Modernism in New Mexico

New ways of thinking about painting — theorizing, organizing and practicing it —
are the hallmarks of the modernist painter

Scroll down

Art flourishes where powerful visual stimuli meet an artist's fertile sensibilities. New Mexico's diverse landscape and its rich cultural mosaic have long attracted painters in search of fresh subject matter, clear light and spiritual intensity. Here they have established communities of artists—first at Taos, later in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. For many observers, the work of the early Romantic-realist painters of Taos has come to represent Anglo-American art in New Mexico. But a fuller understanding of the state's artistic heritage must take into account the contributions of another kind of painter, the modernist.

These artists, for whom nature functioned as a metaphor of personal freedom and individual fulfillment, were determined to create a new, expressive visual language appropriate to the twentieth century. They formulated many visual dialects, but most held in common the desire to express an inner experience of reality rather than to reproduce the external world. For some, that involved painting's formal issues: Fauvism's analysis of color or Cubism's study of the abstract structure lying behind surface appearances. Line, mass and color--the formal building-blocks--were more important than a painting's subject matter. Still other modernists—those of an Expressionist bent—sought to capture in their painting the expression of feeling and mood.

New Mexico attracted modernists of all stripes, starting soon after the 1913 Armory Show in New York ignited the spirit of artistic dissent and began to explode old myths and expectations about what painting should look like. Paul Burlin (1886–1969), whose drawings had been included in the Armory Show, moved to New Mexico and began to paint bold landscapes, daring in their deliberate distortions of color and form. The massive shapes of New Mexico's hills, the strength of its earth-born adobe structures and its vibrant color all found their way into Burlin's early encounters with the land. For him, intuition overrode the intellectual in art.

The exaltation of intuition was also strong among many New York artists and intellectuals associated with Alfred Steiglitz's gallery 291 and his publication Camera Work. In the 1910s and 1920s, a number of these people made their way to New Mexico. Pivotal in bringing avant-garde painters to the state was Mabel Dodge, who settled at Taos in 1917. Already a veteran of the avant-garde intellectual scene in Greenwich Village, Dodge now set about to establish a haven for artists and writers in Northern New Mexico. Believing Taos a place of intrinsic spirituality, she invited painters, poets, composers and photographers for long stays at her compound adjacent to Taos Pueblo. Her reverence for the region's native inhabitants became an intrinsic part of Dodge's philosophy, especially after she married Tony Luhan. Exposure to native lifeways, as well as to the area's physical beauty, solitude and transcendent mystical nature were all part of the experience she afforded to her visitors.

Since these attractions—the mystery of nature, its spiritual overtones and introspective qualities—were central to much modernist thinking in the visual arts, it is not surprising that Dodge's visitors were often powerfully struck by their encounters with New Mexico. Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), long a member of the Stieglitz circle, was invited to Taos by Dodge in 1918. During a visit stretching into some eighteen months, Hartley produced a body of highly intuitive explorations of the landscape and of still life subjects. His essentially spiritual approach, combined with a hypersensitivity to light and to the visual rhythms he felt in the land, set Hartley's work apart from most other New Mexico landscape paintings.

Another of Dodge's guests in 1918 was Andrew Dasburg (1887–1979), whose approach to nature owed more to French modernist innovations than to Hartley's brand of intuitive response. In Paris, Dasburg had absorbed the formal lessons of Renoir, Matisse, the Cubists and Futurists; but his artistic vision was most strongly shaped by Cezanne's explorations of shifting space, tensional lines, and structural use of color. By 1913, when he exhibited in the Armory Show, Dasburg was well along on the path to abstraction. The New Mexico landscape, peppered with ready-made cubiform structures defined by sharp sunlight, challenged him to pick out geometric form and impose structure. Still life and portraits were also formal testing-grounds for Dasburg, who settled permanently in New Mexico in the 1930s, but landscape—increasingly refined and abstracted—remained his most powerful achievement.

Raymond Jonson (1891–1982), during nearly six decades of painting in New Mexico, pursued a singular goal: to express the immaterial through the material means of paint. Like Hartley and Dasburg, Jonson became well acquainted as a young artist with advanced artistic theory, particularly the writings of the Russian Wassily Kandinsky. Convinced by his reading that nature and humanity were part of the same cosmic whole, Jonson began to explore relationships between nature and subjectivity, between rhythms in color and form, between painting, music and mathematics. Such concerns, coupled with the visual grandeur of New Mexico, formed the basis of a lifetime's work. The significance of things, wrote Jonson, can be heightened "when properly manifested through a rhythmic unified whole . . . which moves and calls forth the spirit of each object."

The summer of 1929 marked a turning point in the legendary career of Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986), whose shadow still looms large in the history of American and New Mexican art. That year she responded to Mabel Dodge Luhan's invitation to visit Taos. She would never be the same. Though she had spent time in the Southwest before, the landscape of northern New Mexico spoke to O'Keeffe that summer, engaging her will and her artistic imagination in an insistent dialogue that would culminate in her permanent move to the state in 1949. Rightly called both a realist and a modernist painter, O'Keeffe gracefully accommodated both visions, sometimes within the same painting. She was a modernist in the sense that her paintings gave pictorial form to what she described as "the intangible thing in myself." In New Mexico, isolated images of bones, trees, and crosses became vehicles for her lyric vision. But she also celebrated the realities of its architecture, distant hills and colored earth, balancing an impulse to dream with a lifelong search for timeless and universal experience in the landscape.

New ways of thinking about painting—theorizing, organizing and practicing it—are the hallmarks of the modernist painter. New Mexico's art has been flavored by a potent blend of styles, a mixture enriched by dozens more modernists than could be discussed here. Collectively, their achievement has added luster to the artistic reputation of the state, while continuing to influence the vision of younger artists who have inherited their restlessness, their willingness to experiment and fail, and their commitment to authentic personal expression.

By Sharyn Rohlfsen Udall, an art historian and a teacher at the college level who often writes about the art of New Mexico. She is the author of Modernist Paintings in New Mexico, 1913–1935.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 6

Related Pages

Enduring Inspiration article
Romantic Modernism article

Early American Mondernists in New Mexico article
Jonson Gallery at UNM article

Collector’s Resources


The Albuquerque Museum | 505-243-7255
Las Cruces Museum of Art | 575-541-2137

Santa Fe

Aaron Payne Fine Art 213 East Marcy Street | 505-995-9779
Addison Rowe Gallery | 505-982-1533
Gerald Peters Gallery + Peters Projects | 505.954.5700
Nedra Matteucci Galleries | 505-982-4631
New Mexico Museum of Art | 505-476-5064
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum | 505.946.1000
The Owings Gallery | 505-982-6244
Peyton Wright Gallery | 505-989-9888
Zaplin Lampert Gallery | 505.982.6100


Mission Gallery | 575-758-2861
Taos Art Museum at Fechin House | 575-758-2690


©2014 | F + W Media
URL: • Contact The Collector's Guide