Southwest comes to Snite Museum
By JOHN CRAWFORD
It all started with a broken wagon wheel.
Taking off on a summer adventure, two young artists trekked south from Denver through the Colorado Rockies. They plodded along in a horse-drawn wagon, painting and sketching as they traveled. The year was 1898.
Then, the aforementioned wagon wheel broke, and the young artists suddenly found themselves outside Taos, N.M., a land of sky, clouds and mountains. Unexpectedly, they stumbled upon a place of inspiration. Their senses overloaded with imagery and colors and beauty. One of the artists, Bert Phillips, claimed to have "found more inspiration and material for creative work than I could use in a lifetime."
The summer trip was over. Phillips and fellow artist, Ernest Leonard Blumenschein, decided to stay in Taos and form an artist colony. Numerous friends and colleagues soon followed them there.
More than 100 years later, the Snite Museum of Art celebrates the colony that inadvertently stemmed from that broken wagon wheel in a new exhibit entitled "Taos Artists and Their Patrons: 1898-1950." Large in scope and ambition, the exhibit features 85 works by southwestern artists who lived in the stimulating Taos area.
"It's the biggest show I've done here," said Dean Porter, who acted as the Snite's director for 25 years before stepping down in May. Now serving as director emeritus, Porter and the museum's staff have opened the exhibit after spending seven years organizing it.
To walk amongst "Taos Artists," which opened Aug. 29 and runs through Nov. 14, is to step into a John Ford western. One is confronted by cowboys and horses, American Indians and wide open spaces, sombreros and a rocky, golden terrain.
In many ways, it documents a way of life now gone, that of the American West.
"They [the artists] wanted to capture it before it disappeared," Porter said. "The entire landscape was disappearing."
It is also an exhibit that allows museum-goers to see the story behind the paintings. Through each work's labels and descriptions, the exhibit details the patrons who supported the artists in their work.
"A show like this has never been done before," Porter said. "This is about people and their relationships, more than the final work of art. The show is about relationships and how they contributed to the final work of art."
"An exhibition should challenge. If you're not challenged with this show, you're not reading the labels," he added.
With no galleries or exhibition spaces available in the secluded Taos area, artists were dependent on patrons for survival. The exhibit chronicles the friends, corporations and foundations that helped the artists.
In many cases, that financial help gave the artists the economic freedom they needed to paint. In others, though, patronage came with a price.
"Not all patronage is positive," Porter said. "They [the patrons] dictated what you painted. If you want to be an artist, you want to do something that you want to do. That's when patronage fails, when you got to do something you're forced to do."
For example, some artists found themselves painting American Indians to be used in advertisements by the Santa Fe Railway Company. Other artists found the most minute detail, like the number of angels depicted in a painting, to be controlled by patrons.
Still, over the years, a number of prominent artists came to Taos, including painters Georgia O'Keeffe and John Marin, photographers Paul Strand and Ansel Adams and writers like Willa Cather and D.H. Lawrence.
In Taos, they found refuge from the progress descending upon the world. Technology was hurtling forward, but Taos remained lost in time. It didn't even have electricity until 1928.
"It was the time of the industrial revolution," Porter said. "Cities were pretty dirty. People wanted to return to nature. It was a place relatively untouched. It was exotic, the place to go. It's called the `Land of Enchantment.' People went there to get away."
The landscape of this untouched area crept into the paintings of the Taos painters.
"The landscape inspired the colors," said Chuck Loving, the museum's interim director. "New Mexico is an area of texture," Porter added. "You feel the texture of adobe [in the paintings]."
Mountains fill many of the exhibit's works. In some, they loom over the background, as in W. Herbert Dunton's "The Horse Wrangler," which depicts a lonely cowboy. Far behind him, hills sit small.
In other works, mountains dominate. The mourners in Phillips' "Penitente Burial Procession — Near Taos" look insignificant compared to the mountains scraping the sky around them.
"You could paint the same mountain for 20 years and not get the same picture," Porter said. "It's something in the clouds and the light."
Spirituality among Taos Hispanics and American Indians also find their way into many artists' works. Crosses fill paintings such as Walter Ufer's "Hunger," Barbara Latham's "Decoration Day" and Blumenschein's "Superstition," which pictures an American Indian medicine man who has adopted some aspects of the white man's religion.
"It's a very spiritual place," Porter said. "The church there is very special. It's an amazing place."
Surrounded by the spirituality, landscapes and unspoiled world of Taos, writer Mabel Dodge Luhan, who lived in the area for over 40 years, wished to establish Laos as "the birthplace of a new American civilization."
That dream, however, would gradually fade. Changing times eventually came to Taos around 1950, the year the exhibit ends.
Primarily, painting in general underwent a major transformation around that time. Depicting landscapes, such as the beautiful mountains and skies of Taos, stopped being the aim of art. Painting became less about people and places and more about emotions and ideas.
"The art changes dramatically," Porter said. "There is less identity."
"It was no longer about depicting the external world but the internal world," Loving said.
Civilization, which for decades was seemingly held at bay, also encroached into the area. Taos was no longer isolated, no longer a place to get away from the world's noise and hustle.
"Taos was a mud town," Porter said. "Today, it's got McDonald's. Today, you have a million visitors a year. When the tourists are there, you have gridlock."
Finally, the romance of Taos faded. The American West was just a memory. "Perhaps the attraction of the American myth had run its course," Loving said.
Several other pictures of note in the exhibit include: "Too Old for the Rabbit Hunt" by Oscar Berninghaus, which shows an aging American Indian sadly watching as a hunt leaves without him; Ufer's "Bob Abbott and His Assistant," which portrays a mechanic and his American Indian assistant next to a battered old car; and "The Stoic" by Joseph Henry Sharp, which pictures an American Indian in grief.
According to museum notes, the grieving Indian in the painting cut his back muscles and tied several buffalo thongs to them. To a rope attached to the thongs, he then tied several pony heads. Throughout the day, he dragged the heads around the hill side to show he possessed the strength to face any problem.
The exhibit, which is free to the public, first opened at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa in May. After leaving Notre Dame, it will head to the Phoenix Art Museum in December.
The show's last stop will be the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio at the end of 2000.
Museum staff believe the new exhibit to be a worthy one for the Snite.
"I think [the museum walls] have never looked this good," Porter said.
According to Gina Costa, the museum's curator, "[An exhibit like this] won't happen again, or at least in another 15 to 20 years."
All Scene Stories for Wednesday, September 1, 1999