Living in New York City in the early 20th century, married to one of its greatest and most influential photographers, and a full partner in an up and coming avant-garde — what would compel such a person to divorce herself from this centered existence to relocate in the then-primitive and desolate frontier of Taos, New Mexico? Over the artifice and noise of the city, Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist described, chose a natural, wild and romantic world, untainted by modernity. She and many American artists who felt a similar impulse — not unlike Gauguin’s self-imposed exile to Tahiti — chose this primitive landscape as theirs to render freely. The product of their prescience is amply displayed in the new Visions of the Southwest exhibition at the Brigham Young University’s Museum of Art. The extensive collection of Diane and Sam Stewart reveals the nascence of an artistic tradition whose roots have grown into one of the world’s most prolific and unique art centers: Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The early impetus behind art now found in Santa Fe and that of the artists that created it is compelling and can be viewed at the exhibit. What one finds is a complex and beautiful dynamic of visionary artists, a pastiche of artistic styles, lands yet unchanged and magnificent primitive cultures yet having felt the back of the white man’s hand.
When Georgia O’Keeffe first went to Taos in 1929, she was following the footsteps of a number of artists who had been locating there since 1898: Conrad Buff, Freemont Ellis, W. Herbert Dunton, Joseph Henry Sharp. They brought with them a heavily Western and Modern artistic perspective and many dreams. Most of these East Coast artists were trained in cities across Europe, a continent vibrating with the aftermath of the early modern movements and beginning to feel the full effect of the canonical shift to Modern Art. These artists discovered a foreign sense of the other that they were motivated by: grandiose mountains, hills, prairies, skies, light, color, canyons, and vistas. They were also inspired by a foreign sense of the other: primitive indigenous tribes living harmoniously and simply with the land in a wilderness that was their home, and for how long was not known. There was a formula there for art grounded in the western tradition but adaptable to a new environment, a formula that culminated in a new tradition.
This formula is a synthesis of two very basic principles in an extraordinary dynamic: artist and subject. Every piece in this extensive exhibition reflects this synthesis. From the artist, he or she contributed his or her aesthetic point of view: their philosophy, approach, and artistic vision. Each applied this to a region ripe with land and cultures sublime in a state of intact, untainted natural beauty.
For those versed in late 19th century/ early 20th century art, specifically the avant-garde movements, the show is a festival of appropriation recognition. “The interlocking planes are definitely Cézannesque,” one might overhear a visitor commenting. “This nocturne evokes an intense color palette that I would only see van Gogh using.” “The color fields here are most certainly fauvist; Matisse would assuredly praise this.” “Look at the perspective. Do you see how two points of view are rendered on a flat plane? This artist has surely been influenced by the cubists.” “The color on this horse, doesn’t it resonate ideas of impressionism- don’t you see how the light brings out the various blues, greens, purples; this artist knows about the effect of light on color?” Such reactions will certainly occur with viewers who know their early Modernism.
For others, the vast range of artistic interpretation will offer new and exciting ways of seeing traditional landscape or portraiture. These artists, having been educated in European schools, incorporated Modernist techniques, offering varied, fantastical, whimsical and sublime interpretations of their subjects that today’s artist cannot quite replicate. This was a time of invention, of artistic excitement, vigor, and freedom to experiment…a canyon did not necessarily have to specify an exacting redrock craggy structure and these artists seem to be having fun, free with their learning and applying it to the offerings of Taos.
Taos itself — the subject, all that it possessed, physical and metaphysical — became an artist’s Shangri-La. This land, sacred to its inhabitants, became sacred to the artist’s eye. These new adventurist artists could create their own Montmartre. Instead of Lautrec’s dance halls they painted a warrior chief by a fire using the same Symbolism of a Bernard, expressive of the visual and the non. Instead of Cézannesque riparian bathers, broken into planes of shape and color and abstracted natural forms, we find a tribe of women, similarly broken into color and shape: an abstraction of a tribal gathering. The sturdy oaks on a hillside are illuminated by a lucid play of thick impasto, a van Goghesque fantasy of color and intensity. Cubism is used effectively in a rendering of a small primitive settlement, deconstructing the sun-drenched adobe, as would Picasso. The artists, foreigners to the endemic tribes, seem welcome in such candid moments.
One piece in the show particularly exemplifies the complex dynamic of the exhibition. Walter Ufer’s “The Washer Woman” presents a genre subject while incorporating various Modernist techniques. In this composition we find a marriage of the two elements discussed. The subject is a moment in everyday Pueblo life; a woman carries a bundle on her back, a load of clothing to do her washing. Behind her is a typical Taos sight: a humble, adobe house behind a crumbling stone wall that needs much repair. Life proceeds for the woman who assuredly bears this responsibility daily. This painting evokes reality, sobriety yet romantic realism. The subject is simple and profound and the aesthetic is complex.
In “The Washer Woman” one is tempted to think of Daumier’s Realism and the plight of the under- classes but this would be a mistake. This woman is not to be pitied; she is not repressed but strong, proud and full of life. This romantic realism is captured, firstly in a sensitively rendered study of the Native woman, and interestingly melds several methods of the Modernist school. The result is a successful synthesis of aesthetic and subject. She is seen in a pool of light. Executed in impressionist methods worthy of Degas the tonality is as real as the sun might feel on a scorching New Mexico afternoon. More so and more surprising is the atmosphere bringing the early technique of Seurat’s divisionism to play. A seemingly pedestrian activity is illuminated by light and color. The sky is alive with pinks and blues, a new perspective on an ancient, untouched and unaffected culture.
An immense sampling of a select group of artists may currently be seen at the BYU MOA, successfully representing the core of their prodigious contribution to the canon. These visionaries, educated in Europe and members of the avant-garde at its height, chose, as pioneers do, to leave the archetype and venture to a land that no artist’s palette had considered. They truly were on the forefront. It was a romantic attraction to a frontier of land and artistic possibility that lured such artists. It was what van Gogh hoped to achieve in Provence, and what survived for some of the modernists at Pont Aven. Like painters of Montmartre: Lautrec, Picasso, van Gogh, Matisse, Derain, Renoir, Degas- Taos was a new Mecca. It offered a similar freshness and freedom to that which lured the young French artists; it was and is an artist’s paradise. Integrity: truth to the land and cultures, truth to an aesthetic made this art successful. It continues to evolve and is an ever-burgeoning productive character of the artistic landscape of today.
Visions of the Southwest continues at the BYU Museum of Art through July 3.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. He is now a professional writer living in Salt Lake City.