FALL OF MODERNISM: The Modernist Impulse

Matthews Gallery Interior- Fall of Modernism

“Wonderful place. You must come. Am sending ticket. Bring me a cook.” Mabel Dodge Lujan’s telegram to artist Andrew Dasburg is a seminal moment in New Mexico art history. Lujan, a prominent arts champion from New York, had fallen in love with the Taos art colony and was determined to summon artists there from the East. The efforts of Lujan and her counterparts in Santa Fe and Albuquerque sparked a great influx of modernist artists to the region, eclipsing the traditional styles that had reigned there in the late 19th century. Matthews Gallery’s exhibition THE MODERNIST IMPULSE: New Mexico’s 20th Century Avant-Garde, will tell stories of revolutionary artists throughout the previous century in a special rolling exhibition from September through October, 2015.

We’re working in concert with Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and New Mexico Museum of Art’s Fall of Modernism: A Season of American Art event series to trace the grand arc of New Mexico’s modernist history. Starting with Lujan’s circle, which arrived in the 1920s, and moving forward through the decades, we’ll examine the strong impulse of modernist artists to settle in New Mexico and revolutionize the art colonies here.

Over the course of the two-month show, Matthews Gallery’s walls will shift through time. Early Taos modernists will give way for the Taos Moderns movement, Santa Fe artist and art teacher Alfred Morang will pass the baton to students such as Janet Lippincott and William Vincent, and rays of influence from the revolutionary Transcendental Painting Group will stretch far beyond its short existence. Contemporary artist Eli Levin, who came to New Mexico in the 1960’s and knew many notable modernists, will round out the group.

Learn more about our contribution to Fall of Modernism on their newly launched homepage, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates on the show.

 

 

Andrew Dasburg- April Snow 1967- Pastel on Paper- Matthews Gallery Blog
Andrew Dasburg, April Snow 1967, Pastel on Paper.

Jan Matulka- Landscape circa 1923- Watercolor on Paper- Matthews Gallery

Jan Matulka, Landscape circa 1923, Watercolor on Paper. 

Cady Wells- Taos 1947- Ink and Watercolor on Paper- Matthews Gallery

Cady Wells, Taos, 1947, Ink and Watercolor on Paper.

 

Fall of Modernism 2015- Matthews Gallery Blog

 

 

 

 

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WIDENING THE HORIZON: Maynard Dixon

Maynard Dixon- Love to Babette- Matthews Gallery Blog

There are just a few days left to see WIDENING THE HORIZON: New Mexico Landscapes
Read on to learn about one of our favorite featured artworks, and make sure to come see it 
before the exhibition closes on June 30.

“Travel East to see the real West,” said Charles Lummis to Maynard Dixon. Dixon (1875-1946) was born on a ranch near Fresno, California. His friend and mentor Lummis was a journalist, photographer and poet who walked from Cincinnati to Los Angeles in 1884, a 2,200-mile journey that took him through New Mexico in the dead of winter. Despite the severe hardships of the journey, Lummis fell in love with the Southwest and became a staunch advocate for historic preservation projects and the rights of the Pueblo Indians.

Inspired by Lummis’ tales, Dixon set out on his own Southwestern adventure in 1900. In California, he had studied under tonalist painter Arthur Mathews and worked extensively as an illustrator, but the trip to Arizona and New Mexico swung his artwork in a new direction. He took a horseback ride through the West the following year and developed a heavy impasto style, capturing endless vistas with a vibrant palette. Back in San Francisco, he sold paintings and watercolors dressed in his cowboy uniform: boots, a bolo tie and a black Stetson.

Maynard Dixon- Artist- Matthews Gallery Blog

The booming market for illustrations of the Wild West kept Dixon well-fed at the turn of the century. In 1905, he married artist Lillian West Tobey. The following years were wrought with calamity: most of Dixon’s early work was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and a move to New York in 1907 left Dixon frustrated and uninspired. His return to San Francisco in 1912 ended his first marriage, but renewed his commitment to creating “honest art of the West”, free of the commercialism that influenced his previous work.

In the 1920’s, a new interest in modernism lead Dixon to experiment with post-impressionism and cubism. Dense details gave way to an elegant style. He built a reputation for paintings of spare landscapes dominated by infinite swirling skies. His pastel Love to Babette, a tribute to art patron and San Francisco socialite Babette Clayburgh, is an impeccable example of his mature work.

