Art Over the Edge

Contemporary art comes of age in New Mexico


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There was a moment one summer in the early to mid-‘90s when you could have dropped into Santa Fe and thought that you were in one of the art capitals of the world— Tribeca/Soho, Basel, Paris, Tokyo, say. For along with the innumerable natural and cultural wonders, from the Sangre de Cristos to Canyon Road to the Santa Fe Opera to the newly opened Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, came the pièce de résistance—post-modern-conceptual-minimalism, or call it what you will, in all its muted glory.

The longest-running art movement in history, you could argue, had arrived in the form of SITE Santa Fe remote, our own international kunsthalle housed in a former beer distribution warehouse on Paseo de Peralta and the railroad tracks, and the Laura Carpenter Gallery in a renovated Territorial residence on Read St. In one grand stroke the balance of power seemed to have shifted from the north side of town, and the Museum of New Mexico to the south side of Santa Fe. (Even the elegant O’Keeffe Museum, when it opened, seemed a little dull in comparison. It wasn’t; only understated.)

Pierce: Untitled

Image: ©2005 Florence Pierce
"Untitled", Resin relief, 16 " x 16"
Courtesy Charlotte Jackson Fine Art remote Santa Fe

Within minutes, it seemed, art had come off the wall and onto the floor: international biennials with extremely significant sounding, and entirely obscure, titles were being held; people named Dieter and Helmut were hanging about; and the Art Crowd, munching canapés in museums next to cages filled with live insects, were suddenly bussing each other on BOTH cheeks as if they’d just stepped in off Boulevard St. Michel. Instantly, or so it again seemed, artists such as Kiki Smith, Richard Long, Andy Goldsworthy, Kara Walker, were having exhibitions, and rocker-poet Patti Smith was howling under a tent. (At one point it got so thick you couldn’t even find relief in the restroom of the restaurant that helped stir this heady post-cultural concoction without running into a Bruce Nauman video running in a continual loop up in the corner.)

It left one wondering, in the immortal, paraphrased words of David Byrne and the Talking Heads, “How did this get here?!”

The short answer is the same way that culture gets spread around anywhere — via that lovely confluence of dollars and sensibilities. In this case each came from disparate private, corporate and institutional quarters, notably from the Medicis de Santa Fe, aka Anne and John Marian, he a savvy street-wise New Yorker by way of Sotheby’s, she of the Tandy Corporation and Burnett Foundation, Ft. Worth, Texas (and who also generously supported the O’Keeffe Museum, endowed a chair of Photography at the College of Santa Fe as well as a sizeable expansion of the Santa Fe Art Institute featuring the Louis Barragan-inspired architecture of Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta); Joann and Gifford Phillips, famously of the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; Charles and Bobbie Foshay Miller.

The other short answer is the art world, way beyond Modernism and several other ”isms”, was basically here all the time in the persons of a number of visionary artists, and it was only a matter of time before support from galleries, institutions, collectors and most importantly a discerning audience, finally showed up.

By the early 1990s, they seemed to have shown up and in a way, it was about time. Think about it. Galleries like Carpenter’s—LIKE it, but sans le cash and caché—had come, and some not gone—in Albuquerque, Ray Graham and associates, Richard Levy Gallery; in Taos, Tally Richards Contemporary, Philip Bareiss Gallery, Jaquelin Loyd Contemporary, Barbershop Gallery; in Santa Fe, Megan Hill’s Gallery, Sena East, Casa Sin Nombre, Conlon Siegal Gallery, James Kelly Contemporary, Linda Durham Contemporary, Charlotte Jackson Fine Art, Dwight Hackett Projects, the aforementioned Santa Fe Art Institute since the mid-80s, and since the 1970s the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe had been bringing films, performances, readings and exhibitions that sometimes fed the avant garde appetite.

In the end, the audience, collectors and marketplace all follow the artists and their work, and as one looked back from that mid-‘90s explosion of international post-modern minimalism, one noticed that many of the artists who made it had been here all along, and some for quite some time. Consider this off-the-top-of-the-head list of significant artists of the Over the Edge crowd that form a loose consortium running the gamut from post-modern conceptualist-minimalists to beyond-Modern quirky visionaries who live here some or all of the time. From Galisteo to Taos—A is for Agnes Martin (1912–2004), B is for Bruce Nauman, for starters. Susan Rothenberg, Larry Bell, Florence Pierce, Richard Tuttle, Vija Celmins, Ken Price, Andrew Lord, John McCracken, Doug Wheeler, Ron Davis, Lynda Benglis, Francesco Clemente (and Lauren Hutton nearby), Terry and Jo Harvey Allen, Ron Cooper, Judy Chicago, Dean Stockwell, not to mention notable “locals” such as John Connell, Erika Wanenmacher, Marc Baseman, James Westwater, Franky Kong, and Pat Kikut (who lately opened up one of his outbuildings way out on Agua Fria as the aptly named “No Man’s Land Gallery.”

