Visual Arts

Western Union

A hunger for the exotic is usually what stirs artists to jump past the humdrum of the "new and improved" to the rarer thrill of things "never before felt or seen." But as the Phoenix Art Museum's "Taos Artists and Their Patrons, 1898-1950" suggests, that hunger isn't confined to the arts. It is the essence of travel and high-end commerce. Taos was the place where all three converged to create one of the more influential and curious art colonies in the history of American art. Curious because it was so diverse. Influential because, in the 1920s and 1930s, it included a who's who of leading American painters.

The exhibition -- which includes more than 100 paintings and sculptures -- was organized by the Snite Museum at the University of Notre Dame. Like many theme shows, this one has done little to distinguish between significant and insignificant works produced under the Taos banner. It mixes paintings made to serve as calendar art with images that are far more compelling.

Nevertheless, the exhibition reveals a good deal more than most shows of Western art about the impact patronage had on artists' depictions of the region.

In a limited sense, the Taos colony began when the Eastern painters Bert Phillips and Ernest Blumenschein split a wagon wheel outside Taos in 1898 and straggled into town to find help. But one could easily say its seeds were sown much earlier in the 19th century when the first Eastern artists returned from western expeditions with drawings, paintings and photographs that revealed what the German-born American painter Albert Bierstadt characterized as "the best material for the artist in the world."

The landscape of the West, with all of its brassiness and subtleties, astonished artists accustomed to the shaded vistas of the Midwest and East. After visiting Yellowstone in 1871, painter Thomas Moran reportedly said that the colors were "beyond the reach of human art."

That view didn't end with Moran or Yellowstone.

After taking in the landscape around Taos and Santa Fe in 1918, the well-traveled painter Marsden Hartley, who was briefly associated with the Taos crowd, wrote that he had never seen anything lovelier in his life. He called it a "sculptural country" whose vivid forms and colors defied what he knew about conventional aesthetics.

Just about every artist who got off the train in Santa Fe and trekked off to the mesas and canyons around Taos had similar views.

Yet there was a striking aesthetic diversity among the Taosians. The core group of Phillips, Blumenschein, Joseph Sharp, Oscar Berninghaus, E. Irving Couse and W. Herbert Dunton were academic realists. But through the mid-1930s, Taos attracted Victor Higgins, Robert Henri and such New York modernists as Hartley, John Marin and Georgia O'Keeffe.

Many of these artists were drawn by invitations and support from art patrons Mabel Dodge Luhan, Millicent Rogers and Marion Koogler McNay, among others. They were also drawn by the magnificent scenery. However, O'Keeffe was among the few modernists who stayed.

That's partly because their careers were elsewhere, and eye-filling summers in the Sangre de Christos were about all they wanted or needed to clear out the gray urban cobwebs. Yet the provincialism of Taos and the thinking it attracted also had an effect. The excellent exhibition catalogue points out that it didn't take the persnickety Hartley more than a summer (1918) to decide that Taos was "the stupidest place I ever fell into." He thought the painters were "a society of cheap artists from Chicago and New York."

Many works by Couse, Dunton, Sharp and others were little more than sops to the Santa Fe Railroad's interest in pictures that played up the exotica of the West.

The Santa Fe Railroad earlier had used landscape paintings by Thomas Moran for the same purpose. In the first decade of the 1900s, the company became a chief sponsor of the Taos group, buying and displaying their paintings in stations along the lines leading west, and turning their pictures into popular calendars. The company was especially interested in images that dramatized the rituals and practices of the Southwest Indians.

Its support gave Couse and friends the chance to play the rawhide academics, replacing the lace, cloth and white myths of traditional academic scenes with the myths, deerskin, blankets and ruddy faces of what they considered to be a dying Native American culture.

The railroad couldn't have asked for a better sales pitch. And artists, critics and curators who hated the European leanings of the New York art world couldn't have had better evidence that a distinctly American art could be created away from the East Coast.

The Taos brand of American regionalism -- like all the others that sprouted from American fields in the first half of the 20th century -- was embraced by a few authorities as a true expression of the American spirit.

But the hackneyed paternalism of much of the portraits that painters like Couse -- similar to the cloying scenes of our own Cowboy Artists of America -- made of local Indians (see The Quiver Maker, 1920) don't have the staying power of the landscape paintings by Ernest Blumenschein, O'Keeffe, Hartley, Marin and Victor Higgins.

While the Taos academics posed the Indians, the modernists posed the landscape. Marin, O'Keeffe, Hartley and Higgins abstracted and personalized it, turning it from an actual scene into groupings of compelling forms. The empty edges framing the Marin watercolors in the exhibition suggest that the paintings aren't meant to act as windows on a world, but as autonomous images.

O'Keeffe's small painting of the Gate of Adobe, 1929, does a similar turn.

Hartley overcame the brightness of the New Mexico light by painting the Sangre de Christo mountains from memory after he left. Unfortunately, none of these paintings is included in the show.

Yet the exhibition's examples by Victor Higgins make up for it. Higgins was a master landscape painter. His large New Mexico Skies, 1933-1935, with saturated colors and clouds as thick as lard cakes, is a gem. So is his Winter Funeral, 1931, painted shortly after the death of his mother.

Its brooding lid of dark clouds over the bowl of a snow-white valley -- an inversion of the landscape's normal balance of dark and light -- seems to turn the world upside down. The feathery brushwork around the edges of the picture acts like a scrim curtain enclosing a stage. Elsewhere in the picture, Higgins' brushwork is equally deft. He uses subtle changes in the direction of his strokes to fill out the space of the scene. For instance, his side-to-side strokes along the creek and trees at the base of the painting create a virtual fence that momentarily keeps the eye from being pulled by the vertical strokes across the curved flatland occupied by the funeral carriages to the base of the looming mountains.

It's one funeral people who care about painting shouldn't miss.