Early American Modernists in New Mexico
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.
Images: © Victor Higgins
Watercolor on paper
Courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery 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 in
Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 13
RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT REVISED
October 14, 2009