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.
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”