Maynard Dixon and Dorothea Lange- Matthews Gallery Blog

Dixon married legendary Western photographer Dorothea Lange in 1920, and they had two sons. In late 1931 and early 1932, they lived in Taos, New Mexico in a house owned by their friend Mabel Dodge Luhan. The Taos Society of Artists offered Dixon a coveted spot in their ranks, but he disagreed with their strict bylaws and declined. However, Dixon’s time in New Mexico was perhaps the happiest and most productive of his life. He completed over 40 canvases in his four months there, focusing on the residents of Taos and their complex relationship with the rugged terrain of the High Desert.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Lange made some of her best-known images, documenting rampant poverty in the West. Dixon was in turn inspired to dabble in social realism. The couple was separated for a time when Dixon again took up Western painting in Utah’s Zion National Park and Mount Carmel, and divorced in 1935. Lange lived the rest of her years in Berkeley, while Dixon continued to travel through the West: to Montana, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

San Francisco muralist Edith Hamlin became Dixon’s third wife in 1937, and they moved to southern Utah in 1939. From their summer home in Mount Carmel, Dixon continued to paint powerful scenes of the West until his death in 1946. His ashes were buried in Mount Carmel.

Learn more about Maynard Dixon on our website, and come see WIDENING THE HORIZON: New Mexico Landscapes now through June 30. Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for daily gallery news.

THE QUINTESSENTIAL MODERNIST

Randall Davey- Leaving the Paddock- Matthews Gallery Blog

We’re ending our SPRING OF MODERNISM blog series with the tale of a pioneering artist who was the model of a New Mexico modernist. Randall Davey (1887-1964) was born in East Orange, New Jersey. His father was an architect, and he enrolled at Cornell for architecture in 1905. Three years later he dropped out and moved to New York to study art, to the consternation of his father.

At the New York School of Art, Davey forged a close friendship with teacher and Ashcan School artist Robert Henri. Henri was friends with the founders of the Taos Society of Artists, and worked hard to cultivate New Mexico’s budding reputation as an arts destination. In 1910, Davey exhibited with George Bellows and Stuart Davis and in 1913 his artwork was in the New York Armory Show, the most influential modern art exhibition in U.S. history.

Portraits of Santa Fe Artist Randall Davey- Matthews Gallery Blog
Davey and artist John Sloan visited Santa Fe in the summer of 1919, and Davey fell in love with the Land of Enchantment. His art career in New York had stalled, and the Southwest adventure offered a fresh start. Davey bought an old mill on Upper Canyon Road and moved there permanently the next year. It was a path that had been calling him since his early days as an artist. Inspired by the metropolitan subject matter of the Impressionists, Davey developed a diverse oeuvre of still lifes, horse-racing and polo scenes, artistic nudes and landscapes.
Davey was a true Renaissance gentleman: he made paintings, prints and sculptures, played cello, built a polo field on Upper Canyon Road and was always dressed to the nines (even when he was painting in the hot sun).
Prints and a Drawing by Santa Fe Artist Randall Davey- Matthews Gallery Blog
The lifelong automobile enthusiast died in a car accident on a trip to California at 77 years old. After his death, his wife donated the Davey house and land to the Audubon Society. The Randall Davey House is still open for tours on Fridays, and stands as a tribute to an artist who helped make the Santa Fe art colony what it is today.
A Davey House docent visited the gallery for our SPRING OF MODERNISM opening, and kindly offered us a private tour. Keep your eye on the blog for photos from the tour and more information on Davey. Make sure to visit our exhibition before it closes on March 31st, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more gallery news.

SPRING OF MODERNISM

We’ve had some unseasonably warm days after last weekend’s snowstorm, and it’s making us excited for the end of winter. It’s the perfect time to release our spring exhibition schedule, which is a period of exciting growth at Matthews Gallery.

In light of Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s brilliant Modernism Made in New Mexico exhibition and New Mexico Museum of Art’s recent emphasis on Southwestern modernists, we’re declaring a ‘Spring of Modernism’ in Santa Fe. It begins with our exhibition of influential New Mexico modernists, and features women artists of new mexico, rare artifacts from legendary artists’ studios and much more. Check it out:

Spring of Modernism Show- New Mexico Modern Art- Matthews Gallery

Spring of Modernism: Seminal New Mexico Modernists
March 6-31, Opening Reception: Friday, March 6, 5-7 pm

Matthews Gallery declares a “new spring” of modernism, as this rich period in New Mexico art history returns to the spotlight. Featured artists include Emil Bisttram, William Lumpkins and Raymond Jonson of the Transcendental Painting Group, Alfred Morang and Randall Davey of the Santa Fe art colony, and Beatrice Mandelman of the Taos Art Colony.

