Early American Modernists in New Mexico

Steiglitz, O’Keeffe and many others wrote the story.


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To most, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) has become a household name that conjures up visions of a reclusive desert priestess, modernist visionary, or pioneer artist explorer. Yet, O'Keeffe was not the first, nor the last artist with modernist inclinations to visit the American Southwest and render its vast open spaces and colorful land formations. She is merely the most famous name among a sizeable number of "artistic pioneers" who, like the explorers in wagon trains before them, confronted the often brutal, daunting landscape of the American Southwest with steadfast character and daring originality. Smashing through the limiting, deeply-entrenched traditions of representational painting, these early artists transformed the land, skies and ancient cultures of this region into personal, often spiritualized visions in paint.

O'Keeffe's almost iconic individualism and sense of romantic freedom began to blossom long before she established roots in New Mexico. She was one of the early artists who gathered around her photographer/modern art patron husband, Alfred Stieglitz (1863–1946) in New York during the turn of the century. This core group of modernists-Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, Paul Strand and O’Keeffe herself-and others such as Rebecca Salsbury (Strand) James, Joseph Stella, and Alfred Maurer, comprised America's first avant-garde and rejected traditional painting methods and styles in favor of individual, intuitive expression in art.

Stieglitz's impact upon these early modernists and the reception of modern art in this country was formidable and long lasting. He opened his Little Galleries of Photo-Secession in New York at 291 Fifth Avenue in 1905 as a center for photographic innovation and reform, becoming one of the earliest to champion photography as a fine art medium. By 1908, the gallery had begun to build its reputation as a legendary showplace that embraced avant-garde innovations in painting and sculpture then emerging in Paris, Berlin and New York. Although Stieglitz would close the doors to "291" in 1917 after sponsoring O'Keeffe's first solo exhibition, his subsequent galleries, The Intimate Gallery and An American Place, provided a venue for promising young Americans whose art would come to maturity during the great wars. The "Stieglitz Circle," as they came to be known, waved their fists at what they saw as overly sentimentalized, nineteenth-century tastes. Instead, they favored highly individual, non-mimetic expression in art and sought to define a distinctly"American" voice by creating color metaphors and geometric equivalents to signify emotions, spiritual forces in nature, and other abstract concepts such as progress in the modern city.

Victor Higgins

Images: © Victor Higgins
Watercolor on paper
Courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery remote Santa Fe

While Stieglitz was one of the earliest and most visible champions of this avant-garde spirit in New York, he was not the only act in town. The 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, known as the"Armory Show," was the first large-scale introduction of modern art to America, and other avant-garde painters with a more Dadaist leaning congregated around another hub of modernism-the salon of Walter and Louise Arensberg. Still another important nucleus for vanguard thinkers and painters was the salon of Mabel Dodge (1879–1962). Dodge, who had known Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso in Italy and Paris, returned to the US in 1912 and established an intellectual salon in New York City.

A few years later, she followed her third husband, artist Maurice Sterne, out west to Santa Fe where he sought Native American subjects to paint. Soon abandoning Santa Fe for Taos, Dodge bought a plot of land near Taos Pueblo and hired Indian Tony Luhan to help build her high-desert Mecca.

When Sterne returned to New York, Dodge stayed, abandoning her third husband and making Luhan her fourth in 1923. From approximately 1918–1949, Dodge continued her intellectual patronage from her northern New Mexico outpost and invited artists/thinkers whom she found intriguing to stay with her in Taos.

Andrew Dasburg (1887–1979), who had frequented Dodge's salon in New York and exhibited works in the 1913 Armory Show, was one of her first guests around 1918. Like O'Keeffe, he became a New Mexican artist by adoption despite his European birth and New York upbringing. Some of Dasburg's most signature compositions from New Mexico -adobe villages set into geometric landscapes, rhythmic tree compositions, and colorful, cubist still lifes- underscore his understanding of Cézanne's fractured forms and condensed spaces. Besides painting the landscape environment he lived in, Dasburg also incorporated references to the pueblo Indian artifacts he traded and collected by painting them into some of his cubist-inspired still lifes of the era. Dasburg passed his understanding of Cubism onto Willard Nash (1898–1942), a young modernist painter who moved to Santa Fe from Detroit to become one of the most sophisticated founding members of Los Cinco Pintores (The Five Painters). Comprised of Nash, Jozef Bakos, Will Shuster, Fremont Ellis and Walter Mruk, the Cinco Pintores believed in experimenting freely with modernist painting methods and led colorful, wild lifestyles that flew in the face of conservative, prohibition-era Santa Fe society.