Let’s also consider that New Mexico is the site of two extraordinary artworks of the Conceptualist Age. "Star Axis,” by Charles Ross, is an eleven-storey “Star Tunnel”, described as an “architectonic earthwork and naked eye observatory constructed with the geometry of the stars,” and still under construction on a mesa where the Great Plains meet the Sangre de Cristos near Las Vegas. Walter De Maria’s Dia Foundation–funded “Lightning Field” needs no introduction; it is simply a Cathedral of American Conceptual-Minimalism and homage to the American West, four hundred stainless steel poles with solid pointed tips situated in a level, rectangular grid array, 1 mile by 1 kilometer (“like a fakir’s bed of nails,” as Robert Hughes wrote) out in the middle of Catron County.

And it is no accident that a Mecca of Minimalism was established in our neighborhood, just south in Marfa, Texas, by one of the high priests of Minimalism, the late artist and theorist-critic Donald Judd, and is today maintained year-round by the Chinati Foundation.

Martin: Harwood

Beatrice Mandelman (left) and Agnes Martin (right)
In The Agnes Martin Gallery (1997) of the
Harwood Museum of Art remote Taos NM

Considering the larger question—How did ALL THIS and ALL THOSE artists get here?! —one is reminded that the core of all art is Space and Light—two elements IN ABUNDANCE in New Mexico and of particular interest to a number of the perceptualist optical artists just noted in that very informal roster. Noting that smack dab in the middle of that Galisteo-Abiquiu-Taos “Golden Triangle” of post-modernism lies Los Alamos, one begins to wonder about a Big Bang Theory. Was it the birthplace of the Atomic Age and the perfect Minimalist weapon—small conveyance, Really Big Bang—that has attracted such artists?

Taking the long view, the arrival, or shall we say, the NOTICEABLE, in-your-face arrival of the fashionable, inscrutable, post-Modern art world to Santa Fe and environs over a decade ago was simply a matter of historical inevitability. Artists have been coming to the region for a century now, and it was only a matter of time, as people with money became more mobile, before the avant-garde came to Paradise while there was still a garde to be avant.

Personally, I favor a simpler, more domestic answer to this profound question. It is a kind of Trickle Down Theory of local aesthetics and art history whereby the intended and unintended consequences, effects and influences of the arrival of heiress-artistic socialite-salonista Mabel Dodge (Luhan) in 1917 come floating down the Rio Grande from Taos. Indeed, Mabel’s stately Big House itself, at the foot of Taos Mountain, could serve as the heroine of the tale, just as the protagonists of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, or Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. (Indeed, the subject is brilliantly and thoroughly depicted in Lois Palken Rudnik’s, Utopian Vistas: The Mabel Dodge Luhan House and the American Counterculture, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1996, and I recommend it, heartily.)

Mabel collected visionaries, mystics and artistic outlaws from the day she set foot in Taos. She started with Taos Pueblo native, Tony Luhan, continuing with the great artist Andrew Dasburg, most famously D.H. Lawrence (and don’t forget Frieda), and stopped at . . . well, she stopped at nothing and no one.

Steinkamp: sin

Image: © Jennifer Steinkamp & Jimmy Johnson
"sin (time) ", DVD projection, curved wall, sound.
Installation view, commissioned by SITE Santa Fe remote

Here’s another little off-the-top-of-the-head list of those that Mabel tried to ensnare but often only succeeded in driving away—Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Carl Jung, Leopold Stokowski, Dane Rudhyar, Martha Graham, Ansel Adams, Paul Weston, Paul Strand, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Jean Toomer, Oliver La Farge. Not many stayed around very long, but the aesthetic tone had been re-set for the neighborhood forever, the landscape had been cleared away a bit and there was a whiff of Utopianism in the air and Modernism, and perhaps more, had a toe-hold in the region.

The precise tone and character of Mabel, her visitors, and the ever growing number of tourists was perfectly summed up by the great critic and poet, Robinson Jeffers, another one of Mabel’s unfortunate “victims,” who described them all, us all, in his one poem on the subject, “New Mexico Mountain”: “Pilgrims from civilization, anxiously seeking beauty, religion, poetry; pilgrims from the vacuum.”

