Bebe Krimmer’s Santa Fe Years
PAINTER BEBE KRIMMER’S ORDERLY DISORDER
The more you study a work of art, gazing intently at its components — a leaf on a tree in a landscape, the lace on a dress in a portrait — the more the overall composition vanishes. Peer closer still, and even in works of hyperrealism, such familiar details give way to reveal a gestural brushstroke or the rough pattern of the canvas beneath the thin surface of paint. When you look closely at a pointillist painting, for instance, it becomes no more than a series of seemingly haphazard dots and dashes. Stand farther away, and it all coalesces into a formal composition. The landscape re-emerges, traces of white resolve back into the lace pattern of a figure’s dress, and we see the total picture.
The opposite effect occurs in much of the work of Bebe Krimmer, an artist who began her life in 1930 in Chicago as Elaine Brams and who spent her last two decades living and working in Santa Fe. Abstract compositions that convey a sense of disarray through seemingly jumbled imagery reveal inherent patterns and organization upon closer inspection, particularly in the work included in the exhibit Spatial Order , which opened at Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art in 2013. “My view is that she was very interested in the tension between order and disorder,” her son Bob Krimmer told Pasatiempo . “To me, at least, some of her work was a complete exploration of disorder, some of it was a complete exploration of order, and some of it was attempting to resolve the tension between them. I always loved thinking about them that way because I kind of felt that that was a universal struggle for everybody. Sometimes I feel at peace when I’m looking at her stuff, because she’s offering a resolution to something that’s very difficult to resolve.”
Bebe Krimmer (1930-2014): The Santa Fe Years ,a retrospective of her work made during the last 20 years of her life, opens at Chiaroscuro on Friday, March 27.
Krimmer, endlessly innovative and an avid traveler and lifelong learner, maintained a deep interest in trying to understand the nature of life from the time she was a child. When she was in her late twenties, she had her name legally changed to Bebe. “When I was a toddler and began to speak, I couldn’t say the word ‘baby,’” she told The Santa Fe New Mexican in 2008, “so I would call myself Bebe, and the name just stuck.” At the age of twelve she took classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and then attended the University of Illinois for her undergraduate degree. She received her master’s from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Krimmer began to explore printmaking, producing woodcuts and copper etchings, for example, while also creating paintings using oils and acrylics.
The pieces in The Santa Fe Years cover a range of mediums that include acrylic painting, encaustic works, and collage. In addition to her own practice, the artist taught at Barat College, the University of Illinois, and Columbia College in Chicago. Krimmer and her husband, Burton, moved to Santa Fe in 1993. Venues such as Klaudia Marr Gallery and Karan Ruhlen Gallery showed her pieces before she found representation at Chiaroscuro. “Her work really shifted in Santa Fe, compared with her Chicago years,” said Krimmer’s daughter, Tina Cooper, who is the trustee of the estate. “When she got to Santa Fe, her concepts expanded.”
Then tragedy struck in 1997, when the Krimmers’ son Dan died from a brain tumor — and again, just two years later, when Burton died of chronic liver disease. The blows left Bebe unable to paint for some time. But when she returned to her practice, her work evolved again. She began exploring themes related to the cosmos and astronomical observations. “When Dan passed away, she really started thinking about the heavens and the universe, where Danny was, and what was out there,” Cooper said. “While she did a lot of other work in that period, she kept coming back to that theme in different ways. She has paintings that are named for star clusters and things like that.”
Included in Chiaroscuro’s Krimmer retrospective is a portfolio book that contains more than 200 images of works made before the move to New Mexico, some of them dating as far back as 1952. The added feature gives visitors the chance to observe how her work has changed over the years but also to see some of its recurring themes. Krimmer traveled extensively, taking two or three major trips abroad each year. “She went to all these exotic places and didn’t do the typical tourist type of trip,” Cooper said. “She explored the outer edges of countries and cultures. As a trustee, I was putting together the portfolio book and casually looking through her travel photos and started seeing connections. Even when she lived in Chicago, I recall her doing paintings based on where she traveled, but those were very deliberate. In Santa Fe, it wasn’t so deliberate but came through in a real pure, artistic way. Bob and I were amazed at the variety of books she read.”
“We were amazed at the copious notes we found in her books,” Bob said. “We were unaware of the extent of her reading and study. From the moment she got up in the morning, most days, until the moment she fell asleep, she was in the process of experiencing life. She led the fullest of lives, but she didn’t talk about it. She was a doer.”
Despite the persistent order and balance that underscore her compositions, Krimmer never sketched out her work beforehand. She brought to her practice a degree of spontaneity, letting the work evolve as it was being made. “She composed almost like a writer composes: It just flowed out of her in the moment,” Cooper said.
With the help of a friend, Krimmer wrote her own obituary before she died. In lieu of flowers, she asked friends wishing to honor her to write down their remembrances and send them to her children. “So many of those letters talk about how she was able to discuss anything, whether it was religion or culture or literature or movies,” Cooper said. “She was really there for the other and not for herself. She was just curious and continued to be curious and brought that into her work very naturally and easily.” “She was one of the most intrinsically motivated individuals I’ve ever known, in terms of her desire to create and her pursuit of creative impulses,” added Bob.
Bebe Krimmer (1930-2014): The Santa Fe Years
Reception 5 p.m. Friday, March 27; exhibit through April 25
Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art, 702 ½ Canyon Road (in Gypsy Alley), 505-992-0711
Bebe Krimmer: Self-Portrait, Southwest Friends (detail), undated, collage
Fallen Leaves (detail), undated, mixed media
Collection 24B (detail), undated, acrylic, collage, and nails