Among the personal artifacts that will appear in our upcoming retrospective for Janet Lippincott (1918-2007), there’s a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings. The folio of yellowed papers chronicles a tipping point in the New Mexico artist’s career—and the many wonders that came after—but it’s not the whole story. For the first half of Lippincott’s life, success was obscured behind considerable hurdles on the long path ahead. And yet, there’s one constant that carried her through. It’s visible in the portraits scattered through Lippincott’s scrapbook: a fiery, direct stare that never wavered.
On Friday, December 2 from 5-7 pm, Matthews Gallery debuts Janet Lippincott: A 70-Year Retrospective. The artwork and artifacts on display will complete the picture of an artist who was defiantly prolific long before she received recognition. Lippincott had a vision for her life, and it remained unmarred despite injuries and setbacks.
Lippincott was born in Brooklyn, New York, and exhibited artistic talent from an early age. Her family lived in Paris for part of her childhood, where she hungrily absorbed the aesthetic innovations of Picasso and Matisse. As a teenager, she studied at the Art Students League of New York, following in the footsteps of Georgia O’Keeffe and other modernists who would become art pioneers of the West.“I didn’t like to be told what to do,” she later recounted to a longtime art dealer. “So I quit that and I went off to war.”
As a member of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, Lippincott served under General Eisenhower, and once put General Patton in his place when he barged into Ike’s office. During a German blitzkrieg of London, she broke her back when a building collapsed. Back in the States, she recovered and boldly embarked on her next adventure. Using the GI Bill, she traveled to Taos to study under Emil Bisttram.
“Bisttram told her flat out that she didn’t have what it took to be an artist,” wrote Westword in Lippincott’s obituary. “She spent the next half a century proving him wrong.” After furthering her studies in Colorado and California, she moved to Santa Fe for good. It was here that her career took off, with a series of group and solo exhibitions across the region in the 1960’s and 70’s. In 1972, Bisttram penned a positive review of her solo exhibition at Santa Fe’s legendary Jamison Gallery.
Lippincott had proved her point, never straying from the unapologetic ambition that marked her generation. Like O’Keeffe or Mabel Dodge Lujan, she was a New Woman of the West, who engaged in the gritty hand combat that led to sweeping social changes of the 20th century. Near the end of her life, she was awarded the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, and the New Mexico Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Join us for Janet Lippincott: A 70-Year Retrospective on Friday, December 2 from 5-7 pm to celebrate this pioneer of New Mexico modernism, and discover the art and artifacts that were the kindling for her inextinguishable passion. Click here to RSVP on Facebook.
Among its many virtues Santa Fe has always been a refuge for dreamers, eccentrics and artists. Some of these magnificent souls bring with them an unmistakable effervescence, a radiant and slightly skewed take on the world that reminds us of what a life of complete freedom, with both its rewards and its costs, looks like.
If there were a poster child for Santa Fe artistic eccentricity it would have to be Tommy Macaione (1907-1992). Old time Santa Feans remember Macaione wandering through the city, usually with a few of his beloved dogs with him, painting area landscapes, gardens and street scenes. He was instantly recognizable with his leonine head of hair and bushy beard making him look like a Renaissance artist who just happened to drop into the latter part of the 20th century.
Tommy Macaione statue by Mac Vaughan, Santa Fe
We got some insight into Macaione when the author, Robert Wolf, stopped by the gallery a few months ago to talk about his new book, In Search of America. Wolf met Macaione and other Santa Fe artists when he lived here and the new book includes accounts of that period. In addition to Macaione, Wolf writes about artists including Alfred Morang, Harold West, Eli Levin and others.
We were so interested to hear some of these stories of Santa Fe that we are hosting a book signing for Mr. Wolf this month. In addition to Mr. Wolf’s appearance we’ll be showing some works by artists who appear in the book. The book signing and exhibition will take place Friday, October 16 from 5 to 7 pm at the gallery.
When Mr. Wolf was a student at St. John’s College he met Macaione and writes about the artist and other Santa Fe adventures in his new book, “In Search of America”. Following is an introductory comment and excerpt from the book by Mr. Wolf:
From the early 1960s through the early 1970s, I lived on and off in New Mexico. In February 1963, at age nineteen, I left an upper middle-class Connecticut home to rent an uninsulated shack in Duran for $10 a month, and stayed until late March. In 1965, I returned to New Mexico to enroll in St. John’s College. In Santa Fe, with my friends Mac and Alan, I began exploring the City Different. This excerpt from “In Search of America” recounts my first meetings with artist Tommy Macaione.
