Etching a legacy The work of Gene Kloss
THE WORK OF GENE KLOSS
NOT a whole lot has been written about Gene Kloss. Although she was a master printer of alluring landscapes and portraits, she’s among the lesser-known New Mexico-based artists of a circle that included Taos art colony regulars Joseph Henry Sharp, W. Herbert Dunton, E. Irving Couse, and Oscar E. Berninghaus. Perhaps it is because she was of a younger generation, or because she was a woman; Kloss has said as much in recorded interviews. But over the course of a long career, Kloss, whose solo exhibition New Mexico Etched in Time opens Friday, Nov. 30, at LewAllen Galleries, produced some of the finest drypoint etchings and aquatints. They depict enigmatic scenes of New Mexico that capture the land’s bewitching, timeless appeal.
Although Kloss was an oil painter and watercolorist, she is mostly known for her etchings, which are the focus of the exhibition. Whether she was etching landscapes, Pueblo dances, Catholic Penitentes engaged in self-flagellation, or portraits of the many indigenous friends she made in Taos, her prints are notable for their inherent rhythms, dramatic lighting, high contrasts, and sublime evocations of people and regional traditions.
Kloss was born Alice Geneva Glasier in Oakland, California, in 1903. In his introduction to the monograph Gene Kloss Etchings, her husband, the poet Phillips Kloss, wrote that she went by the name Gene for phonetic reasons. Kloss graduated with honors from the art department of the University of California, Berkeley, in 1924. The following year, she briefly attended the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). “That is all of my formal education,” Kloss told Sylvia Loomis of the Santa Fe office of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art in an oral history interview recorded in 1964. But through Kloss’ career, she achieved a level of expertise in etchings that rivaled those of the Old Dutch Masters. One such work, called Processional at
Taos (1948), is on view in New Mexico Etched in Time. Its nighttime depiction of a religious event outside a Spanish mission conveys such an old-world appearance, you feel as if you were transported to a time long past. You can almost feel the wind buffeting the robes and scarves of the congregants and hear the bells ringing in the mission’s stepped façade.
Kloss had no experience with etching until her final semester at UC Berkeley, when her anatomy instructor, Perham Nahl, taught an etching seminar. She caught on quickly. According to her interview with Loomis, she was the only one of 12 students who took to the subject. After obtaining a small book called How to Make an Etching, she produced a print with Nahl’s assistance. “He was amazed at the first print she pulled from his huge hundred-year-old starhandled press, enthusiastically predicting she would be an etcher,” Phillips Kloss wrote. In her interview for the Smithsonian, she stated that her brief experience with Nahl was all she got from him, but it was all she needed.
She married Phillips Kloss soon after finishing her schooling in 1925, and they made their first trip to New Mexico that same year. Kloss and her husband
loaded a tent and camping gear into their car and spent two weeks camping in Taos Canyon. She painted and etched the entire time and even brought along a small printing press. “We bought a sack of concrete and set it up on a stump in the woods and I printed my plates there,” she told Loomis. Gene and Phillips would visit Taos every summer for the next couple of decades, and they settled there in 1952.
The Klosses never had much money, although the artist did make enough from her print sales for them to get by. She found work as a printmaker under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) during the Great Depression and, later, the Works Progress Administration. It was under the latter that Kloss became interested in aquatint, a timeconsuming etching process that involves the application of an acid-resistant ground of powdered rosin to a metal plate, which is then dipped in acid. The acid corrodes the areas to be inked. Her first time out, she placed a copper plate at the bottom of an apple box covered with muslin and pounded on the top to get the rosin to sift through the material. As she related to Loomis, her pounding was answered by a knock at the door. She opened it, and there stood her Taos Pueblo neighbor Joe Sun Hawk and his six-year-old boy. Sun Hawk told her it looked like she was performing a ceremony and, rattle in hand, offered to sing her a song while she went back to sifting. She said of this memory, “I daresay that was the only aquatint ground laid to the tune of an Indian song!”
The aquatint process is valued for its ability to capture fine degrees of tone gradation, resembling a watercolor, and for allowing the artist to create even tones over the surface of a print. It was a particularly useful technique for Kloss, who produced many night scenes with dark skies, deep shadows, and a thin sheen of light — perhaps from some far-off village — glowing over the top of a mountain ridge. A good example is her Penitente Fires from 1939, in which a distant procession approaches a small adobe structure, the light from an unseen fire, billowing smoke, casting the figures’ long shadows out behind them. The sky is a uniform dark gray, but it is distinct from the nearby mountains, which are rendered in a deeper and even tone that’s almost black. “The adobe house we rented in Taos for ten years was situated across the road from a Penitente morada, a kind of death church,” Phillips Kloss wrote of this etching. “We never snooped on their activities but we couldn’t help hearing their shrill fifes and dismal dirges at a funeral ceremony for one of their brotherhood, nor could we help seeing their night fires at Eastertime.”
A slightly later landscape, Late Sunlight on the Cliffs (1941), combines aquatint and drypoint, an intaglio technique similar to engraving that involves the use of a needle to incise the plate. Bright sunlight washes over the rocky cliffs. Trees in the foreground, framing the scene, appear silhouetted, rendered in varying degrees of grayscale. A lone figure, small in the majestic setting, stands in appreciation of the natural beauty, much like a figure from a Romantic-era landscape by German artist Caspar David Friedrich. Kloss’ Noonday Shadows, made the same year, is a total contrast. The imagery in Noonday Shadows, which is not an aquatint, depicts figures in conversation on a stoop outside an adobe home. The composition was rendered with the cross-hatching techniques common to etching and engraving.
At times throughout her career, Kloss combined several etching techniques into a single print, such as in Tribute to the Earth, a 1972 composition of a Pueblo ceremonial made with traditional etching, drypoint, and aquatint methods. Kloss remained active at least into the 1980s, continually challenging herself and experimenting with her medium. Although more than 30 years would pass between her Smithsonian interview and her death in 1996, she offered Loomis this self-evaluation: “I’m like Michelangelo who said, when he was dying at the tender age of 89, he regretted but two things; that he hadn’t spent more time for the salvation of his soul, and that he was dying just when he was learning the A,B,C’s of his art.”
Soul, and a modest appreciation for the intrinsic worth of a subject, be it land or people, defines her art. Phillips Kloss summed up her work thus: “The sense of beauty, the inspirations and aspirations of life, the affinities and friendships, the communication of ideas — these are the motivating forces of any true artist.”
Processional at Taos, 1948, etching, drypoint and aquatint on paper; top, Noonday Shadows, 1941, etching on paper; opposite page, Tribute to the Earth, 1972, etching, drypoint and aquatint on paper
Late Sunlight on the Cliffs, 1941, etching, drypoint and aquatint on paper; images courtesy LewAllen Galleries