City Focus: Taos
Very few art communities have the lifespan and significance of Taos, New Mexico. The historic town, nestled in the shadows of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, has been a haven for artists since the early 19th century and its romantic reputation continues today. Artists migrate to Taos for the same reasons the Pueblo Indians settled there long before: the light, the land and the quiet vastness of the southwest. From early Taos founders to trendsetting Taos Moderns, the diversified community served as an escape and a rebellion from established coastal art scenes and busy city centers. The same sentiments exist today as creative voices carry on the legacy of the area’s rich art history with independent perspectives. These perspectives, however, are derived from Taos’ unchanged bohemian attitude and surrounding natural beauty that initially exhilarated Taos’s establishing artists.
The Taos Society of Artists (TSA) defined the first era of the Taos art colony in the early 1900s as a formalized group of romantic academic painters. Traditionally trained in Europe, active in Paris during the rise of impressionism and highly connected in New York’s gallery scene, these artists collectively began seeking subjects to paint that were uniquely American. Breaking from conventional Eastern painting styles, the TSA fostered what they felt to be the “new American art.” The Southwest landscape and Native culture dominated the subject matter for these early artists who were revolutionary for their time not only for introducing a new, locally inspired color palette, but for softening the Wild West mentality of American art. “Up until that point, the American identity was remembered for its dramatic cowboy and Indian motif,” says Davison Koenig, executive director and curator of the Couse-sharp Historic Site in Taos. “The TSA had a more romanticized vision. They depicted Natives in their daily lives, which were peaceful, introspective and family focused. Yes, TSA members were Western artists depicting the West, but they never saw themselves as that. They were academically trained eastern artists depicting America.”
E. Irving Couse and Joseph Henry Sharp were the founding members of the TSA; Koening gives a supremely knowledgeable tour of both artists’ homes and studios, only two blocks from the Taos plaza, that will take you back in time to the height of their creative period and beyond. The Taos Art Museum is another community gem with an exceptional collection of work by Taos founders extending from Couse and Sharp to Ernest Blumenschein, Bert Phillips and more, exhibited in the historic and exquisite home of Russian Taos painter Nicolai Fechin.
The next great wave of artists to arrive in Taos were known as the Taos Moderns, who began to trickle into the area in the late 1930s and took hold from the 1940s to 1970s. Artists like Agnes Martin, Andrew Dasburg, Louis Ribak and Beatrice Mandelman were just a few influential modernists to live in or visit Taos during this time. Instrumental patrons like Mabel Dodge Luhan were also champions of Taos Modernism, cultivating social circles that attracted artists, writers and collectors to the area. Taos remained a modern art mecca and inner-coastal hub well into the abstract expressionist movement, attracting even more artists from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The Harwood Museum of Art, which in its early years served as the town library, came into its own as a collecting institution during the height of the modernist movement. As a result, it boasts one of the largest Taos Modern collections in the country in addition to dedicated early Taos, Native and Hispanic art collections. The Harwood continues to be a relevant contemporary institution hosting exhibitions for current artists who are connected to the region. Opening
in June is a major exhibition for Larry Bell, a prolific and respected abstract artist from the postwar period who has lived and worked in Taos since the 1970s.
It’s clear that Taos has an abundant, colorful past with deep art historical relevance. But what about today’s artists and galleries? Throughout Taos history, artists have surprisingly arrived on the scene with little to no knowledge of preceding art movements. Most of the Taos Moderns were unaware of the pioneering TSA but were similarly drawn to Taos for its bohemian vibe and remote location, unencumbered by influences from larger art centers. “Taos has always had its own rhythm,” says 203 Fine Art director Eric Andrews, whose gallery deals in well-known early modernist to contemporary art. “Artists don’t necessarily come here to be influenced by others, they come here to be influenced by nature and light. The modernists were drawn here for the same reason as the representational painters, they just depicted and emoted it in a particular way.”
This theme continues today, as artists are continuously attracted to this eccentric northern New Mexico community. However, while many current artists and galleries are operating independently of their predecessors, there are those who retain the knowledge of Taos’ rich history and work to keep that legacy alive.
Parsons Fine Art and its second location, Parsons Gallery of the West, is a prime example of preserving Taos heritage with a fresh perspective. Parsons Fine Art is traditional Taos; it was founded in 1992 by Robert Parsons as a hub for early Taos art and continues to exhibit and deal works by Couse, Sharp, Oscar Berninghaus, Walter Ufer and other TSA members and Taos founders. Parsons Gallery of the West opened in 2006 in the historical studio of Victor Higgins, a progressive member of the TSA who overlapped with incoming Moderns. The spirit of Parsons Gallery of the West is similarly aligned with Higgins’ mindset: steeped in tradition while looking toward the future. The newer gallery focuses on current, nationally recognized Western painters who are directly influenced by early Taos artists. Jerry Jordan, for example, is a locally based painter who emboldens Tsa-style imagery with thick brushwork and chaotic color palettes. “The history of Taos is art and it’s important that people know that history,” says Ashley Rolshoven, Parsons’ daughter who now directs both galleries. “But there’s a freshness here too and a younger generation who is moving things forward.”
Gregory Farah is another young Taos gallery director who is enlivening the community through the initiatives of Farahnheight Gallery, which provides a platform for yet another style of art that characterizes the region. Farahnheight’s focus is contemporary Native art from past to present. The gallery deals respected names like Fritz Scholder, R. C. Gorman and T. C. Cannon alongside emerging artists from Navajo country, the Taos Pueblo and promising grads from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Farah agrees that Taos is alive with independent visions, but artists aren’t ignoring those who have come before them. “The young artists, in general, have a sense of that legacy and history,” he says. “But the beauty of Taos is that it’s always been a place of little judgment or confinement. It’s just like the Taos Moderns coming out of the shadows of early 1900 legends; it’s not that artists think earlier work isn’t important, but they don’t feel the need to conform to it either.”
Regardless of the who’s who from its past, the Taos art community continues to be a haven for a diversified group of creative and adventurous voices seeking a culturally fulfilling, awe-inspiring and freeing atmosphere in which to thrive.
Other notable Taos galleries and artists include Total Arts Gallery, Jones Walker of Taos, Wilder Nightingale Fine Art, Read Lockhart Gallery, Taos Blue, Órale Gallery and Ron Larimore, among others.