Winter snow was melting the afternoon Alan rushed into our dorm and announced to Mac and me that he had discovered a great painter. He sat down on the edge of Mac’s bed. “He’s as good as Van Gogh. You’ve got to see him.”
He drove us down the hill to Canyon Road and parked in front of a one-story stuccoed house. A hand-painted sign above the front door read:
PAINTINGS – Tommy Macaione—El Differente
El Differente had a painting propped in his window, an intense landscape reminiscent of Van Gogh.
We jumped out of the car. Alan knocked on the screen door and Tommy called, “Wait! Wait!” Moments later he pulled the door open, and through the screen said, “I can’t let you in yet. I can’t let my babies out.” He pushed his dogs aside with his feet, all the while talking loudly to them. We entered a tiny living room empty of furniture but stacked with paintings. The paintings were in various stages of completion. They were painted with thick daubs and streaks of color, wild profusions of emotion. But on one wall he hung two conventionally rendered paintings—one of a pair of flamenco dancers, another of a pipe and a bowl with fruit. “I hang those,” Tommy said, “so that people will know that I can paint like that, if that’s what they want.”
A stench filled the room. Tommy’s clothes were covered with dog hair. His bed was covered with dog hair, the sheets and cover balled together. Empty dog food cans with bits of decayed meat lay on the floor next to dog turds. There were wet spots and stains where his dogs had peed.
Tommy had the title “El Differente” legally affixed to his name. And different he was. He was in his mid-fifties with a long unkempt beard, hideous breath, and hair that shot out in all directions. He was missing several teeth; those he had were brown and yellow.
“I’m having a terrible time,” Tommy told us, “I’m STARVING. Things are worse, Alan. I passed out just the other day and the day before that, too, I’m so hungry. I haven’t enough to even feed my babies.”
His eyes watered and he spoke frantically, in a rush.
“We can help you out, Tommy,” Alan told him. “How about coming up to dinner this evening?”
“Boys, do you mean it?”
“Sure we do,” Alan said.
“I love you boys,” he said, grabbing Alan and hugging him. “Can you drive me downtown? Do you have time? I have to get some bones for my dogs, they’re starving. God would be very angry with me if I let them die.”
“Sure,” Alan said, “let’s get in the car.”
Tommy sat up front with Alan. His smell sickened me. Mac and I rolled down our windows but the rush of air could not eliminate his odor.
We drove to a grocery store where Tommy walked to the meat department and returned with large bags filled with bones and meat scraps. Meanwhile, I bought a box of spaghetti, several cans of tomato sauce, Italian sausage, two loaves of bread, and a can of soup.
“This ought to hold you for a while,” I told him.
He cried and hugged me.
I was happy for him and envious of his intensity and dedication and lack of inhibition, but his sentimentality embarrassed me.
That night Alan brought him to the dining room, a large hall with balconies and clean light wood tables. The hall was clean, spare, modern. Tommy wore a torn corduroy coat with bulging pockets, baggy pants thinning at the knees, and old cracked shoes with knotted laces. With his wild hair and unkempt beard Tommy looked as out of place as anyone could. But we were proud of our find; after all, we were mingling with the townspeople.
That struck me as the big gap between us and the other students: they had little to do with the town. Their interests were in the program, themselves, and a handful of friends. We, on the other hand, lived only partly for St. John’s. You might say the books were for us a jumping off point, a different way of exploring the world, a kind of background to it. The real thing was life, people.
“God bless you boys, God bless you,” Tommy kept saying.
When Kyle our waiter told us the selections, Tommy said excitedly, ”You mean I can have a choice?”
Alan said, “Sure. And if you want more later you can have it.”
When Kyle brought our orders Tommy immediately pitched into his food, gobbling it and talking while he ate. “St. John’s is a great school, a great school. You boys are very lucky to be here. Me, I didn’t have a college education. I went to art school. I knew very early I wanted to be a painter.”
“Have you always made your living as a painter?” I asked.
“A living!” he practically screamed. “I can’t make a living at painting now!”
“Right,” I said.
“I was a barber for years, in New York. When I came to Santa Fe in fifty-three I was a barber.”
His fingers were greasy from picking up food with his hands. When bits of meat and vegetables became entangled in his beard, he did not notice.
