NEW LANDSCAPES, NEW VISTAS: Southwest Premodernism

Nampeyo- Hopi Potter- Matthews Gallery Blog

This is part 2 of our blog series on the history of women artists in New Mexico.
Read part 1 here, and learn more at our May 8-31st exhibition
NEW LANDSCAPES, NEW VISTAS: Women Artists of New Mexico.

“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 book In 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?

Nampeyo- Hopi Pottery- Matthews Gallery Blog

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.

IlaMcAfee

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 dealer Robert Parsons interviewed 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.

Dorothy-Brett-Artist-Matthews-Gallery

Other early Taos artists such as Helen 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 Shaman and Moon Ray reflect her mature philosophies that link humanity and nature.

Agnes Sims Artwork with New Mexico Petroglyphs- Matthews Gallery

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 new aesthetic 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 the San 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.

Nampeyo and Pablo Picasso- Matthews Gallery Blog*Images of Nampeyo’s pottery courtesy of Steve Elmore. Image of New Mexico petroglyph courtesy of Roch Hart.

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The 10 Artists Who Changed Art History Forever, Pt. 1

Over the next two weeks, we’re paying tribute to 10 painters who changed the course of art history. Our first five picks range from Il Divino to the “painter of light”. Who do you think we missed? Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to join the discussion, and click here to read part 2!

Giotto, "The Kiss of Judas"
Giotto, The Kiss of Judas

1. Giotto (1266/7-1337)

The Italian painter and architect was most likely born in Florence, the city where he would live and work for his entire life. Legend has it that the young Giotto was herding sheep and stopped to sketch the animals on a rock when famous Tuscan painter Cimabue strolled by and took him as an apprentice. One of art history’s most passionate debates centers on whether Giotto completed parts of Cimabue’s frescoes at Assisi. Regardless, it was Giotto’s break from the traditions of Cimabue and his contemporaries that helped spark the Italian Renaissance.

In Giotto’s frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel, the stylized Byzantine figures that were popular at the time are nowhere in sight. His figures are solid and sculptural, their robes draping naturally from their frames. This is a painter who drew inspiration from what his eyes could see. 16th century biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote that Giotto started “the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years.”

The Matthews Gallery, Michelangelo
Michelangelo, The Last Judgment

2. Michelangelo (1475-1564) 

In contrast with Giotto, this prolific sculptor, painter, architect, poet and engineer left behind a paper trail that makes him one of the most well-documented artists of his time. Michelangelo completed the Pieta and David before he turned 30 and redesigned part of St. Peter’s Basilica at 74. In between, he completed the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, spent 40 years creating Pope Julius II’s tomb and worked on a multitude of other projects. Even in his time he was known as Il Divino, “the divine one”.

The Last Judgment fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, one of Michelangelo’s final works, is the fulfillment of Giotto’s artistic legacy. His massive figures seem to press from the wall with all of the terriblita (awe-inspiring grandeur) of living giants. Giorgio Vasari, who wrote a biography of Michelangelo during his lifetime, called the artist’s works the apex of the Renaissance. They also inspired Mannerism, the movement that proceeded the Renaissance in Western art.

The Matthews Gallery, Caravaggio
Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath

3. Caravaggio (1571-1610) 

It’s no secret that Caravaggio was an unpleasant guy. A public notice from 1604 accused him of crashing gatherings armed with a sword, “ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.” Perhaps that’s why he was swiftly forgotten after his death in 1610 and wasn’t recognized for his great influence on art history until three centuries later.

The artist was born in Milan and grew up in the city of Caravaggio. His parents were both dead by his teen years so he started an apprenticeship with painter Simone Peterzano, who was Titian’s pupil. He moved to Rome in 1592 and rose to fame as he developed the style that would come to define Baroque painting. His figures were incredibly realistic, their skin pocked, their feet dirty and their faces full of emotion. They were illuminated by high key chiaroscuro lighting. Caravaggio fearlessly placed the common people in the spotlight, a coup that would serve the Counter-Reformation well.

The Matthews Gallery, Velazquez
Velazquez, Las Meninas

4. Velazquez (1599- 1660) 

Diego Velazquez’ oeuvre mostly consists of pompous portraits of the Spanish royal family and other powerful and privileged Europeans. It was a twisty play on this genre that would secure his place in art history. Velazquez was born in Seville and educated well. He worked his way up the ranks of painters in his hometown and then hopped to Madrid, where a connection with the king’s chaplain and the timely death of the Spanish royal court painter helped him land the coveted position in 1624.

Four years before his death, Velazquez painted his masterpiece Las Meninas. The painting shows Spanish princess Margaret Theresa standing next to the painter himself, who’s working on a large canvas. In a mirror behind them are the faces of the king and queen. The sophisticated work’s bifurcating viewpoints throw its true subject into question and place Velazquez far ahead of his time. More than two hundred years later the painter’s work would inspire the Realists, the Impressionists and the Modernists.

The Matthews Gallery, JMW Turner
JMW Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed

5. Turner (baptized 1775-1851) 

JMW Turner was known as the “painter of light”, but the artist with the ethereal subject matter had a very solid impact on art history. The Romantic landscape painter was born in London to a barber and wig maker. He showed his drawings in his father’s shop as a young boy, and studied under architects and a draftsman before enrolling in the Royal Academy of Art as a 14-year-old. His reputation swiftly grew, and he had his own studio by 18. However, when he verged away from picturesque landscapes in favor of stormier subject matter, Protestant society was shocked.

In his famous oil Rain, Steam and Speed, Turner depicts a locomotive as a surging pillar of tumbling air with a black smokestack as its only identifying characteristic. As details melted away and Turner focused on the continuous flux of air and light, critics started turning against the artist. An 1802 review called his works “too indeterminate and wild”, and writers were keen to tie his chaotic paintings to radical new political and social movements. Turner became increasingly isolated from society and often refused to sell his paintings, but his work had an undeniable influence across Europe, inspiring Claude Monet and other French artists in their steps toward Impressionism.

Sound off on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest and tell us who we missed, and click over to part 2 for our last five picks.