Against the grain
In his prints and paintings Harold Joe Waldrum (1934-2003) was true to the subjects he rendered, capturing details of New Mexico’s Spanish missions and moradas with high contrasts, bold hues, and a vibrant outlining. Waldrum was a demanding artist who experimented with color relationships, and he was a larger-than-life figure who had sometimes-contentious relationships with galleries. On Friday, June 23, Gerald Peters Gallery, which formerly represented Waldrum, brings his works home for an estate show of paintings, aquatint etchings, drawings, and more. On the cover is the artist’s acquatint etching Las sombras hacia el este
del vestuario de la iglesia de santo Tomás Apóstol de Ojo Sarco. At right is his 1993 linocut El contrafuerte grande perdido de la capilla de Chacón. Images © 2017 Estate of Harold Joe Waldrum; courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery.
Some artists teach us to see by going against the grain. Harold Joe Waldrum (1934-2003) was one of those artists. In his paintings and prints, adobe buildings can appear blood red, golden yellow, or a soft glowing pink, partially obscured by shadows that take on almost corporeal forms. In those shadows, Waldrum used touches of green, red, blue, and other colors to outline and accentuate shapes, inviting the viewer to look harder and see more. The artist saw colors and shapes that were really there in the world around him, as evidenced by hundreds of Polaroid photographs he shot, and he brought those forms into his work with an intensity that, like his life, was heightened by sharp contrasts of darkness and light.
“This looks like normal New Mexico stuff,” Waldrum’s friend and former collaborator, master printer Michael Costello, said of the artist’s work. “There’s a whole genre of it. But nobody did it quite like Joe did. Nobody gets close. People try, but they don’t see it the same way, I guess. It appears fairly simple, but it’s just not.” A small-scale retrospective of two-dimensional works by Waldrum opens on Friday, June 23, at Gerald Peters Gallery. The occasion marks a homecoming of sorts for the artist, whom the gallery once represented. “It was a nice opportunity to have someone who had shown here while they were active and living come full circle,” said gallery director Evan Feldman. The show, which includes about 25 of Waldrum’s works, was drawn from more than 600 pieces from the portion of the artist’s estate that went to his children Christopher and Ruanna Waldrum. The exhibit includes acrylic paintings, aquatint etchings, drawings, linocuts, and lithographs.
Waldrum, according to those who knew him, was a larger-than-life figure and an iconoclast in his work, although he didn’t always appear that way. He was an artist who removed his person from the art world but never his art, preferring to live a rustic lifestyle off the grid. He could be a challenging figure because,
according to Costello, he always stuck to his guns. It was an attitude that sometimes got him into a fix. “At some point he lived out in the sticks near Pecos somewhere,” Costello said. “He got into trouble because he was the only Anglo there, in kind of a difficult town. A lot of these towns back then, and even now if you get way out there, people have their own way. They don’t like outsiders. Joe didn’t care. It was cheap out there, and he liked living that way. He got on the wrong side of people that were drug dealers and heroin addicts, and they wanted to run him out of town. They burned his house down while he was still inside it. He shot one of them because they were trying to kill him. That’s the type of stuff that would happen to him, because he would never back down.”
While the fire makes for a good story, it hints at the kind of mythic legacy that Waldrum left behind — a legacy that seems, at least in part, to have been intentionally cultivated. He left lasting impressions not only in his marks on paper, but also in the hearts and minds of his acquaintances. He had a penchant for painting in the nude, for instance, and titled one autobiographical monograph Ando en Cueros (I Walk
Waldrum was born in Savoy, Texas, and arrived in New Mexico in the early 1970s after a career as a music teacher. He spent a brief period in New York, where he was influenced by Abstract Expressionism, and then returned to New Mexico in the mid-’70s, developing a signature style that straddled representation and abstraction, focusing on New Mexico’s historic Spanish missions and moradas as his primary subjects. He was also an advocate for their preservation. “I didn’t work with Joe for too, too many years,” Costello said. “He used to work in Albuquerque a lot, but the printer he was working with, Robert Blanchard, retired from printmaking. I had a studio downtown, and he came in to check me out, to see if I was going to be able to do what he wanted me to do. All the works we were doing were multi-plate, aquatint etchings.”