“If you boys want to do me a favor,” he said loudly, his mouth filled with food, “something God will bless you for, get me a show at St. John’s.”
“All right,” Alan said, “we’ll do that.”
Periodically the college hung an art exhibit in a gallery on the balcony overlooking the dining hall. We arranged Tommy’s show through Colonel Deal, who crated the exhibits. We arranged to meet Colonel Deal at Tommy’s studio. Colonel Deal brought his station wagon and selected the paintings and we stacked them in his car and in Mac’s. We spent the afternoon hanging the show while Tommy walked around, jabbering excitedly, “God will bless you. I pray for you. You are good boys for doing an old man this kindness.”
We had Tommy to dinner several more times. For fifteen years Tommy had starved in Santa Fe. Whenever things got especially tough he took out a large ad in The Santa Fe New Mexican—the town paper—pleading for help. He traded paintings for the ads. Now he thought his fortunes were changing. He thought that with a show at St. John’s he would begin to attract wealthy buyers. He wrote prices of three and five hundred dollars on small cards in a scrawl and posted them next to the paintings. Then he scratched out those prices and scribbled in higher ones.
For days afterwards we spent hours with Tommy in Mac’s room before a tape recorder as he told us his life story and his theories of art. He wrote huge summaries of these in his large hand on greasy papers. All this was for a biography and artist’s statement, which we were to type up and photocopy and put in a stack in the gallery. We never wrote the biography or the statement. Tommy kept walking or hitchhiking up to St. John’s to see the show. Benevolence and gratitude changed to indignation. He railed at us.
“For two months now you’ve done nothing,” he would say. “That’s not right. You made a promise and if you’re gentlemen you’re supposed to stick to them.”
He was right.
Tommy painted outdoors around Santa Fe in all weather. I remember his large paintings of hollyhocks that grew in profusion along Santa Fe sidewalks. Tommy was most interested in flowers, shrubs, and bushes, sometimes set against houses. In winter he wore several corduroy jackets and torn trousers, painting outside on the bitterest days. I saw him painting one evening at dusk to catch the last of the flowers before the autumn frost. When Tommy was not painting or begging scraps for his dogs, he would walk all five of his pets, getting the dogs and himself entangled as they dragged him across Santa Fe.
“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 artistEli 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 launchedhomepage, and connect with us onFacebook, Twitterand Instagram for updates on the show.
Eric G. Thompson‘s new series of contemporary realist paintings arrived yesterday. As we pulled them from the box one by one, silenced by their cool gravitas, we saw them in a whole new way. First came a solitary bird in a tree, silhouetted against a pale sky. Was he watching the pensive girl strolling through the field that emerged from the package next? Perhaps she was headed to the barn in the following image, where she’d sit and munch on the late-summer pear in the still life. It was as though we were opening an intricate matryoshka doll, with each picture adding a new layer of details to the story.
Light flows across Thompson’s canvases and panels like meditative thoughts, revealing an endless array of materials with diverse textures and reflective qualities. As a self-taught artist, Thompson learned to capture all of these effects through looking, painting and looking again. When you come to the opening reception for Eric G. Thompson: New Works at Matthews Gallery this Friday, August 14 from 5-7 pm, make sure to take just as much care as you ponder each composition (and perhaps find connections between them). Here’s a special preview:
A sun bleached rocking chair, the wind weathered facade of an old house, and a pair of muddy gardening clogs. To the average viewer, these objects warrant little more than a casual glance. Utah artist Eric G. Thompson captures them in stunning detail with oil, watercolor and egg tempera paint, guided by a centuries-old Japanese aesthetic.
“Objects have spirit. An old cup is like a person,” says Eric. Like the characters of the objects, figures and houses he paints, Eric’s technique was refined through life experience. He is completely self-taught, and believes this process has led him to find a unique voice and vision, through perseverance, trial and error. A painter since 1989, he now resides in Salt Lake City, Utah and has been selling his work professionally since 2002. He paints from his travels and the treasures discovered along the way, deftly switching mediums depending on the mood he wishes to convey.
Eric’s artwork possesses an elegant serenity that often stops our visitors in their tracks. The allure lies in the way he plays with light, illuminating beautiful details but also revealing hints of entropy and decay. This careful balance between order and chaos is drawn from the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, a major influence on Thompson’s work. The tradition encourages appreciation of imperfection, age and patina, often referred to as “flawed beauty.”