Collectors Forum- Art Collecting Workshop- Matthews Gallery Blog

Collector’s Forum Workshop
April 17, 6:30 pm

We offer an inside look at art collecting for this special Art Matters event. The workshop is for anyone who’s ever considered buying, selling or caring for fine art and has questions about the inner workings of the art world. Forum participants will get an inside look at every step of the process from one of Santa Fe’s top galleries. The event is free but seating is limited, so give us a call if you’d like to participate – 505-992-2882. Read about our past Collector’s Forum workshops here and here.

New Landscapes New Vistas- New Mexico Women Artists Show- Matthews Gallery

New Landscapes, New Vistas: Women Artists of New Mexico 
May 8-31, Opening Reception: Friday, May 8, 5-7 pm

In the first half of the 20th century, a number of women artists who were frustrated by a lack of the recognition on the East Coast packed up and left everything behind. In New Mexico’s isolated art colonies, they found the freedom and social acceptance to excel. Matthews Gallery presents the stories and artwork of Janet Lippincott, Agnes Sims, Doris Cross and other women who found a powerful voice in the Land of Enchantment.

Artists Toolbox- Artwork and Artifacts of New Mexico Artists- Matthews Gallery

The Artist’s Toolkit: New Mexico Artists at Work 
June 4-10, Opening Reception: Friday, June 5, 5-7 pm

This special exhibition features rare artifacts of legendary New Mexico artists alongside their work, giving visitors insight into the complex process of conceptualizing, mixing and applying color. Visitors will get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view Tommy Macaione’s paint palette, John McHugh’s brushes, Alfred Morang’s notes on color, Hilaire Hiler’s color wheel and other behind-the-scenes ephemera from Santa Fe private collections.

Widening the Horizon- New Mexico Landscape Show- Matthews Gallery Blog

Widening the Horizon: New Mexico Landscapes
June 12-30, Opening Reception: Friday, June 12, 5-7 pm

New Mexico’s endless vistas offer an opportunity and a challenge to artists. Matthews Gallery looks back at legendary artists’ attempts to capture and reimagine the High Desert horizon, from early Santa Fe and Taos art colonists including Datus Myers and William Vincent Kirkpatrick, to modernists including William Lumpkins and Beatrice Mandelman, who evoked the spirit of the landscape through the language of abstraction.

Learn more about our exhibition schedule here, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for daily gallery news.

BIRTH OF AN ARTIST: Three Mentors of Eric Sloane

Eric Sloane- Hopi Country- Oil on Panel- Matthews Gallery Blog

PROLOGUE

When a historic artwork enters our collection, it’s the first clue in a grand investigation. A painting is a concrete piece of evidence that links to the artist’s evolutionary chain, leading us back through the years.

Eric Sloane’s Hopi Countrypictured above, helped us trace its creator from New Mexico to his hometown of New York City. Along the way we met three of Sloane’s mentors, who are all revered figures in American history.

Frederic W Goudy- Mentor to Eric Sloane- Matthews Gallery Blog

FREDERIC W. GOUDY

Eric Sloane was born Everard Jean Hinrichs in New York City in 1905. Meanwhile in Chicago, Sloane’s future mentor Frederic W. Goudy was experiencing a late-in-life rebirth. At 40 years old, he had quit his job as an accountant to open a publishing house called Village Press with his friend Will Ransom. He learned how to design typefaces and began building a portfolio.

“[Goudy started] almost from scratch at an age when most men are permanently set in their chosen vocations,” wrote Popular Science in 1942. Goudy’s new path would lead him from Chicago to Boston to New York, where he moved in next door to young Sloane.

As Goudy’s career took off with a series of hit typefaces—Kennerly Old Style, Goudy Old Style, Copperplate Gothic—young Sloane learned the tricks of the trade. Goudy would design 122 typefaces in his lifetime, topping Gutenberg and Garamond. His painting lessons for Sloane soon launched one of the great adventures of the budding artist’s life. But first, a scholarly interlude.

