A century of artwork with a regional palette at the New Mexico Museum of Art
A century of art with a regional palette
It’s a long time until October, when the aspen leaves change color and the hills around Santa Fe are blanketed in gold. But Colors of the Southwest ,an exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Art opening this week, has its share of works depicting the majestic tree, a favorite subject for New Mexico landscape painters. E. Martin Hennings, originally a Chicagoan, was one such artist. Hennings had studied in Munich with Symbolist painter Franz Von Stuck. But when he arrived in Taos in 1917, under the patronage of Chicago politician Carter Harrison Jr., his aesthetics changed. “He had developed this very dark style from his study in Munich,” museum curator Carmen Vendelin told Pasatiempo . “He comes to New Mexico, has this breakthrough, and starts painting in a completely different way. Instead of using dark colors and heavy paint, he starts using thin layers of oil paint so he can get this luminosity — and his palette gets a lot lighter.” Hennings’ undated painting The Rendezvous , with its expressionistic rendering of pale-yellow aspens and light greens and browns, exemplifies the rich tones present in much of the work of New Mexico painters. “You have people already in this mind-set, where they’re attracted to New Mexico because of the color and the light, and other people get here, and it’s a new thing for them,” Vendelin said. “It changes the way they approach artmaking.”
Colors of the Southwest , a selection of more than 70 works culled from the museum’s collection, covers a range from the early 20th century to the present. Though Vendelin originally wanted to include a selection of 19thcentury works, “it ended up being about this 20th-century interest in color,” she said. “In part, that comes from modernism, but also from the shift from painting landscapes in studios to going out, observing, and painting directly in an outdoor setting, where you’re really seeing the colors as you’re putting them in.”
Vendelin, who has been in Santa Fe for about six months, curated for the last eight years at the La Salle University Art Museum in Philadelphia. “I’m most interested in the 19th and 20th centuries — really, that period from 1870 through World War I, when you have the development of early modernism and the Arts
and Crafts movement, and different trends are merging — art areas that were more separate in the past.” This is Vendelin’s second curated exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Art (her first was last year’s Hunting + Gathering: New Additions to the Museum’s Collection , up through March 29), and it continues the institution’s focus on collection-based shows.
The latest exhibit includes pieces by important artists working in the state throughout the past century, Gustave Baumann, Emil Bisttram, and Dorothy Morang among them. Baumann’s Day of the Deer Dance (1918) is a gouache depicting a pueblo at the base of a steep canyon. “It’s a study for a print that he did. In the print he changed some of the colors. Here, it’s pink and yellow. It’s got more orange in the print version. I’m also putting up a pair of aspens that he did: a gouache and a finished woodcut,” Vendelin said. “Baumann is a good example of someone who was really a colorist.” But landscapes are not the only compositions in the show, which also draws on abstracts, still lifes, and portraiture. Louise Crow’s portrait Yen-see-do , painted before 1919, is a striking image that merges realism with a flat modernist perspective, contrasting darker hues of red and black with pale purple and yellow. “She was only out here for a few years. Then she went back to California and died in obscurity. She had been doing pretty well for a while, and then her reputation faded and she died penniless.” Despite her stalled career, Crow’s portrait is among the more iconic works in the museum’s holdings.
A more recent work, contemporary artist Billy Schenck’s Pop-style Coming Down From the Mountain — a sunset scene from 2010 — employs many shades of purple for its dominant color. “I’ve also included a few prints, some photography, and ceramics, which I think is something people might not expect,” Vendelin said.
Another thing visitors might not expect to see in a show about color is a black-andwhite painting. But there is one: Stuart Davis’ New Mexican Peak , which was painted in 1923. While many of the modernists who came to New Mexico were attracted to the natural beauty of the landscape, Davis felt the
picturesque terrain limited artists to more literal interpretations, a perspective at odds with his own tendency to simplify and reduce forms. And so, amid the exuberant hues that dominate the exhibit, the absence of color becomes a part of the dialogue. “He felt there was nothing for him to do as an artist because he didn’t want to simply depict what he saw. For him, it was frustrating, so he only came for one summer. My interpretation of his landscape is that he’s trying to deal with how to make art by taking all the color away and using really heavy outlines. He’s trying to bind the expansive forms. Instead of letting the space open up, he’s trying to constrict it.”
Despite Colors of the Southwest ’s broad focus on 20th-century art, much of the works date to the modernist explosion, when, according to Vendelin, World War I prevented artists from the traditional — almost requisite — study of art in Europe. Instead, they sought inspiration elsewhere, and New Mexico became a nexus. “All the modernists came to visit. You’ve got Marsden Hartley and, of course, Robert Henri. All these artists who might not have ever come here, or otherwise known it existed, ended up coming by invitation from their friends. When people are trying to describe what is ‘Southwestern’ about Southwestern art, they’re going to mention color and light. But you also have the artists themselves, writing about how special it is.”
E. Martin Hennings: The Rendezvous , undated, oil on canvas; opposite page, left, Louise Crow: Yen-see-do , before 1919, oil on canvas;
right, Gustave Baumann: Day of the Deer Dance , 1918, opaque watercolor; images courtesy New Mexico Museum of Art
Kate Krasin: Flying Red Buffalo , 1977, silkscreen