“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.
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.
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.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, what about a painting? For our exhibition WIDENING THE HORIZON: New Mexico Landscapes, we paired Southwestern landscape paintings with photographs of the places that inspired them. The results are fascinating, showing how artists interpret a setting based on style, sensibility and—particularly—sentiment. Explore the pairings below, and make sure to visit WIDENING THE HORIZON before it closes on June 30.
A glimpse of Middle Truchas Peak from Eli Levin‘s studio in Dixon, New Mexico.
This Alfred Morang painting may show artist Olive Rush’s garden on Canyon Road. Rush and Morang were close friends. Compare to the photograph at right.
Alice Webb‘s monotype of the iconic San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church in Taos, New Mexico gives us a sense of the surrounding landscape.
Eli Levin‘s interpretation of Abiquiu’s colorful rock formations.
NEW LANDSCAPES, NEW VISTAS: Women Artists of New Mexico ends on May 31st. Over the course of the exhibition, we’ve blogged about early women potters of New Mexico and their influence on women artists who migrated here. Here are the tales of four 20th century women who came from near and far to turn over a new leaf—or a new canvas—in the Land of Enchantment. Through their efforts, the Santa Fe and Taos art colonies were forever changed.
Beulah Stevenson (1891-1965) grew up in Brooklyn Heights, New York. After studying at the Pratt Institute, she enrolled at the Art Students League where John Sloan became her mentor. Sloan invited Stevenson to summer in New Mexico, where she was inspired to create modernist landscapes and wild abstract works in the vibrant palette of the Desert Southwest. She returned to New Mexico many times throughout her life.
Stevenson worked as a printmaker, painter, illustrator, art teacher and Brooklyn Museum curator. She was a staunch advocate of modernism and the avant-garde, working with the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors and numerous other artist organizations.
Ila McAfee (1897-1995) was born in Colorado, and first visited Taos on a road trip to California in 1926. She fell in love with the mountain village and its thriving art scene, and settled there with her husband Elmer Turner. They quickly befriended influential members of the Taos Society of Artists such as Blumenschein, Berninghaus,Hennings and Higgins. McAfee was a rare Western-born artist in Taos, where many artists were transplants from the East Coast. She captured the spirit of the West through her paintings of sweeping landscapes and the wild horses that roamed them.
Dorothy Morang (1906-1994) was born in Richmond, Maine. She met Alfred Morang in 1925, while studying at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Alfred was a violinist and Dorothy a pianist. They married on June 13, 1930 and moved to Portland, Maine soon after.
The couple moved to Santa Fe in 1937 in an effort to alleviate Alfred’s tuberculosis. In the City Different, they landed in the center of a colorful circle of artists. They threw Saturday night salons at their home not far from Canyon Road and taught music and painting to make ends meet.
In her three decades in Santa Fe, beginning in 1972, Doris Cross (1907-1994) was known as the City Different’s “most avant-garde artist.” An excerpt from a 1990 biography by Anna Christine Hansen traces the artist’s New York roots and her early days in New Mexico:
Doris Cross began her career in New York City with the Art Students League. After meeting Hans Hoffman, who was known for encouraging artists to investigate their own ideas and unique styles, she went to the Hans Hoffman School of Art. “Hans Hoffman was it,” Doris said of him as a teacher. “…The possibility of discovery! That was the important thing, discovery.” […]
In the mid-1940’s, Doris received the Turner Award from the National Association of Women Artists for a painting which made the leap to large-scale. […] Like many women, she was married and raising a family in the 1940’s—a son and a daughter. In the early years of her development, while living in Woodstock, she painted a series of Madonnas. Later, she taught painting in a basement in Brooklyn in order to afford supplies to paint.
“I have alluded to Nampeyo as a ‘modern artist,’ because the more I understood her life and work, the more her extraordinary career seemed to parallel that path,” writes Steve Elmore in the last chapter of his bookIn Search of Nampeyo. Elmore stepped in as our guest blogger last week, which gave us some time to study the links between Pueblo aesthetic innovations and the diverse New Mexico art movements that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries.
What did romanticist painters of the early Santa Fe and Taos art colonies learn from Pueblo traditions that had been around for centuries before they arrived? How did the elegant abstract patterns on San Ildefonso jars and bowls influence abstract expressionists like Beatrice Mandelman and Janet Lippincott?