John Sloan- Mentor to Eric Sloane- Matthews Gallery Blog

JOHN SLOAN

Sloane changed his name while studying at the Art Students League of New York. He took the middle letters of “America” for his first name, and tweaked the surname of his mentor John Sloan. Sloan encouraged his students to adopt pseudonyms in order to sever ties with their earlier, less accomplished work. He was a passionate and sometimes volatile teacher who believed in art for art’s sake.  “I have nothing to teach you that will help you to make a living,” he would tell his students. Although he was a well-known artist who participated in groundbreaking exhibitions like the 1913 Armory Show, his artwork rarely sold.

Sloan’s circle came to be known for their realist depictions of poor neighborhoods in New York. Sloane never took to this subject matter, but finding a new name was transformative for the young artist. With his patriotic moniker and the skills he’d picked up from Goudy, he took off across the country in the summer of 1923, painting sings on barns and stores to make ends meet. Two years later he took another, longer adventure to New Mexico, one of Sloan’s favorite vacation spots.

Much like other students of Sloan, the light and colors of the New Mexico inspired Sloane to push his art in a new direction. He picked up oil painting and learned to capture the light, color and endless expanses of the High Desert, and returned to Long Island in 1927 with a new sense of purpose.

Wiley Post- Mentor to Artist Eric Sloane- Matthews Gallery Blog

WILEY POST 

Sloane grew up during the Golden Age of Aviation. By 1933, his fascination with aircrafts lead him to a job at the Half Moon Hotel, which was close to Long Island’s Roosevelt Field. The aviators who stayed at the inn became some of Sloane’s first patrons, paying him to make oil paintings of their planes. Aviator Wiley Post was so impressed by Sloane’s work that he offered to swap flying lessons for painting lessons.

Post had trained to be an aviator during World War I, but the war ended before he entered active duty. He worked as a parachutist for a flying circus and a barnstormer before becoming a private pilot for wealthy Oklahoma oilmen. The job earned him enough money to set out on a worldwide adventure, and he became the first pilot to fly solo around the globe.

Sloane was so inspired by his flights with Post that he began painting the sky, as seen from the cockpit of a plane. Amelia Earhart bought the first work in this new series, and one of Sloane’s largest cloud paintings is now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. At 28 years old, Sloane had grown from an eager student to a full-fledged master.

Artist Eric Sloane under a New Mexico Sky- Matthews Gallery Blog

EPILOGUE

Sloane started painting landscapes in the style of the Hudson River School, a mode that fit his fascination with turbulent weather. Beginning in the 1950’s, he took up residence in Taos for part of each year. He built a home in La Tierra, New Mexico in 1975. Sloane captured the light and color of the Land of Enchantment with boundless enthusiasm. Hopi Country features every brilliant hue in a Land of Enchantment sunset.

Over the course of his career, Sloane produced over 15,000 artworks and 38 illustrated books. He died of a heart attack in 1985 on the steps of New York’s Plaza Hotel, on his way to a luncheon in his honor. The event was a celebration for the release of his biography, ‘Eighty: An American Souvenir.’

It’s quite a tale, and it all unwound from a single oil painting on our wall! Learn more about Eric Sloane on our website, and make sure to connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr for daily gallery news.

MORANG AND FRIENDS: The Saloon

Wild Tales of a Legendary Santa Fe Tavern- Matthews Gallery Blog

Special announcement: We’ve officially extended our MORANG AND FRIENDS exhibition through Friday, January 2nd. Come trace the legacy of ‘Santa Fe’s Toulouse-Lautrec’! 

Cheryl Ingram strolls into Matthews Gallery and beams up at a sign that hangs high on the wall. “There it is, Claude’s Bar,” she says. Ingram is the co-owner of Silver Sun Gallery, which is just down the street from us. Her gallery once housed Claude’s Bar, and this Santa Fe relic is usually on display there. Ingram kindly lent it to us for our MORANG AND FRIENDS exhibition. Though Claude’s was established just two years before Alfred Morang’s death, he quickly took a liking to the tavern and its charismatic owner, Claude James. In fact, Claude’s was his last stop before the fire that ended his life in January, 1958.

About two decades after Morang’s death, Ingram and her business partner Deanna Olson arrived in Santa Fe. They were retired school teachers who had been traveling around the country selling handmade Native American jewelry. When they reached the City Different, they stuck around and founded Silver Sun. In the years since 1980 when they opened the business, they’ve become the keepers of countless stories about the infamous saloon that preceded them. As Ingram strolls around the gallery smiling at the colorful canvases, she can’t help but pass on some fascinating tales of Canyon Road.

