Wil­liam Ach­eff: Silent Still­ness

Wil­liam Ach­eff cel­e­brates his 50th year of paint­ing with a new West­ern still life show at Nedra Matteucci Gallery in Santa Fe.

Western Art Collector - - CONTENTS - By Michael Claw­son

Wil­liam Ach­eff re­mem­bers be­ing in Bev­erly Hills, Cal­i­for­nia, in the early 1970s when a gallery owner told him about a new trend that was start­ing to per­co­late within the art scene. The painter’s ears perked up. “The dealer I was go­ing to at the time told me, ‘There’s some­thing new hap­pen­ing in art.’ What he was re­fer­ring to was what was then called Amer­i­cana, though it was ba­si­cally West­ern art,” Ach­eff says. “I just re­mem­ber think­ing there was noth­ing like it, and it was some­thing I had to look into.”

Within the next year, Ach­eff was in Taos, New Mex­ico, tak­ing it all in, one paint­ing, Pue­blo pot, Navajo blan­ket, beaded moc­casin and cot­ton­wood carv­ing at a time.

And he never left.

Since his ar­rival to Taos in 1973, Ach­eff has be­come a for­mi­da­ble force in West­ern art, par­tic­u­larly in the area of West­ern still life, a sub­genre that he essen­tially stan­dard­ized across the mar­ket. Cer­tainly oth­ers have tin­kered with West­ern still lifes—joseph Henry Sharp, for in­stance, did some won­der­ful still life paint­ings from his Taos stu­dio— but Ach­eff was an early in­no­va­tor when it came to paint­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can ar­ti­facts along­side classic West­ern paint­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy, and to­day his work sells for six fig­ures at auc­tion, is in the col­lec­tions of ma­jor mu­se­ums and is trea­sured by col­lec­tors. Even as Ach­eff’s star bright­ened in West­ern art over the last five decades, his goals have re­mained the same since he started paint­ing: to push the en­ve­lope

when it came to re­al­ism.

“When I started paint­ing, I be­gan with fruits and vegetables, sil­ver vases and pitch­ers… sim­ple still lifes in a Eu­ro­pean style. Then when I came to Taos I started paint­ing the In­dian pots and blan­kets and it just clicked. The chal­lenge for me was to take these ob­jects and then make them as real as I could in paint,” he says. “These days I still do it the old-fash­ioned way: I set up the ob­jects on a ta­ble and paint them. I don’t rely so much on dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy. I also try to ex­tend a story into the paint­ing with the ob­jects, which can be tricky but has al­ways meant some­thing to me in my work.”

On Au­gust 10 Ach­eff will be pre­sent­ing new minia­ture works in Small & Sa­cred, a new ex­hi­bi­tion at Nedra Matteucci Gal­leries in Santa Fe. The ex­hi­bi­tion will com­mem­o­rate his 50th year paint­ing pro­fes­sion­ally. “These smaller works are par­tic­u­larly strik­ing,” says Nedra Matteucci, the gallery’s owner. “The paint­ings draw us in—cre­at­ing the sense of a shared se­cret—of­fer­ing a story that is both in­ti­mate and trans­for­ma­tive.” The gallery’s di­rec­tor, Dustin Be­lyeu, calls the new pieces “quiet, med­i­ta­tive and cap­ti­vat­ing.”

Ach­eff’s ca­reer be­gan in earnest in 1969 in San Fran­cisco, where the young artist met his men­tor, Roberto Lu­petti, who was a still life and por­trait painter, as well as a teacher. Af­ter meet­ing the painter, Ach­eff was in­vited to his draw­ing class. “He was the artist I was look­ing for, and I think I was the stu­dent he was look­ing for. He would be­come my men­tor,” Ach­eff says, adding that his teacher had a col­or­ful his­tory. “He was drafted in the Ital­ian army on the on­set of World War II, and he was even an of­fi­cer since he was ed­u­cated. He was cap­tured by Amer­i­can forces in North Africa and brought to Texas as a POW. Se­cu­rity was pretty lax be­cause most of the sol­diers never re­ally wanted to fight in the war any­way. So he es­caped. Later he met an Amer­i­can woman, mar­ried her and then the war ended. He was shipped back to Italy, but she didn’t want to live in Italy so he had to work to get a visa to come back.”

In San Fran­cisco, Lu­petti was quick to teach his young pupil. “He would say that in­spi­ra­tion was putting the car­rot in front of the don­key. He said a lot of in­ter­est­ing things, and he never had to say them twice be­cause I re­tained ev­ery­thing,” Ach­eff says. “He just opened the door and I walked right in. Some­thing clicked.”

Later, when he learned about Taos, Ach­eff came to the fa­mous art colony with a girl­friend. He re­mem­bers one stop­light, and a place to rent that had been di­vided up into four sep­a­rate units. “It was a ha­cienda, this old adobe, and it came with mice and ev­ery­thing,” he re­calls. “I loved it, but the girl­friend left within three months.”