Elmore provided the first clues to this investigation in his biography of Nampeyo (1856-1942), a Hopi-Tewa potter whose innovative images bridged the ancient and modern worlds. Here’s more from In Search of Nampeyo:
While much of Nampeyo’s life was that of a traditional Hopi woman, we need to consider her life and work outside of the academic fields of archaeology and anthropology, which have heretofore defined how Nampeyo has been perceived by the public. Today, her masterpieces are mostly displayed in natural history museums next to Anasazi jars or in anthropological exhibits of Pueblo Indians—not in art museums—and certainly not as modern art.
Yet, in the end, Nampeyo was not an ancestral potter, nor even a traditional Pueblo potter, although these conditions were the context for her achievements. While she was trained as a traditional potter, she evolved into a unique artist using modern marketing techniques to sell her work to a new Euro-American audience.
As Elmore stresses, it’s important to understand Nampeyo, Maria Martinez and other influential Pueblo potters not as isolated traditionalists but as artists who interacted with newcomers and adapted to the cultural changes they affected. The realities of frontier living necessitated a constant dialogue between the first artists who emigrated from the East Coast and Pueblo artisans. This interchange continued as the market for Pueblo arts and crafts grew and shifted based on the demands of visitors.
Ila McAfee (1897-1995), one of the early “Euro-American” transplants, drew inspiration from Pueblo traditions in her work. McAfee often painted wild horses in profile, echoing the stark monochrome of pottery designs. In The Golden Triad, three beasts hover before a textured golden-brown field that captures the hues of high desert clay.
Taos art dealerRobert Parsonsinterviewed McAfee about her early years in Taos:
It was so different then. There was nothing between me and the mountain when we first got here. The village was small and the Indians remained uninfluenced by the invaders. Once I asked one of them, ‘What did you call this country before the Europeans came?’ ‘Ours,’ he told me.
Other early Taos artists such asHelen Greene Blumenschein (1909-1989) and Dorothy Brett (1883-1977) also interacted with the nearby Pueblo. Blumenschein meditated on the relationship between the new settlers and the natives in her Taos memoirs, and Brett spent years making genre paintings of the Taos Poblanos. Later on, Brett switched to more mystical subject matter that was inspired by Native American spirituality. Her paintings Cat Shamanand Moon Ray reflect her mature philosophies that link humanity and nature.
In the 1930s, Santa Fe artist and archaeologist Agnes Sims(1910-1990) arrived in New Mexico and began studying the ancient Pueblo petroglyphs. As she pondered the mysteries of the lost language, she began developing her own abstract symbol system in a series of paintings and sculptures.
Sims’ abstract experiments prefigured the innovations of Beatrice Mandelman (1912-1998) and Janet Lippincott (1918-2007), abstract expressionists who helped bring a bold newaesthetic to the Desert Southwest in the 1940’s. This wave of modernists surely took note of Pueblo aesthetic innovations that had spread from Nampeyo’s studio to theSan Ildefonso Pueblo and beyond. From Elmore:
Nampeyo’s abstract drawings are strangely prescient of the abstractions of Euro-American modern art. This remains a large part of her mystique. In particular, critics have noted the comparison between Nampeyo’s abstractions of birds to Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque’s invention of Cubism, wherein an object is shown from multiple views at the same time.
Elmore’s observations complete the circle of influences, revealing a far more interconnected aesthetic evolution than we originally imagined. Check back next week for the continued tale of women artists in New Mexico, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for daily gallery news.
*Images of Nampeyo’s pottery courtesy of Steve Elmore. Image of New Mexico petroglyph courtesy of Roch Hart.
The tale of our current exhibition NEW LANDSCAPES, NEW VISTAS: Women Artists of New Mexicobegins twenty-three miles northwest of Santa Fe in the San Ildefonso Pueblo, population 458. The village has a long legacy of women potters, whose innovative ceramics techniques and designs inspired traditional and modernist artists who traveled to New Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. San Ildefonso is known as the epicenter of Pueblo pottery for good reason, as discussed by our guest blogger Steve Elmore. Elmore’s extensive pottery collection appears in the show.
From 1875-1925, the polychrome or multicolored pottery produced at San Ildefonso reached a distinguished peak in the creative history of Pueblo pottery in the Southwest. Indeed, the residents of this small Pueblo village on the Rio Grande, northwest of Santa Fe, are direct descendants of the prehistoric Pueblo peoples of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, whose tradition of potting spans a thousand years of human history.