Artwork by Legendary Santa Fe Painter Alfred Morang- Matthews Gallery Blog

Ingram analyzes a painting of ladies dancing on a stage, concluding that it’s probably a view of El Farol. She and Lawrence linger by a watercolor of a bustling restaurant and try to identify where it might have been. She finally stops before a large painting titled ‘The Women at Claude’s’, and the stories really start rolling.

“Claude’s mother was French, and she married an editor at the New York Times whose last name was James,” Ingram says. In the 1950’s, Claude and her mother embarked on a road trip to California along Route 66. On their way back they took a detour to Santa Fe and never left.

Claude followed in her father’s footsteps and took a job as a journalist for the Santa Fe New Mexican. One year her house caught fire, killing her two corgis. A reporter snapped a photo of the dead dogs and published it in the paper the next day. Claude was so disturbed that she swore off journalism. She and her mother bought a building on Canyon Road’s 600 block and opened a bar and restaurant.

At first it was a fancy establishment where Claude’s mother hosted intellectuals from Paris, but later it was better known for midnight parties and wild bar brawls. “The Santa Fe police were always hoping it would burn down,” Ingram says. “Whenever they got a call about it, they were disappointed that there hadn’t been a fire.”

 Alfred Morang- The Women at Claude's- Matthews Gallery Blog Alfred Morang, The Women at Claude’s, Oil on Canvas

Ingram stares intently at ‘The Women at Claude’s’ and warm recognition spreads across her face. “Claude had dark hair, and she was short and squat like the woman in the center of the painting,” she says. In fact, with a little more analysis, Ingram concludes that the woman probably is Claude. “She’s standing behind the bar, so it very well may be Claude serving the clientele. That would be her lover behind her.”

Claude often tended bar barefoot with a pack of cigarettes folded into the sleeve of her shirt, Ingram says. She would throw patrons out of the bar “by the belt and shoulder” if they got too rowdy. “Canyon Road wasn’t paved then, so the landing was a little softer, but you didn’t mess with Claude,” Ingram says with a laugh.

As she continues, we flip our tape recorder on:

She was a handsome woman, but not a pretty woman. She was short but you didn’t mess with her.

A guy came into Silver Sun about 1982, looking for Claude’s Bar. I told him he was a little late, and he told me a story about Claude.

He said he had ordered a beer and Claude was working the bar. He noticed this pretty woman sitting at the other end of the bar. He tried to hit on her, and next thing he knew, his tie, shirt and coat were pulled across the bar. “You leave my woman alone,” Claude said. He was so upset, he didn’t finish the beer and left.

Each corner of the bar had its own persuasion. You had the gay men over here, the gay women over here, and the three piece suits were over there with the ladies of the night. Claude was like a teacher in the classroom: one corner did not mess with any of the other corners, or your fanny was out of there.

There was an ambiance that was going on in there that was truly Santa Fe of the period, and that’s why she was so popular. You were okay if you got in there. Even if you got stumbling drunk, someone would be there to protect you from some nasty politician or a cowboy with a gun.

There were honest-to-god cowboys who wore guns. A fight broke out between them and the gay guys once, and everyone had guns. There were two lines of guns, about ten or twelve feet apart, and they were drunk and shouting. That story came from a lady who was hiding under the bar. She was the barkeep on Saturday night. It looked like they were shooting around each other, trying to scare each other. One guy did take a hit in the fanny, however. When the cops got there, they just took the whole batch. The next day, the barkeep quit.

Towards about 1970 or 1971, there was a dance floor way in the back where a sculpture garden is now. A guy named Jimmy was up there playing—his wife told me this story—and looked past all the drunks to the door. Here was this lanky guy with a guitar case who saunters over to Jimmy. “Mind if I play along?” he says. Jimmy just had a cow. They played all the rest of the night together, and no one besides Jimmy recognized him. It was Jimi Hendrix. They were all too drunk.

Claude eventually lost interest in bar tending and hired someone else to manage the establishment. The saloon closed in the late 1970’s but its charismatic owner remains a legend among Santa Feans. It’s fascinating to hear Ingram’s tales, especially because they’re rare firsthand accounts. They’re all from people who have passed through Silver Sun over the years to pay tribute to Claude’s.

Since MORANG AND FRIENDS opened two weeks ago, we’ve had visits from many people with Santa Fe stories like these. We’d like to thank everyone who shared with us. Your words have helped inspire our upcoming exhibition schedule, which will delve into many corners of the Santa Fe art colony. Stay tuned!

