Darkness falls Nightscapes at the New Mexico Museum of Art
NIGHTSCAPES AT THE NEW MEXICO MUSEUM OF ART
THE nocturne, a musical composition evocative of night and often meant to be played after dark, came to prominence in the 19th century after Irish composer John Field published the first set specifically designated as nocturnes in 1814. When James McNeill Whistler mined the vocabulary of music late in the 19th century — calling many of his works symphonies, harmonies, and arrangements — the nocturne was among his frequent subjects: tonal paintings of dissolute nighttime landscapes that were impressionistic and emotive. While night scenes existed in art long before Whistler’s time, they were never called nocturnes. Today, the term is applied more generally to any nighttime scene and is as common a subject for art as it is for music.
The New Mexico Museum of Art has a surprising number of nocturnes of its own, including some by the more prominent 20th-century artists in its collection: Gustave Baumann, Gerald Cassidy, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Their works, as well as many others, are featured in Wait Until Dark, an exhibit opening Friday, Nov. 17. Like Whistler’s focus on the feeling or impression of night, part of the exhibit is devoted to the mood of an evening: landscapes seen by moonlight or beneath star-filled or darkening skies. Nocturnes can be threatening or mysterious. They can even be comforting, depicting a welcoming light that invites a weary traveler in from the dark and cold.
The section of the show that deals with the feelings night can induce also considers the challenges of painting night scenes. “It’s a whole different kind of tool set,” said Christian Waguespack, the museum’s curator of 20th-century art. “Looking at a landscape with a very different tonal palette than you’re used to is rough. Joseph Henry Sharp was really well-known for painting night scenes and that got me thinking about it. Whenever I talk about this project with people, one of the responses I get the most is, ‘Do you guys have enough nighttime paintings in New Mexico?’ ”
It turns out that the museum has a lot of night scenes in its collection. It’s a common refrain that artists who formed the Taos and Santa Fe art colonies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as those who were drawn to the New Mexico within the past 100 years, were dazzled by the pastel colors of the landscapes of the Southwest, as well as the big skies, the mountainous vistas, mesas, and canyons. Views of the landscape in the bright light of day are among the most common images you see of New Mexico. Wait Until Dark offers a contrasting view, but it isn’t exclusively a show of New Mexico nightscapes. Included, for instance, is a pastoral nocturne painted by East Coast artist Charles Harold Davis called The Quiet Light of Evening (painted before 1933). “He was a Tonalist painter in Mystic, Connecticut,” Waguespack said.
Also included is Betty Binkley Farrar’s night seascape Moonlight; Hayley Lever’s Sailboat in the Moonlight, another seascape; and Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Sailing Under Moonlight. These works are not New Mexicocentric, and it’s a wonder they’re in the collection of this particular museum at all. But the show is more about how artists engaged with night as a subject than it is about a particular region.
The other major theme in the exhibit is on events that take place at night, such as religious processions and Native dances. This section includes a Shalako ceremonial dance painted by Baumann in 1923, a rare example of his work in oils; Cassidy’s Sketch for Spanish Dance Scene (circa 1920), a study for a mural he intended for the Santa Fe Country Club; and Paul Lantz’s phantasmagoric Firedancers (circa 1930), depicting five nude figures dancing wildly around a blazing bonfire. “This piece by Lantz has been in the collection, I think, since 1991, and it wasn’t even photographed, so nobody had really seen it before,” Waguespack said. “It’s this huge painting. It really threw me for a loop because of the season; I re-watched Rosemary’s Baby and there’s a scene with a similar painting.”
Waguespack is including about three dozen works from the museum’s collection. In addition to a few
THE NEW MEXICO MUSEUM OF ART HAS A SURPRISING NUMBER OF NOCTURNES, INCLUDING SOME BY THE MORE PROMINENT 20TH-CENTURY ARTISTS IN ITS COLLECTION: GUSTAVE BAUMANN, GERALD CASSIDY, AND GEORGIA O’KEEFFE.
examples of works by artists not associated with New Mexico, like Ryder and Davis, the show features works by New Mexico artists made before they became associated with the Southwest or were painted while abroad. These include Cassidy’s Fiesole,
Italy (circa 1926), depicting a kneeling figure before a reliquary, and E. Martin Hennings’ At Dusk (circa 1912), an evening scene of two nude youths by a small campfire in the woods.
“This is a nice opportunity for us to get to use some other works by artists people would know really well,” Waguespack said. “Some are coming out for the very first time. Santa Fe and New Mexico folks know Hennings’ Southwestern work, but we have a huge collection of what he did in Europe. He was studying in Munich under one of the Symbolist masters, Franz von Stuck, and he worked in this fantastic Symbolist style.” According to Waguespack,
At Dusk is supposedly the first painting by Hennings to incorporate a backdrop of trees rendered in an Art Nouveau style, a motif he revisited time and again throughout his career. His later paintings of New Mexico landscapes often featured aspens in the fullness of their autumn glory.
Sure to be an emotionally charged inclusion, given the current political rhetoric in the United States that has emboldened bigots and white nationalists, is Louis Ribak’s undated Ku Klux Klan Rally. The picture was likely painted when the artist, originally from the Lithuanian province of Grodno Gubernia, was active in New York. He did an entire series of paintings depicting Klan activities in the region. Later, after moving to Taos in 1944, he became a prominent member of the Taos Moderns, a group of artists that included Ribak’s wife Beatrice Mandelman, Agnes Martin, and Edward Corbett, among others. Ribak, like the other Taos Moderns, became known for postwar abstraction.
Also included are a number of prints by Gene Kloss, who often depicted Native ceremonials, Spanish penitentes, and scenes of regional pueblos. Nocturnes form a significant part of her oeuvre. “I wanted to include her because I think it’s a good chance for us to talk about media and how aquatint really lends itself to doing night scenes, because you kind of have to pull the image out of the already blackened background,” Waguespack said. “It gives us an opportunity to educate people a little bit more about printmaking processes. A solo exhibition of Kloss’ work, New Mexico Etched in Time, opens on Nov. 30 at LewAllen Galleries.
For Waguespack, doing a show of nocturnes was a labor of love and it came about by happenstance. “It’s something that I’ve always been interested in,” he said. “Ever since I started working here I’ve just kept an eye out for nocturnes. I wasn’t really expecting that I’d be able to do anything with them. Then one day, I was in [curator] Kate Ware’s office and a file popped up on her computer that was about nighttime photography. I was like, ‘Oh. Have you been looking at this, too?’ It was something we were both excited about and came up with the idea of doing complementary shows.” The exhibition Ware has subsequently curated, Shots in the Dark, a show of works by photographers Christopher Colville, Scott B. Davis, Michael Lundgren, and Ken Rosenthal, opens on Dec. 15.
Gerald Cassidy: Sketch for Spanish Dance Scene (Mural for Santa Fe Country Club), circa 1920, oil on canvas panel, photo Blair Clark; below, Victor Higgins: Untitled (Red Tree and Adobe House), undated, oil on canvas, photo Cameron Gay; all images courtesy New Mexico Museum of Art