THOROUGHLY MODERN MASTER
Iconic Taoseño Emil Bisttram has his day
“We must not imitate Nature in her effect but rather follow her in her laws and principles. Only in doing so may we hope to create works comparable to hers.” — Aristotle
IN 1975, when Taos artist Emil James Bisttram was eighty, Jerry Apodaca, New Mexico’s governor at the time, designated April 7, the artists’ birthday, as Emil Bisttram Day. Less than a year later, Bisttram died. Though we remember the man and his art, the day that honors him is all but forgotten. Having moved to Taos from New York City in 1932 — living on Ledoux Street, near what is now the Harwood Museum of Art — Bisttram somehow fell into the shadows cast by modernist artists whose fame eclipsed his own: Florence Miller Pierce, Raymond Jonson, and Agnes Pelton among them. These artists’ convictions were what united them when they formed the influential Transcendental Painting Group, established by Bisttram and Jonson in 1938. Before the movement even began, Bisttram and his colleagues held themselves to tenets that reflected Aristotle’s vision of order in the natural world.
Five years earlier, when Bisttram, who was born in Hungary and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of eleven, was still fresh on the Taos art scene, he was one of several artists exhibiting at the Heptagon Gallery, which he established inside the Don Fernando Hotel in May 1933. The gallery’s first show opened soon after — with work by Dorothy Brett, Victor Higgins, Ernest Blumenschein, Eleanora Kissel, and John Ward Lockwood — marking the start of a loose affiliation of American artists, living at a crossroads between the coasts, who collectively became known as the Taos Moderns. Some of them held to the Aristotelian belief that art must follow an essential, intrinsic character of nature. For Bisttram, this was a lifelong conviction. All of his compositions, whether in the form of landscape or abstract painting or figurative drawing, offer a sense of order and harmony. “True art is not spontaneous,” he told Anne Hillerman, who wrote a profile of him for The Santa Fe New Mexican in 1975. “There’s nothing ‘free’ about art. One has to set limitations. Otherwise, all is chaos in art and in life as well.”
On Friday, April 10, the Addison Rowe Gallery wishes Bisttram a belated happy birthday when it opens Emil Bisttram Day 2015, an exhibit that spans the artist’s 50-year career, during which he not only produced noted works but taught others. Bisttram founded the Taos School of Art (later known as the Bisttram School of Art), helping pave the way for the next generations to make the small, historic town an unlikely nexus of modern art. The aesthetic concerns of the Transcendental Painting Group were embraced by Pierce and Pelton, as well as by Stuart Walker, Howard Cook, Beatrice Mandelman, and Louis Ribak. The group — which sought to move art beyond the limitations of merely recording outward appearances by embracing expressions of color, light, space, and design that would break through to more spiritual concepts — disbanded after only four years. But during that time, it enjoyed an output that left an indelible mark on American art.
Bisttram’s Transcendentalist paintings followed principles found in sacred geometry, an ancient system based on concepts of cosmic order and harmony that was used in the design of religious structures and art. These ideas weren’t new to Bisttram: Even the more gestural abstracts he
painted adhered to artistic underpinnings based on such notions. There is nothing haphazard about them at all, even if they sometimes, as with Indian Ceremonial , a circa 1957 acrylic lacquer on board, or Abstract Canyon , a 1958 watercolor — both of them in the show — give the opposite impression. But it is evident in works such as Untitled Adobes , a 1939 encaustic on paper in which the edges of its architectural structures correspond, with mathematical precision, to the diamond pattern that runs throughout the composition. It may not be so evident in the figurative Embracing Couple , a 1931 encaustic on paper, but a closer look at the planes formed by the depicted pair’s entwined limbs reveals numerous lines running parallel to one another on a diagonal. The edge of the female figure’s heel lies at the exact midpoint of the square canvas.
In other works, Bisttram’s use of geometry is more obvious. In an untitled graphite drawing from 1940, a mandala has an eye at its center, into which radiating lines converge. The hardedge Sails in the Night, a 1965 oil, is a geometric abstraction with nods to Cubism and Surrealism. Bisttram was also influenced by dynamic symmetry, a method of composition taught by American
artist Jay Hambidge, one of Bisttram’s mentors during his New York years working as a commercial artist. His figurative works were inspired by the mural and fresco techniques of artists like Diego Rivera, who he met on a visit to Mexico in 1931 while on a Guggenheim fellowship. That influence is evident in Embracing Couple and in Adam & Eve and the First Born , a pencil drawing he made the same year he met Rivera. The Family , a pencil drawing based on Adam & Eve and the First Born , was made a year later. Its minimalism stands in striking contrast to the earlier drawing, offering a sense of Bisttram’s dedication to compositional form.
Sometime in the early 1930s, the Don Fernando Hotel was destroyed in a fire. The Heptagon Gallery and more than 200 works of art were among the casualties. The incident prompted the energetic artist to found a volunteer fire-fighting squad. Despite the loss of the gallery so soon after its opening, Bisttram and the Taos Moderns had created a niche for themselves. In the early 1950s Bisttram founded yet another influential group, the Taos Society of Artists. He served as its president until his death.
Though the Taos Moderns often exhibited their work together, according to art historian David Witt, the term referred “not to common style, but to time and place.” Perhaps more than any of the other few dozen artists working in Taos during the modernist period, Bisttram was at the center of it all, and the institutions he founded still endure.
Emil Bisttram: Untitled Adobes , 1939, encaustic on paper Above left, Embracing Couple , 1931, encaustic on paper Below left, Quetzaquetz , 1954, oil on canvas Below, Sails in the Night , 1965, oil on canvas Opposite page: Self-Portrait , 1927, charcoal on newsprint; courtesy the Albuquerque Museum
Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy Addison Rowe Gallery
Above, Indian Ceremonial , circa 1957, acrylic lacquer
Left, The Family , 1932,
pencil on paper