Part Three: Mabel's Stable
Wonderful place. You must come. Am sending ticket. Bring me a cook.
Besides the Society of Taos Artists, another "institution" - Mabel's Place - deserves vast credit for the development of a world-class art market in what might otherwise be remembered, like Provincetown, as just a happy spot for those obligatory stay-at-home holidays during World War I.
Most of the artists discussed here - those of a "third wave" following TSA founders and others in residence soon enough to join - were members of "Mabel's Stable," given their first glimpse of the area as guests of Mabel Dodge Luhan, whom they'd known as an arts patron in New York before her marriage to Taos Pueblo leader Tony Luhan.
Taos Valley “seemed like the first day of creation” to Andrew Michael Dasburg (1887-1979), when invited - okay, summoned - by Mabel.
Paris-born though raised in the U.S. from age five, he studied first at the Art Students' League in New York with Kenyon Cox and Birge Harrison, whose "tonalism" he rejected - going so far as to help form a rival group called The Sunflower Club, dedicated to using bright colors.
Dasburg didn't take up residence in Taos until 1933, but Mabel's became his regular summer refuge from duties as a master teacher in Woodstock, New York. Based partly upon his sharing a house there with Morgan Russell, leader of the American Synchronist movement, he was associated with that group. However, his primary allegiance then - and always - was to the example of Cezanne.
Decidedly a modernist even from earliest years, Dasburg progressively purified his vision - eventually rendering landscape in absolute essentials, bared to a geometry of its "bones."
One certainly can't say the same about the work of Georgia Totto O'Keeffe (1887-1986), whose best pieces offered at auction have fetched $2-$4 million lately.
The color! The color!
Like Dasburg but a decade later, O'Keeffe discovered New Mexico as a summer guest of Mabel Dodge - by then Mabel Dodge Luhan. She took to the area immediately for, despite her lengthy residence in New York, she seems to have been a country girl at heart. Raised on a large dairy farm in her hometown of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, O'Keeffe savored New Mexico ranch life in near-seclusion after the death of her famous spouse, the renowned photographer and gallery owner Alfred Steiglitz, who was originally her mentor and promoter. Until she met Steiglitz, her career had undergone fits and starts.
She soon resumed painting, while employed as an art educator in Amarillo, Texas. In 1914, she returned to New York for study at Columbia Teachers' College with Dow, who fed her passion for "filling a space in a beautiful way" with abstract forms and decorative patterns. At this time, she was also affected by Kandinsky's essay, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and Arthur Dove's early nature abstractions.
Known for painting Manhattan skyscrapers and spectacular "urban nocturnes," the young O'Keeffee also turned out nature-based abstractions during annual holidays in upstate New York. Botanical close-up's inspired by Strand's "Precisionist" photography followed in 1924, five years before she fell under the spell of New Mexico and its forms: the adobe structures, canyons, mesas, mountains and sun-bleached animal bones that she would immortalize from her final home at Abiquiu, 40 miles from Taos, where her lifetstyle was as austere as her art. During the 1970's, her sight badly impaired, O'Keeffe modeled clay pots that echoed the simplified shapes in her paintings and was assisted by the ceramicist Juan Hamilton in producing sculptures based on plasters made earlier in her career.
Even prior to settling in New Mexico, O'Keeffe had been honored with retrospective exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum (1927), the Art Institute of Chicago (1943) and New York's Museum of Modern Art. She had also been elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Additional retrospectives were held in 1960 (Worcester Art Museum), 1966 (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth) Texas) and 1970 (Whitney Museum of American Art).
As we descend from the rarefied air of O'Keeffe-dom to mundane chronology, we find that other notables arrived in Taos much sooner than she. In residence from 1918 was Leon Shulman Gaspard (1882-1964), a Russian-born contemporary of Chagall - and, in fact, his art school classmate in Vitebsk.
Reportedly fascinated by the costumes and rituals of the region, Gaspard combined elements of French Impressionism with realism and painted a wide range of subjects in a style noted for brilliant coloration and intricate patterning.
Trained first locally alongside Marc Chagall, Gaspard advanced to the Academie Julian in Paris. There his work was well-regarded and appeared in annual Salon shows, but wanderlust struck in 1909, after his marriage to a wealthy American, Evelyn Adell. Their extended honeymoon began with a two-year jaunt in Siberia. This spree cut short by warfare, Gaspard suffered severe injury in a plane crash while serving in the French Aviation Corps. Hospitalized until 1916, he joined his wife in New York and was embraced by the arts community. He exhibited at the National Academy of Design and the Vanderbilt Gallery.
