THOR­OUGHLY MOD­ERN MAS­TER

Iconic Taoseño Emil Bist­tram has his day

Pasatiempo - - RANDOM ACTS -

“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

on board

Left, The Fam­ily , 1932,

pen­cil on pa­per

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