artistic Presence in Albuquerque that still remains.

One of the backbone artists was Beverly Magennis whose Tile House is mentioned above and whose ceramics classes at UNM are still looked back on fondly. Many of the works created at UNM and Tamarind have been collected by the New Mexico Museum of Art, and some of them were on display in the "14,000 Years" show that had recently closed at the Museum. An exhibit, let it be noted, that was assembled by our dapper gentleman just before his retirement from the Museum as Curator of Art last summer.

The style of Art (Big A) in Albuquerque is on the whole quite different from that found in Taos and Santa Fe. Rather than focusing on the Traditional Southwest Style as defined by the first and second generations of Santa Fe and Taos artists, Albuquerque's artists have almost all come out of the Fine Arts program at UNM, and they have almost all been heavily influenced by the contemporary styles that Raymond Jonson and the other artists who taught at UNM typically practiced.

In some ways, this was interesting to me because I don't feel any influence at all from the instructors I had when I was taking art classes in college, even though a couple of my instructors were widely known and determinedly individualistic. Their artistic styles never particularly appealed to me, and as was the case nearly universally in the late 1960's and early 1970's, teaching artistic technique was verboten. If you could draw, you could draw, but you wouldn't learn how to draw in a college art class. If you knew how to work with paints, good for you, but you wouldn't learn how to work with paint in an art class in college. And so on. No one would "teach" you anything. You were on your own to wing it and come up with whatever you could do. I did a lot of collages and assemblages as I recall, none of which I've managed to hold on to. I sort of knew how to draw and paint prior to taking classes, but there were many aspects of technique that I wasn't able to learn from arts teachers at the time, and to that extent I still feel somewhat cheated. Later, much later, I would explore all kinds of techniques on my own and become fairly competent at some of them, but still I felt like it would have been a lot easier for me and others had those employed to teach us art actually deigned to do so.

Ah well, water under the bridge, long ago and far away...

The dapper gentleman asked "What do you think of when I say 'Albuquerque?'" and I thought it odd that no one mentioned the Rio Grande, the bosque, or the breathtaking sight of the Sandias looming over the city. No one mentioned the sunsets behind Mount Taylor, nor the petroglyphs on the volcanic highlands. No one mentioned the gobsmacking view at night driving in from the west, nor did they mention the canyons and trails into the mountains. No one mentioned the public art -- which is all over the city, much of it spectacular.

Of course, when you live in Santa Fe, none of this may register. Albuquerque is that rather dreadful place you go to get on a plane and fly to somewhere else. (Never mind that the Sunport itself is full to bursting with [Big A] Art.) You don't notice because you're in such a rush. Or you don't notice because it is Albuquerque...

I've never seen "Breaking Bad," but I hear it was very popular, and from that series, they say much of the world has learned plenty about Albuquerque and its ways... (Ahem: it's fiction....)

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