This spark of Modernist Mabel energy from The Twenties was reprised forty years later, and in more ways than one, during the next explosive cultural upheaval, known as The Sixties. When another “pilgrim from the vacuum,” Dennis “Easy Rider” Hopper, showed up in May 1970 as the new owner of Mabel’s Big House, a salon of an entirely different sort was revived. It was “Heeeeeeere’s Dennis!” time as Mabel’s formerly up-to-date Modernists came down from the walls and in came Hopper’s collection of Warhols, Lichtensteins, Rauschenbergs, Kienholzes, et al. Things had changed.

Hopper was an insider, aficionado, and participant in the nascent LA art scene from its inception. He had a canny sensibility and eye, as one might infer from his film roles, and counted among his friends and acquaintances many artists, dealers, and art world types—the aforementioned Ron Cooper, Ken Price, Larry Bell, as well as Bruce Connor, Ed Ruscha, Henry Geldzhaler, Walter Hopps, Irving Blum, and others—who were drawn to the area by Hopper and their own curiosity.

“Dennis,” as he is still invariably known by any and all who even set foot in Taos, also had a few celebrity friends over during his eight year stewardship of the Big House, to whit: Bob Dylan, Bo Diddley, Leonard Cohen, the Everly Brothers, Peter Fonda (of course), Jack Nicholson (of course), Allan Watts, John Wayne (!), Warren Oates, Dean Stockwell, even George McGovern visited before he ran for president. Not all post-modernists, for sure, but a pretty heavy-hitting guest list.

Hopper even had an art gallery for awhile in Taos and did a great deal to promote the work of the far out fringes of the Expressionist Hippie ‘n Commune artists such as Atomic artist Tony Price, Bill Gersh, and others who provide a kind of odd link between the musty old Modernists like Dasburg and that Far Out-New Age of art. As Rudnik notes in her excellent book: “The artists Hopper collected and emulated shared with those of (Mabel Dodge) Luhan’s generation the credo that ‘art is an experience, not an object.’ They believed that the artist is a ‘truth-sayer,’ and that art should have a high moral—and even religious—purpose.”

If Mabel had established a toe-hold for the brave, new aesthetic strategies in New Mexico, Hopper established a broad beachhead and began to move his heavy-hitting aesthetic forces inland, sometimes one might say, melodramatically. In no time the whole world had heard of Taos, Santa Fe, Galisteo, even the art-world’s still sharpening cutting-edge, and voila!—come they have.

The rest, as they say, is art history.

Legorreta: CSF

The College of Santa Fe Visual Arts Center,
designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta.
This building also houses the Santa Fe Art Institute remote

Perhaps that’s all too simple. However, as one sat recently waiting for New Yorker über-critic Peter Schjeldahl and two high priests of post-modern minimalist-conceptualism, Bruce Nauman and Ed Ruscha, to sit down for an intimate chat in front of an SRO crowd at the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe, and reflected upon this past decade or more, one can sense this seismic shift in Santa Fe sensibilities. And while there may be, from this vantage, a sense of inevitability about it, one can never take anything for granted. And when you do look out over all that Light and Space, here, in the Middle of Nowhere, the question lingers, not, “How did this get here?”, but “How long will it go on?”

Tom Collins is a reporter and critic whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, People magazine, Art in America, Albuquerque Journal, ArtNews, among others. He writes a weekly column for the Albuquerque Journal Santa Fe and Journal North.

Originally appeared in
The Wingspread Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque
– Volume 19

Related Pages

Contemporary Lithography article
Contemporary Art in Northern New Mexico article
Abstract to Zeitgeist:
Some Contemporary Art Terms

Contemporary Expression of Traditional Art article
Alternative Sculpture Media article
The Lightning Field article
Star Axis: A Theatre in the Sky article

Collector’s Resources


516 Arts rem 516 Central Ave SW | 505-242-1445

Elsewhere in New Mexico

Roswell Museum & Art Center | 575.624.6744

Santa Fe

EVOKE contemporary | 505-995-9902
Addison Rowe Gallery | 505-982-1533
Bellas Artes | 505.983.2745
Castillo Gallery | 505-351-4067
Gerald Peters Gallery + Peters Projects | 505.954.5700
GF Contemporary | 505.983.3707
Charlotte Jackson Fine Art | 505-989-8688
James Kelly Contemporary | 505-989-1601
LewAllen Galleries | 505-988-3250
Kelly Moore | 505-470-3175
SITE Santa Fe | 505-989-1199
Zane Bennett Contemporary Art 435 S Guadalupe St | 505-982-8111


Harwood Museum of Art | 575-758-9826

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