Etch­ing a legacy The work of Gene Kloss


Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Michael Abatemarco

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

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