For more gallery news, make sure to connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

MORANG AND FRIENDS: Alfred in Paris

Alfred Morang Portrait- Morang and Friends Exhibition- Matthews Gallery BlogAlfred Morang, 1952

“After Morang’s death, all of a sudden people started to realize that he was a great artist. People regretted that they didn’t pay enough attention to him,” Santa Fe art collector Paul Parker said at the end of our interview last week.

As Parker will tell you, Alfred Morang’s death in a Canyon Road fire in 1958 was the end of an era in Santa Fe. From his arrival in 1937, Morang had helped cultivate a vibrant art scene in the City Different. His house parties of the 1930’s and 40’s earned him a reputation as “one of Santa Fe’s… most colorful Bohemians,” as the Santa Fe New Mexican dubbed him in his obituary. Morang was a masterful painter who drew inspiration from the French Impressionists, and a talented teacher who passed his knowledge to the next generation of Santa Fe artists. He was a great writer, musician and radio broadcaster.

However, towards the end of Morang’s life, he and his wife Dorothy divorced and he became increasingly isolated. He spent most of his time fervently painting in his Canyon Road studio. Santa Fe artist Bill Tate had this recollection of a frigid winter in the 1950’s:

Oh my, it was cold! The snow was pouring down unmercifully and as I walked into Alfred’s tiny studio, I pushed paintings aside to make a path, then found them sliding in behind me as I penetrated the cache of completed canvases. It appeared that paintings were everywhere. There in the middle was Alfred, happily painting away, bundled up like a Siberian monk—galoshes, muffler, sweater, heavy top coat which came to his ankles, and a woman’s hat pulled snuggly down over his ears and neck.

The studio had a sky light, but where the glass was supposed to be, there was none. Alfred had hung an old muslin sheet over the opening to shut out the falling snow. Evidently Alfred had let the fire go out in the small space heater. Or maybe had forgotten to pay his gas bill. I don’t know. But it was awful. I had been there just a few minutes when the muslin partially ripped loose from the ceiling and began flopping in the wind. Snow dumped all over Alfred as well as the canvas.

Alfred never looked up, never stopped painting. His blue-cold hands kept mixing painting and dabbing it on the canvas. Occasionally, he would lean back to assess the effect, but throughout, he was totally oblivious to my presence… or the muslin that danced in the bitter breeze.

I attempted to speak, but only a chatter came out. I retreated to the warmth of my own studio. To the day he died, Alfred never knew I was there.

This somber image of an artist in the winter of his life is not how Parker likes to think of Morang. Soon after he first visited Santa Fe in the 1990’s Parker developed a fascination for the Santa Fe icon that has taken him on many adventures, including a national treasure hunt that inspired our latest exhibition. The artifacts Parker discovered will appear alongside artwork by Morang and his contemporaries in our December 12-26 exhibition MORANG AND FRIENDS, evoking an era full of crackling creativity. Morang stood at its warm heart.

In the story below, Parker captures the Santa Fe zeitgeist before and after Morang’s death, and travels to Paris to complete a mission in Morang’s memory:

 Alfred Morang- Santa Fe Hillside 1949- Matthews Gallery Blog Alfred Morang, Untitled (Santa Fe Hillside) 1949, Oil on Canvas

HUNTING FOR ALFRED MORANG

by Paul Parker

I had been thinking about this mission for a long time and I finally find myself in the library seated in front of this antique microfilm viewer the size of a small refrigerator and I have loaded the reel containing the early 1958 issues of the Santa Fe New Mexican.

I was not sure why I had this unremitting need to know more about Alfred Morang. I had first seen his work painted on the adobe walls across from the bar in El Farol on Canyon Road and in Maria’s on Cordova, but I know the real inspiration came from my good friend Jim Parsons in Taos. Jim was an art dealer and appraiser forever and a friend and mentor for 20 years. When he mentioned that Alfred Morang was one of his favorites I knew I needed to pay attention. It was like Willy Wonka telling me about one of his favorite chocolate bars.

It helps that Alfred was such a compelling man, so well versed in music and literature as well as painting. He was the youngest person ever to perform a solo violin concert in the prestigious Jordan Hall in Boston. He was also an accomplished writer. The London Times once called him one of America’s leading non-political short story writers. Erskine Caldwell was a friend of his and he often visited Alfred and his wife Dorothy in Santa Fe.  Alfred’s short stories and poems were published alongside Frost, Poe and Mark Twain. I do know the main reason I am so drawn to him is that his art touches me. Behind that art is Alfred’s story, his life experience and that is what drove him to create the art that Jim and I and many others enjoy so much.