Known as "five little nuts in five adobe huts," the Cinco Pintores challenged the artistic audiences of the 1920s and 1930s, which had grown accustomed to romantic depictions of Pueblo Indians created by the more traditional Taos Society of Artists. The Cinco Pintores enjoyed the newly founded Museum of Fine Arts "open door" policy that provided alcove exhibition space regardless of stylistic "schools," and sponsored numerous Pintores exhibitions beginning in December 1921.

Many scholars, including Sharyn Udall in her book Modernist Painting in New Mexico 1913–1935, note that around 1930, Dasburg's landscape watercolors began to take on the airy, energetic quality of his friend and painting partner, John Marin. Marin summered in New Mexico in 1929 and 1930 and produced well over 100 watercolors of the region. Already a well-established modernist painter in Maine and New York, Marin's innovative, dynamic approach to watercolor inspired countless followers such as J. Ward Lockwood, Bakos, Gina Knee, Cady Wells, Frank Applegate, William Lumpkins and even veteran Taos Society painter Victor Higgins, as we see in Higgins' Marin-esque "Landscape" (above). While each of these followers borrowed Marin's signature elements of style, replete with dashes, dabs, squiggles, zags and diagonal thrusts, each added a new layer of personality and originality to landscape painting in this region by depicting the arroyos, canyons and mesas according to their own personal visions and associations.

Marsden Hartley (1877–1943) was another important, albeit struggling, avant-garde painter who came to New Mexico upon the invitation of the "Empress of Mabel Town," as Udall says she was sometimes called. While Hartley never painted the Native American or Hispanic people of New Mexico directly during his time in Taos and Santa Fe, Udall notes in her article, "Painted Litanies: Marsden Hartley and the Santos of New Mexico," that he did reference the socio-religious Hispanic culture by painting still lifes of bultos (carved wooden saint figures) and retablos (flat, painted wooden boards.) The mountains also became a source of great spiritual fascination for Hartley, who painted these hills and described them in a June, 1918 letter to Stieglitz as, "Chocolate mountains ... those great isolated, altar-like forms that stand alone in a great mesa with the immensities of blue around and above them and that strange Indian red earth making such almost unearthly foregrounds," as reprinted in Tashjian Dickran's Marsden Hartley and the Southwest: A Ceremony for Our Vision, A Fiction for the Eye. A few years after Hartley left the state in 1919, the New Mexico landscape further haunted his imagination and he began painting more turbulent "recollections" from memory. These later works were even more rhythmic and angst-ridden than this 1919 landscapes done in the state. It's as if, with time, Hartley was able to digest and understand the indefinable power and spirit of the American Southwest.

There have been many other painters — Robert Henri, George Bellows, Randall Davey, John Sloan, Stuart Davis, Rebecca Salsbury James, Cady Wells, Joseph Fleck, Howard Cook, Emil Bisttram, and Dorothy Brett among them — who ventured to New Mexico before, during or after O'Keeffe made the Southwest her stomping ground. Just as O'Keeffe showed this land in a new light, these modernists made lasting contributions to New Mexico's rich cultural history, by painting experimental, often whimsical works of art that heighten our sense of place and give new meaning to the words, Western exploration.

Thanks to Catherine Whitney, Curator of American Art
for the Gerald Peters Gallery remote in Santa Fe

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 13

Related Pages

How the Santa Fe Art Colony Began article

Modernism in New Mexico article
Romantic Modernism article

Collector’s Resources


The Albuquerque Museum | 505-243-7255

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


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