‘Western Eyes’ examines how 20th-century artists responded to NM’s heritage and terrain
Modern artists flocked to New Mexico, bringing new ideas and drawing inspiration from its cultures and landscapes throughout the 20th century.
Opened at the New Mexico Museum of Arts, “Western Eyes: 20th Century Art Here and Now” explores how artists ranging from John Sloan and TC Cannon to Georgia O’Keeffe and Fritz Scholder have responded to the rich heritage and beautiful terrain of the ‘state, imbuing their work with styles informed by national and international trends.
“The common thread begins in the early 20th century, art in New Mexico was a national and international dialogue,” said curator Christian Waguespack. “At no time has New Mexico been provincial. He has always been committed to the most avant-garde trends of the time.
Most New Mexico art lovers know the story of the broken wagon wheel that prompted Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips to stay in 1898, eventually forming the influential Taos Society of Artists.
The exhibition will allow visitors to see unexpected works by artists they think they already know, Waguespack said.
“For example, there are works by Gustave Baumann, but they are not the Baumanns we expect,” he continues.
The Santa Fe artist is known for his prints of glowing aspens and luminous landscapes.
“We have this great painting that he did in the 1960s,” Waguespack said. “It’s completely abstract.”
O’Keeffe’s section compares her earlier paintings, more representative of Lake George and New York, to the work she produced in Abiquiú. His “Desert Abstraction (Bear Lake)”, a 1931 oil on canvas, is so pared down that curators don’t know how to hang it.
“Which side is up?” Wavespack asked. “There’s no objective way to see it. O’Keeffe often hung his paintings in different ways. For O’Keeffe, it was all about shape and color.
Attempts to clarify the issue failed when the artist traveled to Santa Fe.
“At the museum, someone asked her about it and she said, ‘Yeah, it’s mine. ”
“It happened at a time when artists were playing with abstraction. The painting is really more about O’Keeffe’s vision than the lake itself.
Victor Higgins, a member of the Taos Society of Artists, was a New Deal artist who painted the “Moses the Law Giver” mural at the Old Taos County Courthouse in 1934.
“He studied with Diego Rivera and brought Mexican approaches to political art,” Waguespack said. “It’s an international dialogue between Taos and Mexico City.”
The exhibit features Higgins’ preliminary painting of the piece.
“Washington Landscape with Peace Medal Indian” (1976) by TC Cannon (Kiowa/Caddo) illustrates the influence of the Institute of Native American Arts in Santa Fe on Native American painting. Cannon enrolled at the IAIA in 1964, where Scholder (Luiseño) was one of his professors.
“They created a voice and an aesthetic for themselves,” Waguespack said. “I love this because it’s very indicative of how Native American artists were taking control of how Native Americans were portrayed. They were engaged with the art of the time; it’s influenced by color pop and expressionist .
Cannon was inspired by a chef who traveled to Washington, DC to collect a peace medal.
“He’s got a top hat – a symbol of white fashion,” Waguespack said. “He makes us think more critically about the peace medal and the top hat.”
A former Chicago set designer, Raymond Jonson is known for his transcendental paintings of modernist abstraction and Southwestern Theosophical spirituality. After visiting New Mexico in 1922, he returned home and painted his landscapes. His oil on canvas “Lumière” from 1917 reveals a more figurative side to his work.
“It’s a landscape, but it looks so modern,” Waguespack said. “It incorporated the ideas of the Transcendental Painting group and (the non-objective Russian painter Wassily) Kandinsky in Europe.”
The show also reveals how Ashcan School founder John Sloan’s palette changed after he arrived in New Mexico. The artist spent his summers in Santa Fe for 30 years. The desert landscape inspired a new focus in his rendering of form.
“We think of 20th century art as this place,” Waguespack said. “But almost everything that happened here had wider connections.”
The first president of the Taos Society of Artists, E. Irving Couse, studied art in New York and Paris. He spends his summers in Taos, where he paints Native Americans. The exhibit includes c. 1920 oil on canvas “The war bonnet”. The painting shows a Pueblo man holding a Plains war bonnet.
“There are people who have a knee-jerk reaction” to paint, Waguespack said. “They have this idea that Couse was doing the Edward Curtis thing.”
The photographer has drawn criticism for mixing up tribal insignia and promoting the cultural stereotype of the so-called “disappearing Indian”.
But Taos Pueblo people often traded with the Plains tribes.
“The people of Taos traded beautiful moccasins and beanies because they were desirable items,” Waguespack said. “We have this idea that Aboriginal people lived in isolation from each other. It’s not as far-fetched as he thinks.