Alfred Morang- Untitled Portrait of a Woman 1950- Matthews Gallery BlogAlfred Morang, Untitled (Portrait of a Woman) 1950, Oil on Board

There is a very sad part to his story and it is that part that drew me to the library. Alfred Morang died in a fire in his Canyon Road apartment studio on a cold January night at the age of 56. I had wanted to come here to the library and read the January 29, 1958 issue of the Santa Fe New Mexican for some time. I wanted to know the details, I wanted to read what people said, I wanted to know what page it was on and how big the article was. I was scrolling through the microfilm and as I started approaching the day he died I realized I was reading the papers that he probably read unaware he only had days to live.

The closer I got to the issue of the paper I had come to see the more time I took reading the articles and I even started reading the ads. I lingered the longest on Tuesday’s edition dated January 28, 1958. That was the last paper Alfred could have read.

There was an article on that day that I am sure must have caught Alfred’s eye and the headline read, “French Ballet loses Backing”. Alfred never made it to Paris, but his heart was there. His heroes were the French Impressionists and he considered himself to be one of them. Monet and Bonnard were his favorites. The article explained that the French Education Ministry had withdrawn the government subsidy for the production of Francoise Sagan’s ballet “The Broken Date”. The ministry’s action followed a storm of protest. Apparently one dance was performed in a bathroom setting designed by painter Bernard Buffet and was described by some critics as scandalously erotic. I would like to have gone to Paris with Alfred and attended that performance. A French ballet with a bathroom setting designed by Bernard Buffet coupled with scandalously erotic, I am sure we both would have enjoyed that.

That Tuesday the Lensic was showing “Pal Joey” starring Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak. Kaune’s was having a sale featuring Pork Chops at 59 cents a pound and Swanson’s Pot Pies at four for a dollar with your choice of chicken, turkey or beef. Cherry Motor’s at 607 Cerrillos Road had an ad for the new Rambler American for $1789. The ad proclaimed that one had been driven from New York to Los Angeles using only 80 gallons of gas averaging over 30 mpg. I remembered that time. One week before this ad ran I had celebrated my 12th birthday and becoming a teenager was in sight. Unlike today I was looking forward to getting older and that was the time I began thinking about cars. Chevrolet had just introduced the 283 V-8 a year earlier in the now iconic 1957 Chevy. The fuel economy push left over from the war was fading fast and the Plymouth Hemi and the “Little GTO” were on the horizon. The economical 6 cylinder Rambler American never had a chance.

IMG_0474Alfred Morang, Pecan Grove, Oil on Panel

I read every bit of that Tuesday’s paper. It was as if I felt that Alfred would be okay as long as I did not turn the page, but I knew it was time to see what I had come to see. I took a last look at the classifieds and marveled at an ad for a 2-bedroom adobe with wall-to-wall carpet “close in” for $16,500 and then I hit the button and watched the microfilm reel turn slowly.

The first thing I saw positioned on the top left side of the front page of that Wednesday edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican was a large photograph of a cat crouching on the corner of a charred mattress. The rest of the bed was strewn with papers and tubes of paint. Underneath the right half of the photo was a caption “Mourning for Her Master…This lonely cat was found wandering through the charred ruins of the home of her master Alfred Morang who died in the fire early this morning. The cat is on the bed where he died.” Morang’s friends had commented on his love of cats and noted that he often went hungry himself so he could afford to feed them. Two other cats perished in the fire with him. Unfortunately I discovered that the cat on the mattress in the picture had to be put down because it had extensive lung damage. There was also a picture of Alfred. A cigarette in a holder was hanging from the corner of his mouth dangling over his scraggly beard and he was wearing a black hat with a brim that was tilted slightly to the left making him look decidedly like an artist and decidedly French. The story next to the photo read “Well Known Artist Dies In Home Fire… Alfred Morang, 56, one of Santa Fe’s best known and most colorful Bohemians died at about 1:30 am last night in a tragic fire at his home in the 600 block of Canyon Road.”  Friends reported they had last seen Alfred in Claude’s bar around midnight. His apartment was just up the alley out back.

Five days after the fire the New Mexican noted…“Funeral services were held Saturday at the Fairview Memorial Park Crematorium in Albuquerque for Alfred Morang, widely known Santa Fe artist, writer and critic who was burned to death early Wednesday morning in a fire at his home here. The body was escorted to Albuquerque by a group of close friends, including Randall Davey, Will Shuster, Harlan Lizer, Walter Dawley and William Currie. Alfred was transported in a Spanish Colonial coffin made by Abolonio Rodriguez, custodian of the art museum.”

