Past Exhibition

Modernism Made in New Mexico

January 30, 2015 - April 30, 2015

Santa Fe, NM

“It will not satisfy the intelligent eye to paint a lone mesa like an inflated haystack of Monet. The sense of form in New Mexico is for me one of the profoundest, most original and most beautiful I have personally experienced.” Marsden Hartley, El Palacio, 1918

In the early decades of the twentieth century, a group of radical, adventurous artists sought to create an entirely new style of painting. Rejecting the traditions of the past, many of these self-described “Modernists” took their inspiration from the dramatic landscape of New Mexico. Where an early generation of artists had portrayed the romantic lure of the American Southwest during the nineteenth-century using European Academic painting traditions to represent the environment and inhabitants of the region as exotic, Modern artists took a very different approach. Modernism Made in New Mexico, an exhibition organized by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, traces this journey through the work of fifteen pioneering artists who found inspiration in New Mexico’s stark landscape, distinct adobe architecture, and vibrant cultures. The artwork on view spans the first four decades of the twentieth century, from a scene of majestic beauty painted in 1902 by Thomas Moran to the abstract Modernist composition of Raymond Jonson, created in 1940.The exhibition investigates how the high desert landscape and the local cultures of New Mexico inspired a radical new direction in American Modernism during the first half of the twentieth century. It explores the unique creative efforts among some of America’s most important artists, leaders in the development of an unmistakably American style of Modernism, one made in New Mexico. Though far from influential art centers like New York City, the sense of place found in this region dramatically changed the look of American art.

The earliest painting in the exhibition, Moran’s The Road to Acoma (1902), portrays a natural geological wonder meant to rival the man-made monuments of the old world. It is painted in a traditional style that creates an illusion of depth and distance. Such landscapes supported the formation of an American identity and fueled a sense of national pride, even though European precedents largely inspired the style. In clear contrast, the Modern artists of the 1920s and 30s sought a new, distinctly American style of art. Rejecting tradition, they favored bold, abstracted forms that broke free from the illusion of depth, creating simplified and stylized landscapes that expressed their personal, subjective encounter with nature and response to the region, rather than trying to imitate the exact visual appearance of a location.

This did not happen overnight. For an artist like Robert Henri, who was considered in the vanguard of American painting before 1910 but seemed increasingly conservative and out-of-fashion in subsequent years, a trip to the Southwest offered the possibility of reinvigorating his career.  He first visited Santa Fe 1916, in search of new artistic inspiration. Two close friends and colleagues – George Bellows and John Sloan – followed his lead.  They were followed by even more radically Modern artists, including the self-described “ultra modernist” Marsden Hartley, who made his first visit in 1918, as did Andrew Dasburg. During the next decade many more Modernists arrived. Included in this exhibition are Jozef Bakos, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Raymond Jonson, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Cady Wells. They brought their Modernist style and pursued a regionalist sensibility based on New Mexico. Their purpose was to evoke a sense of place, but they avoided creating representations that imitated the visual appearance of the land, instead favoring simplified, abstracted compositions and bold colors.

The impact of New Mexico and the duration of their stays varied. Some returned to New York after only one visit, never to return again; others returned frequently or relocated permanently. The experience dramatically changed the work of some and others resisted the drama and color of the landscape. Marsden Hartley created vibrant, dynamic pastel landscapes like Pueblo Mountain, N.M. (1918) while staying in the area, but most of his New Mexico paintings were actually created from memory in the subsequent decade in New York and Europe. Stuart Davis refused to paint the colors of the landscape and created grisaille (monochrome) paintings like Electric Bulb, New Mexico (1923). John Marin was challenged by the vast landscape during his first visit to Taos. Upon his return in 1930, he explored strategies for framing the view that resolved his dilemma in watercolors like Mountains (Sangre de Cristo). He enclosed vast panoramas in abstract lines of color that created an oscillation between pure painting at the edges and moments of illusionistic space at the center of the work.

Among the artists who came to New Mexico, only a few—Dasburg, Jonson, O’Keeffe, and Sloan settled permanently. These artists experienced a personal connection to the desert landscape that transformed their lives and art. O’Keeffe brought her modernist sensibilities and techniques to a new subject matter. She created abstract compositions that hover on the surface of the canvas, yet remained true to the contours and intense colors of the land, as in Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II (1930). Like O’Keeffe, Sloan built a house and acquired a familiarity with the land that inspired his work in paintings such as Storm Over the Jemez (1923).

In addition to the early work of Moran and Cassidy, the exhibition includes a few notable exceptions to the shared pursuits of the Modernists. For example, Thomas Hart Benton declared himself an enemy of modernism, yet his response to the intense and unexpected colors of the natural surroundings inspired a unique expressive style in the painting Train on the Desert (1926 or 1927). Raymond Jonson a founder of the Transcendental Painting Group, whose members were committed to a distinctive abstract movement, painted Oil No. 5 in 1940. Though this abstraction may seem out of place in the exhibition, it evolved from his earlier work inspired by the New Mexico landscape. Yet by 1935, just as the New York artists began to seek a regionalist identity for their modernism, Jonson moved toward visually intangible subjects in nonobjective paintings, free of any obvious reference to the natural world.