Waldrum and Costello worked on progressive prints in which each color is printed separately on copper plates in a series of runs through the press. “With these etchings, you print them one after the other,” Costello said. “It’s all wet into wet. We would build up different layers, even though in the final print, they’d get hidden. But it builds up different density.” Though the shadows of Waldrum’s compositions read at first as solid black or some other dark tone, one can see faint lines designating different architectural features — but you have to really look, as though actually peering into three-dimensional space, until a form like a window, perhaps, or a jutting buttress, suggests itself. “He knew exactly what color he trying to get to, and he would sit there and direct us like he was conducting his band . ... It was a different type of abstraction. He saw the world in an abstract way and was very precise in going after what he wanted.”
“He experimented with color all the time,” said friend and fellow artist Delmas Howe. “He was a real precisionist. He demanded the very best from himself and others.” This perfectionism got under some people’s skin, and it seems, at times, that Waldrum took some pleasure in pushing people’s buttons. “He would do things that were strange, like an edition of 63,” Costello said. “Not 50. Not 65. An edition of 63. Then he would do an edition of 54 or 72. Then he would make these titles in Spanish, and the titles would be like three sentences long. He was just doing it to mess with you and because it bothered people.” But Waldrum always knew exactly what he wanted in terms of color. He and Costello would work at a piece until the hues in the prints matched exactly what the artist had in his mind’s eye. “For a professional printmaker, that’s what you want in an artist. If you have an artist who knows what they want, then you’ll get there. So for me, that was really kind of wonderful.”
Throughout his career, Waldrum tended to keep his distance from Santa Fe, removing himself to locations south of Albuquerque. “He used to tell me it was so he could lob bombs at Santa Fe,” Costello said. In town, Waldrum was represented by a number of different galleries at various points in his career: Zaplin Lampert, Copeland-Rutherford, and Gerald Peters, whose gallery he once pulled all his work from. “I think they requested he change something in one of his paintings to make it more salable, and he removed himself from the gallery at that time,” said Howe. “He did retreat. He moved to a ranch near Socorro. It was a really neat little ranch.” In the late 1990s he made the move from the secluded mountain ranch to Truth or Consequences, a town with a small but active and vibrant arts community. In T or C, he opened a new gallery space, Río Bravo Fine Arts, and the space remains under the management of a former assistant, Eduardo Alicea Moreno. “Joe put out an ad on the internet for an assistant, and Eduardo, who lived in Puerto Rico at the time, answered the ad,” Howe said. “He was a very good assistant to Joe — and Joe was not easy to deal with. But Eduardo stuck with him. Joe really appreciated that.” The T or C gallery’s first show was of Howe’s
Stations: A Gay Passion, a homoerotic reinterpretation of the Stations of the Cross. “The gallery wasn’t quite finished,” Howe said. “We didn’t have electricity and lights installed yet, and I thought it would be great to light candles, and everyone could sit around, and it would be a different experience. However, there was a man whose car broke down, and he had to wait for parts. This man was an electrician. We called him an angel because he showed up one day, put in all the lights, and then kind of disappeared.”
Waldrum was dedicated to studio work, even toward the end of his life. “By the time he was coming up here to Santa Fe, he wasn’t very well,” said Costello. “He traveled with an oxygen tank. He’d drive up in a Cadillac and hang out all day. Sometimes he had to lie on the floor to keep going.”
“It was very unfortunate that he died when he did,” Howe said. “He would have been quite a local character. We buried him in a little cemetery he found and loved in Columbus, right near the Mexican border. There are little hills nearby and a forest of cactus. He wanted us all to come down on a bus with someone on the roof with a banner — similar to the Australian film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. We didn’t quite accomplish that.”
Harold Joe Waldrum: Sabado de Gloria en Las Trampas, aquatint etching; opposite page, Adumbracion, 1982, acrylic on linen; all images © 2017 Estate of Harold Joe Waldrum, courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery
La sombra de la ventana hacia el oeste de la capilla de San Antonio de Chacon, 1998, aquatint etching; above right, Church, New Mexico, Polaroid