Monday, April 28, 2014

Southwest Allure at the New Mexico Museum of Art

George Wesley Bellows (American, 1882-1925), Santuario de Chimayo, 1917, oil on canvas, 19 1/8 x 23 1/4 inches, Collection of Judy and Lee Dirks, Santa Fe, New Mexico

The New Mexico Museum of Art has a wonderful collection of works by members of the Santa Fe Art Colony, as would make sense, given the fact that the current museum (opened in 1917) was intentionally created for the purpose of exhibiting works by locally and regionally based artists and encouraging an active art and cultural life in Santa Fe.

The current exhibit of paintings called "Southwestern Allure: The Art of the Santa Fe Art Colony", however, features works that were assembled by Dr. Valerie Ann Leeds for the Boca Museum of Art in Boca Raton, Florida, and were most recently exhibited by the Mennello Museum of American Art near Orlando, Florida.

For me, this is a fascinating journey. Though I'm now living in New Mexico, Florida was one of my working stops during extensive travels in the Show Business, and my memories of Florida, from the steam-bath heat of the place that hit me like a sledgehammer when deplaning in Tampa to the glorious sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico, to the wild times among the back country rednecks who never let you forget that Florida is in the South (oh, golly) are some of the strongest I still have.

That a Florida museum would be responsible for assembling an extraordinary exhibit of Santa Fe Art Colony works is not as strange as it may seem, though it did strike me as odd when the New Mexico Museum of Art first sent an announcement of the upcoming exhibit of Santa Fe Art Colony works to replace the appallingly embarrassing "50 Works for 50 States." The Museum more or less permanently exhibits a rather sparse sample of their extensive collection of New Mexico artists' works, but I've been told that they have far more works in storage that are rarely if ever exhibited, and over the years, they've sold off much of what they once had in order to purchase other works by non-Southwest artists and expand their collections into more commonplace and typical realms.

A big part of what brought me to New Mexico and keeps me here are the artists and the full immersion in the arts that is almost everywhere you turn in the state... except, interestingly, in the Empty Quarter where we live. Oh, there are artists, plenty of them, in the region and round about, but there is very little sign of it on the surface, unlike the case in Santa Fe and Taos and some of the other places in New Mexico where art is conducted and practiced on an industrial scale.

As I've written before, the industrial scale arts in New Mexico originated with an energetic little Californian named Carlos Vierra, who, after a sojourn in New York as an illustrator, became ill with tuberculosis and relocated to New Mexico for the cure. Unfortunately, he got worse where he first landed at a curative camp along the Pecos, and he wound up transferring to St. Vincent's Hospital in Santa Fe, where shortly, almost miraculously, he was pronounced well.

He bought a photography studio on the Santa Fe Plaza in 1904 (for I believe it was $200) and he commenced to make a living as a photographer and painter of Southwest scenes -- which earned him the title of "The First Artist in Santa Fe." I've pointed out that this is absurd on its face, as Santa Fe had been full of artists and artisans long before Carlos Vierra was born, for centuries before Carlos Vierra was born. So his title was changed to "the first resident artist," and that doesn't work, either. So his title was changed again to "the first easel artist," and that might work, except that I'm sure some of the pre-existing santeros must have occasionally employed easels. So his most hilarious title became "the first Anglo artist" in Santa Fe, which simply boggles the mind, as he was the son of Portuguese immigrants, and was ethnically and culturally as Portuguese as he was Americano. Anglo? Not hardly. Portuguese-American? Sure. (But as everyone knows, in New Mexico, everyone who is not Spanish or Indian is automatically categorized as "Anglo.")

Vierra was instrumental in establishing Santa Fe as a vibrant art capital, there's no doubt about that, and perhaps that's why his title as the "first" -- something -- is considered so important. For prior to his advent in Santa Fe, "art" -- in the Anglo and commercial sense -- was pretty much confined to the Taos Art Colony which had been established 80 miles up the road in 1898 by Ernest Blumenschein's and Bert Phillips' fortuitous Broken Wagon Wheel and the artists they were able to attract to the area from Back East.