IMG_0505Alfred Morang, Guadalupe Plaza 1947, Oil on Board

Alfred was born in Ellsworth, Maine in 1901 and came to Santa Fe in 1937. Like many who came here he suffered from TB. He immediately became a fixture in the Santa Fe art scene. He wrote a weekly column for the newspaper and he produced a weekly radio program for 17 years on KVSF called “The World of Art with Alfred Morang.” Most of all he was famous for his enthusiasm for art and his ability to teach and many benefited from “The Morang School of Fine Art”.

Walt Wiggins authored a book published in 1979 appropriately titled “Alfred Morang…A Neglected Master”. Walt uncovered several quotes during his research for his book and my favorites include the following.  “When Alfred Morang’s life came to a tragic end in January of 1958 nothing before or since has so shaken the New Mexico art colony. Some say it was a sense of guilt that struck the community for not having shown a greater sense of appreciation for one who, by destiny, was different.” One Santa Fe artist reasoned, “Why shouldn’t Santa Fe be stunned with the loss of Alfred?  After all, he taught half of us how to paint and the other half how to see.”

The February 10th 1958 issue of the Santa Fe New Mexican carried the report of the local memorial service for Alfred in Lorraine Carr’s column “It Happened in Old Santa Fe”. Dr. Reginald Fisher, director of the Art Museum spoke first. “Friends this is not a funeral, we are simply gathered here for a creative expression of merit and appreciation of a spirit that has been active in an activity that we in Santa Fe like to call art. Alfred was an inventive, searching and daring spirit as French as Lautrec, yet he never saw Paris. Last week his restless spirit found peace.”

Painter and close friend Randall Davey was next. “I have known Alfred since he arrived back in 1937. He was a kind, a gentle and a humble soul and in all those years I never heard him speak unkindly of his fellow man. He was a great painter; many of you did not think so, because often he sold his work for a mere pittance through necessity. Nevertheless it was great art and the happiest work I have seen in New Mexico. He had a love and a delight for painting and I doubt that anyone will surpass him in this field.”

IMG_0495Alfred Morang, Untitled (Mountain Landscape), Oil on Board

I hope Alfred enjoyed himself on that Tuesday. I hope he spent some time with friends and some extra time petting his cats. I hope he wrote another poem and put the final touches on his most recent favorite painting before he headed down the alley to Claude’s that evening.

Claude James ran the well-known Canyon Road bar where he often spent time and, as legend has it, her rowdy spirit was just what was needed to run that place. I would love to have met Alfred there that fateful night for a few drinks. I’m sure we would have talked through the evening about art and life as we cast occasional glances at the ever present ladies that were often the subject of his paintings and when Claude said “It’s midnight, would you fellows like another one?”  I would nod and say, how about a couple of shots of your best cognac. I would love to take a sip, lean back and turn to him and say “Alfred I know you often say that you don’t believe in art for art’s sake, but you believe in art for people’s sake. Can you explain to me what you mean by that, and please…take your time?”

A few weeks after I finished writing this story I found myself engrossed in the details of planning a trip to Paris. I was not sure why, but suddenly it came flooding over me with incredible clarity. Human life really is very fragile and it really is all going to come to an end someday and we do not know when. I knew then I needed to go to Paris and I needed to go now. Unfortunately most people have that epiphany too late in life. They start thinking about the things they never got to do after it’s too late to do them. I knew then that this sudden obsession with Paris was a message from Alfred. Paris was his promised land, but he never made it there and I was going to go for both of us.

I told a friend in Santa Fe this story and he said, “You should do something for Alfred in Paris.” It was a great idea, but what would I do? I had been in Paris 5 days when I suddenly knew. I found an image of a Morang painting on my laptop. I printed it and wrote a bit on the back about Alfred and headed off to the Musee d’Orsay. This time as I enjoyed the paintings I was also searching for a repository for Alfred’s work and I finally found it. I can tell you that a fine example of the genius of Alfred Morang now has a home in Musee d’Orsay on the banks of the Seine and it will take a jackhammer to find it. He is close to Monet and Bonnard, the masters he so admired. Alfred, you finally made it.

Source: Bill Tate’s tale first appeared in the 1979 book Alfred Morang: A Neglected Master by Walt Wiggins.