San Ildefonso remains a small village. In 1900 there were only 30 households and in 1910 eight women are noted in the census as potters. We are fortunate to the know the names of these early potters. At the turn of the century, the most established potters were the husband and wife team of Martina Vigil (1856-1916) and Florentino Monotoya (1858-1918). Martina’s excellent molding combined with Florentino’s skilled painting produced many exquisite jars, including many fine large storage jars. Most are polychromes. Born in the 1850s, they were certainly potting by the 1870s if not earlier, and their joint efforts became a model for the production of San Ildefonso polychromes: a family effort involving both partners.
Traditionally, San Ildefonso pottery was decorated with black designs over a gray slip on a bulbous rounded form. The use of red clay was confined to the rim and a narrow band around the base of the jar. With arrival of the Santa Fe Railway in the region, potters at San Ildefonso began introducing red clay into the painted designon the main body of the jars. What prompted this introduction of red is unknown, but most scholars suggest that the arrival of thousands of travelers from the Eastern United States on the new railroad sparked the change. The tourists were eager to purchase pottery, and the polychrome wares of Acoma Pueblo quickly led the market. Acoma pottery, with precise four-color drawings on thin symmetrical jars, set the standards for the tourist trade.
Certainly the innovators of their time, Montoya and Vigil might have been the first at San Ildefonso to use red with the black design. Perhaps a trader suggested it directly or merely showed them the brightly colored Acoma pieces which were their competition. By the early 1880s, hundreds of polychrome jars were being produced annually by the skilled potters of San Ildefonso for the tourist and museum trade. In response to this demand, and for almost fifty years thereafter, the potters of San Ildefonso created well molded pots traditionally decorated in black and red, whose size and beauty have not been surpassed.
Most traditional San Ildefonso water jars were painted with a mix of black geometric and floral patterns. With the addition of red paint, the drawings themselves begin to develop into elaborate flowing motifs covering the entire jar. The addition of red heightens the intensity of the black design and seems to urge the painter on to larger, more complex drawing. Previously simple designs are repeated in a larger and more intricate manner.
Beginning in the 1880s, an amazing array of both realistic and abstract bird motifs are also introduced along with other pictorial elements. I suspect Nampeyo‘s Sikyatki Revival in Hopi pottery influenced this emphasis upon bird designs. Her seed jar form was clearly copied repeatedly by at least one San Ildefonso potter along with her curvilinear drawings. The shape of the San Ildefonso vessels also evolves, from bulbous jars with small necks to elegant tapered vases with small bases and flared out rims: the classic “Tunyo” form. For fifty years of San Ildefonso pottery making, we can study the steady growth and development of an art form as it crests into a peak!
As Pueblo pottery enjoyed increasing popularity with the American public, many distinguished potters took the polychromes to new heights of creativity and expression. Among these were Maria (1887-1980) and Julian Martinez (1879-1940), Maria’s sister Anna and her husband Crescencio, and Tonita and Juan Roybal. Montoya and Vigil were perfect role models for the younger Martinezes who built upon their success.
This florescence of polychrome production was brought to an abrupt halt by the Martinezes’ invention of painted blackware around 1920. As Ruth Bunzel, author of The Pueblo Potter, observes, the attraction of the blackware is the minimized painted matte designs which emphasize a dominant polished slip. This subtle, monochromatic aesthetic is the exact opposite of the polychromes where intricate black and red designs were sharply contrasted against the midtone grey sip. In time the blackware style won the marketing war and by 1925 Bunzel could no longer find a single piece of polychrome ware in the village.
It is perhaps ironic that the Martinezes, known best for their blackware, themselves began as polychrome potters and were among the greatest of them. Although most of their output became blackware, Maria and Julian continued to produce occasional polychrome masterpieces up until Julian’s death in 1943. One cannot help but wonder if the bold artistic tradition of the polychrome pottery didn’t occupy a special place in their hearts. Martinez family members and other San Ildefonso potters have continued to produce the polychromes in limited numbers, particularly Popovi Da, his son Tony Da, and today, of course, Cavan Gonzales and Russell Sanchez.
Stay tuned for next week’s blog, where we’ll explore the links between early Pueblo pottery designs and modernist aesthetic innovations. See all of the artwork from NEW LANDSCAPES, NEW VISTAS on ourhomepage, and connect with us on Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest for daily gallery news.