We're talking about studio art, easel art, paintings in a recognized style, for exhibit in recognized galleries and museums, and for sale to important collectors.  "Colonial" art in a sense, but not in the sense that New Mexicans had been using the term with regard to the Spanish colonization. Colonial art produced in colonies of artists brought together under a particular (and often almost monastic) "rule" that described and delimited stylistic and other parameters that all members of the colony were expected to adhere to.

That's what we're talking about when we're talking about the pre-industrial artistic life in New Mexico, when the idea of New Mexico as an arts and cultural capital was being explored by artists from New York, Europe, and in a few cases, California and elsewhere.

The Southwestern Allure exhibit was breathtaking, from the first to the last. Many of the paintings on view were ones I'd never seen before, such as the one below by Carlos Vierra:

Carlos Vierra (American, 1876-1937), Northern New Mexico in Winter, 1922, oil on canvas, 28 x 38 inches, Collection of Gerald and Kathleen Peters, Santa Fe, New Mexico
I'd seen some of his other paintings, specifically of Pueblo Mission churches as well as the murals he painted in the Museum's St. Francis Auditorium, but never anything like this. Part of what's so striking about it is how dark it is... So much of what I've seen of Vierra's other works is almost oversaturated with light to the point of being washed out.

The light in New Mexico is one of the chief allures for artists -- I've gasped myself at some of the light in these parts, even that which comes through the dining room window from time to time. While the light is alluring, it can be devilishly hard to capture in paint, as many, many artists discovered for themselves.

This watercolor by Edward Hopper, for example, painted in 1925, shows some of the difficulty painters encounter with the light:

Edward Hopper (American, 1882-1967), Ranch House, Santa Fe, 1925, watercolor over pencil on paper, 13 3/4 x 19 3/4 inches, Williams College Museum of Art, Bequest of Lawrence H. Bloedel, Class of 1923, 77.9.6
While Hopper certainly captured the sense of the light in Santa Fe just before or after noon, the light plays tricks on the eye, no matter where you are or what time of day you're experiencing it.

Marsden Hartley did this pastel on paper in 1918 in an effort to capture the scale of the landscape as well as the light, and it is the first work that greets you as you enter the exhibit area:

Marsden Hartley (American, 1877-1943), Arroyo Hondo, 1918, pastel on paper, 18 x 28 inches, Collection of Gerald and Kathleen Peters, Santa Fe, New Mexico

It's like a bang in the face that makes me smile -- because despite its exaggeration, it's true. It depicts the feeling you get from the scale and the light, how insignificant you are in the vast eternal scheme of things, and yet how protected you feel in the embrace of the mountains.

Stuart Davis's Pajarito Plateau has long been one of my favorites of the era, for its sense of humor is almost unique given the seriousness with which so many members of the Santa Fe Art Colony approached their tasks:

Stuart Davis (American, 1894-1964), Pajarito Plateau, 1923, oil on canvas, 22 x 36 inches, Collection of Gerald and Kathleen Peters, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Gerald Cassidy's smiling Pueblo Indian (in a Plains Indian headdress of course) also makes me laugh, as so many of Cassidy's works do, but this one, I had never seen before, so it held a special appeal for me:

Gerald Cassidy (American, 1879-1934), Master of Ceremonies, 1925, oil on canvas, 18 x 18 1/8 inches, Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, Texas, Mrs. H.S. Griffin Collection
Note the brilliance of the colors and especially the turquoise sky. While we often have the bluest blue skies I think I've ever seen, the sky only turns turquoise in contrast to some other, orange-y color nearby. I've seen it, for example, in the courtyard/patio of the Museum itself as the cubical building masses are limed orange/brown by the setting sun. In fact, I can sit in that courtyard all day long and just watch the different colors appear in the sky and the building, or go upstairs and watch the clouds turn from puffy white to gold to pink, and finally fade away in the charcoal gray of darkness. It's magical.

While there is still a very strong genre of Southwestern art being done today, these paintings, mostly from the teens and 20s of the last century, when the idea of painting the Southwest was still relatively new, are some of the most evocative I've seen. They seem unique today.

This is perhaps my favorite period of New Mexico art, and I'm still learning everything I can about it and about the artists who created these works.

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