The Gaspards' foreign adventures continued, even after relocation to New Mexico. Such frequent absences presumably mitigated against membership in the TSA, which continued operating until 1927 but without Gaspard's participation. Travels took him and his wife to China, Mongolia, Tibet and North Africa, where they were stranded for several Depression years because funds were frozen in a failed bank. Ultra-adaptable, Gaspard learned to sketch aboard every conceivable conveyance: pony, horse, camel, wagon, riverboat, steamship, train, truck, car and plane. It's been said by some that, regardless of where he was, Gaspard lived in 'the Big World' - being filled with expansive ideas and creative spirit. By others, it's been said that he'd tell a lie when the truth would serve him better. He's remembered by all for good humor, romantic songs and entertaining stories - as well as staunch resistance to modernism. His idols were the French Impressionists, Post-Impressionists Matisse and Modigliani and the sculptor Rodin.
Another Russian immigrant, Kazan-born Nicolai Ivanovich Fechin (1881-1955) arrived with even more gilded credentials. In Europe, he'd won first prizes among such distinguished rivals as Monet, Pisarro, Sisley and Sargent, after six years on scholarship at the Art School of Kazan (a branch of the celebrated Imperial Academy of Art of St. Petersburg) and further studies in St. Petersburg, Petrograd and Paris.
Fechin, himself, was driven by a stormy divorce in 1927 from the home he had created so painstakingly and enjoyed far too briefly. While his former wife and their daughter remained in Taos, Fechin traveled extensively in Mexico and Arizona and finally settled in Santa Monica, California, where he established an art school and ultimately died. Art history, however, places this "moujik in art" - sometimes called the "Tartar painter" - firmly within New Mexico.
Emil James Bisstram (1895-1976), a summer guest at Mabel's in 1930, was Hungarian by birth. He'd come as a boy to New York, where he studied art at the National Academy of Design, Cooper Union and the Arts Students' League. Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1931, he studied for several months in Mexico with Diego Rivera and taught briefly in Phoenix before settling permanently in New Mexico.
With Raymond Jonson and others, he was a founder of the Transcendental Painting Group, organized in 1938 to explore idealistic forms with universal significance.
Although he championed non-objective painting, Bisttram believed an artist shouldn't be limited to any one style and continued to depict realistic subjects, too. The early influence of Rivera led him also to develop as a muralist.
His works of this type can be seen in New Mexico at the Taos and Roswell courthouses and in the Department of Justice Building, Washington, D.C.
Still familiar to few outside the Southwest, works by the immensely versatile Bisttram have so far achieved an auction record of only $52,800 - this in 1989 for Flower Forms (below).
Meanwhile, in Santa Fe
Another colony of artist emigres took root in New Mexico's capital in the World War I era. Among the earliest arrivals were B.J.O. Nordfeldt and his former student, Raymond Jonson. Both had close ties to the Taos scene.
Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt (1878-1955), a Santa Fe resident from 1919, was a Swedish immigrant who trained and taught at the Chicago Art Institute. One of the best-known American modernists in the early 20th century, he produced landscapes, portraits, and still-life compositions emphasizing form rather than realistic depiction. Like Dasburg, Nordfeldt was influenced by the spatial experiments of Cezanne.
Few figures cast as long a shadow over art history in the Southwest as Charles Raymond Jonson (1891-1982). The prodigiously prolific creator of around 2,000 works, Jonson was also remarkably long-lived. A tiny figure in a lab-coat smock and a devilish goatee, he remained active in advanced years and circa 1980 was still personally welcoming visitors to the gallery that bears his name, a University of New Mexico landmark. I had the pleasure of knowing him, myself.
The 1913 Armory Show's visit to Chicago introduced him to modernism and converted him forever. Much influenced by Kandinsky, cubism, expressionism and mysticism, he became one of America's leading modernist painters, exhibited in New York and Chicago. For more than forty years, his was a lone voice for radical abstraction in the Southwest.
During Depression years, Jonson - like many of his counterparts - became a WPA muralist and intensified his career as an educator. Besides teaching at his own school, Atalaya, in Santa Fe, he joined the faculty of UNM, commuting until he moved to Albuquerque in 1949, invited to live and work within a Pueblo Revival studio/gallery complex designed by the celebrated John Gaw Meem.
Around us we have realism, strife, pain and greed.