City Fo­cus: Taos

Western Art Collector - - CONTENTS - by Kelly Skeen

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.

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