Af­ter fall­ing head over heels for the art and ar­ti­facts of the South­west, Ach­eff im­me­di­ately started finding his foot­ing with his work while liv­ing and work­ing in Taos. His first ma­jor breakthrou­gh came in 1981 dur­ing the West­ern Her­itage Sale in Hous­ton, a show that he started ex­hibit­ing at in 1979 thanks to an invitation from painter Gor­don Snidow. The now-de­funct sale—which auc­tioned cat­tle and quar­ter horses, as well as art­work—was a ma­jor event dur­ing its hey­day, of­fer­ing works from James Boren, Clark Hul­ings, Robert Lougheed, Melvin War­ren and even a young Martin Grelle. Dur­ing the 1981 event, Ach­eff brought The Yel­low Rose of Texas, which showed a vi­o­lin and bow hang­ing on a wall near sheet mu­sic for the fa­mous song “The Yel­low Rose of Texas.” At one point in the sale, Ach­eff was brought on stage to in­tro­duce him­self and he, half-jok­ingly, said, “Hi, I’m Wil­liam Ach­eff. I’m an artist from Taos and I’m sin­gle.” The au­di­ence ate it up, which sort of primed the pump for Ach­eff’s paint­ing in the auc­tion.

“I was dream­ing the piece would sell for $25,000, which was a lot of money at the time and re­ally just a fan­tasy for me,” the artist says, adding that a piece by Hul­ings sold for $310,000 at the same sale. “But then my piece comes up and it goes past $25,000. When it hit $35,000 my eyes were pop­ping out of my head. When it hit and sold for $45,000 peo­ple were scream­ing, be­cause there I am this young guy—it was un­real. My head was numb.” Ach­eff re­mem­bers walk­ing through the crowd af­ter­ward and greet­ing the gov­er­nor of Texas, Bill Cle­ments, and he felt like the cen­ter of the uni­verse. The sale was a hit for him in more ways than one. He re­turned to Taos a folk hero of sorts, and new col­lec­tors had been drawn into his or­bit.

In the years and decades that fol­lowed the auc­tion in Hous­ton, Ach­eff would go on to cre­ate some of his most iconic works: This Song’s For You, which holds his auc­tion record, set in 2007 for $145,000; Jewel of the South­west, a work that fea­tures a pho­to­graph by Ed­ward S. Cur­tis, a fa­vorite sub­ject of the artist; Hopi View, which hangs at the Eiteljorg Mu­seum next to the Wil­liam R. Leigh work that is painted within it; and two Prix de West pur­chase award win­ners in 1984 and 2004.

And although his ca­reer is now in its 50th year, Ach­eff, like a don­key reach­ing for a car­rot on a stick, is still in­spired by new ideas and sub­ject mat­ter. This was abun­dantly clear at this year’s Masters of the Amer­i­can West ex­hi­bi­tion at the Autry Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can West, where he pre­sented Times are Still A-changin’, a work that called back to his his­tory in San Fran­cisco. The piece fea­tures Mil­ton Glaser’s fa­mous poster of Bob Dy­lan, and un­der­neath it a pot with daisies and another pot with…well, pot.

“Every­one has seen the poster at some point in their life. I had heard Dy­lan’s mu­sic in San

Fran­cisco in 1965. I had come across the poster and I hung onto it un­til I had a good idea for it. I loved the way you could see the folds of the pa­per, be­cause back then the poster came with the al­bum and it was folded up in­side. I didn’t want to do some hip­pie thing with a peace sign or any­thing, so I taped the poster to the wall, pulled out these two pots—one for daisies, the peace flower of the era, and the other for mar­i­juana—and it evolved very quickly,” Ach­eff says, adding that he liked the piece so much he set the price for it higher than usual, so when it didn’t sell he had an ex­cuse to keep it. It now hangs in his home. “In the fall of 1965 I was in bar­ber col­lege and this other guy I was friends with sug­gested we go to lunch at Macy’s and lis­ten to records. Back then Macy’s had these booths you could go into and lis­ten to the records. So we go over and he pulled this Bob Dy­lan al­bum out. It was amazing what this guy was say­ing, the way he brought up the is­sues that were hap­pen­ing. It was also con­fus­ing to me as a kid be­cause I had never heard any­thing like it.”

When asked if it’s dif­fi­cult to paint in another artist’s style—some­one like Glaser, Leigh, Fred­eric Rem­ing­ton, Charles M. Rus­sell and many of the mem­bers of the Taos So­ci­ety of Artists—ach­eff shrugs it off. “I don’t think it is. If I can see it I can paint it,” he says. “I don’t think of it as a dif­fer­ent style. It’s just light and shadow and color.”

These days the artist is still very busy cre­at­ing works for a num­ber of gal­leries and mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tions. He still col­lects Na­tive Amer­i­can ar­ti­facts, es­pe­cially pot­tery, and he’s still in love with Taos. He’s also a pi­lot and owns two air­planes, the re­sult of an in­tense hobby the be­gan about 25 years ago. “I’m orig­i­nally from Alaska and one of my un­cles was a bush pi­lot. We lived in this town of 200 peo­ple in the mid­dle of nowhere. The only way in or out was by fly­ing,” he ex­plains. “It’s fun and I will some­times fly to shows. The planes are ex­pen­sive and I could have bought another house, but you can’t fly a house.”

Small & Sa­cred opens Au­gust 10 and con­tin­ues through Septem­ber 7 at Nedra Matteucci Gal­leries. A re­cep­tion will be held open­ing day, from 1 to 3 p.m.

Above: Pot­ter and Pots, oil on panel, 7 x 9”; Op­po­site page: Golden Mem­o­ries, oil on panel, 9 x 6”

Times are Still A-changin’, oil on panel, 40 x 30”. Cour­tesy Autry Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can West.

Sounds in Na­ture, oil on panel, 9 x 7”

Warm Thoughts and Mem­o­ries, oil on panel, 9 x 7”

Wil­liam Ach­eff works on a new minia­ture piece in his Taos stu­dio.

Proud, oil on panel, 9 x 7”

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