Sunday, October 26, 2014

Thomas Hart Benton

Sometime in the 1970’s I was asked to teach a course at the New School in New York.  It was to be about Collecting but otherwise I had no parameters and no one told me anything of what was expected.  I was surprised but pleased and thought about what one would need to know about collecting and decided I would bring in pertinent people such as our insurance broker to speak to the class and I would fill in the gaps.

What I was not told until the day of the first class, after arranging it all, was that if I had less than10 students, the class would be cancelled.   Of course, for the next half hour I was sure that no one would show up.  As we neared the appointed hour, however, people of all ages began to trickle in until there was a rush and there were no more seats in the room.  Some sat a on the edges of desks and others just stood for the period.

I remember starting out by asking if anyone already collected and having most hands shoot up.  I began by asking around the room expecting to hear photographs, drawings, paintings etc.  Instead, I was hearing all kinds of things that people collected that I did not expect such as matchbook covers, comic books, baseball cards and I stopped with the fellow who collected barbed wire.  I had not traveled in the West at that, time except Los Angeles and San Francisco, so I did not realize how many different types of barbed wire there were.

The following week when I arrived at the New School I was told they had given me a new larger classroom.  So off I went to arrive in the most amazing space that anyone has ever taught in.  It was a normal large size classroom but all four walls were covered by a mural by Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975).  It was called “America Today” painted 1930-31.  It’s 10 panels show life in this country in the 1920’s.  It had been painted originally for the Board Room of the New School for Social Research and later transferred to what became my classroom!

In 1984 the mural was bought by Axa Equitable, the insurance Company and eventually installed in the lobby of their Manhattan headquarters.  When they were asked to take the mural down for a renovation of the lobby in 2012 AXA decided to give it to the Metropolitan Museum. 

The Museum has installed the mural in a separate room with two large window spaces and a large doorway so they do not have quite the impact as they did when they were immediately next to each other in the classroom, but still you do get the idea.  A small exhibition in the adjacent galleries shows preparatory drawings that remain the property of AXA along with pictures by artists who influenced Benton and even one by his pupil Jackson Pollock.  That was a shocker to me!  I wonder whether Pollock showed up for his classes .

In this panorama of American life there is just one Native American and he is shown in a saloon with a cowboy and bargirls.  See bottom of the left middle of this image for relative scale and then the detail.

Indian Panel

Indian Panel detail

Black men work alongside white men doing hard labor in construction or on an oil rig.

The murals on either side of the doorway feature women from the realism of a straphanger going to work on the subway to the glamor of dancers in a nightclub.

Go see the exhibition on view until April but afterwards the mural will remain installed with the other period rooms in the American wing at the Met.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Gods and Heroes: Masterpieces from the École des Beaux Arts, Paris

Some months ago I noticed in one of the Art Blogs that the Oklahoma City Museum of Art was going to have an exhibition from the École des Beaux Arts. The arts of France having been my primary field of expertise I was excited but surprised that this specialized exhibit would be shown there.  After further investigation I found out the exhibition was done under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts and there would  be four venues.   One of them was much closer to home at the Albuquerque Art Museum and we went to the opening, 10 days ago.

There is a connection to our current art world, however.  I wrote recently about the Taos Society of Artists and some of them, such as Robert Henri and E. Irving Couse, studied in Paris at the École des Beaux Arts.

The École des Beaux-Arts was founded under the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV, in the 17th century as the Ecole de l’ Académie royale de peinture et sculpture.  It was a school to learn painting, sculpture but foremost how to draw, something we see little of these days.  Drawing was thought of as the basis for all the arts and the exhibition “Gods & Heroes” gives us plenty of examples.

In order to show some of the early influencers … and draw audience… there is a small Leonardo drawing which was not lent to the other American venues but it is by no means a show stopper.   There is also a little Rembrandt. But in the area of French art there is a spectacular Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721).  It is a sheet of Studies with 2 women, a Harlequin and 2 men’s and 2 women’s heads.  You need to be in front of the original to see them all!

It is a bit of a misnomer to call this exhibition a show of masterpieces because more important, it shows the training that the young artists gained when they came to the school.   We see many of the exercises that were given to the students such as learning about anatomy illustrated by images of skeletal bones and muscles.  Most impressive is the Ecorché (flayed figure) done as a study for a figure of John the Baptist by Jean-Antoine Houdon  (1741-1828) when he was a student at the school.  He produced many different plasters in varying sizes, which soon became the model at art schools across Europe for classical sculpture supplanting even classical antiquities.   Shown here is his first bronze cast of the sculpture from 1790 which is shown with a classical antiquity of a female torso which had been sent back to the school by the arist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) who was at the time director of the Académie de France in Rome.

The annual competitions in which the students participated prompting them to put their best foot forward are represented in a line-up of ambitious history paintings.

There are also a number of incredible works of art.  When you enter the beautifully installed galleries the wall which has the didactic panel explaining the basis of the exhibition and giving all the necessary credits for donations that make the show possible has a classic portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743).  It is familiar since there are several versions; this one, however, was commissioned for the École des Beaux-Arts where it has resided for the last 300 years. To give it a proper sense of place as the introduction to the school a pair of fabulous Louis XIV carved and gilded torchères were sent along as well.   They too were created in the late 17th century with figures representing Geometry and Astronomy respectively.  There may very well have been some of the other sciences represented in the original set.  It is incredible that such fragile objects where the gilding can flake off with the slightest jarring would be sent around the world for what is basically a drawing, painting and sculpture exhibition.

Other highlights include a painting of “Erasistratus Discovers the Cause of Antiochus's Disease” from 1774 by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) and paintings by Ingres.  Here is the David as well as the Ingres Torso which he painted in 1800, the light makes this simple academic exercise exciting.   The works of art are all from of the school’s collection and are illustrated with the Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Light Among the Aspens

I have written almost on an annual basis about various art fairs in Santa Fe, New York and Europe but I think I will make another annual Missive the colors of Autumn in New Mexico.

We drove some 2,500 feet above our home in Santa Fe to 9,750 above sea level near Santa Fe’s ski basin.  There were so many cars that when you saw them all parked along the road you would think it would be a nightmare, but not at all.  There are so many paths and different ways to walk that you only see a few other hikers.  Of course, we were there on a Sunday afternoon and if you go on a weekday, just like the beach, there is plenty of parking and many fewer people.

That is the downside of a state as beautiful as New Mexico, people keep wanting to see it for themselves!  My wife keeps telling me “we need the tourists” because it is an important part of the economy.

Down where we live only about a mile three-quarters above sea level all is in bloom at this time of year.  The color coming from the autumn sun and much of the color comes from the Chamisa, a beautiful yellow-blooming weed.   Since every good thing has a counter negative, it is that the whole town is sniveling and sneezing from allergies! (Maybe that will scare away the tourists).  

At this time of year even the parking lots have beautiful patches of color.  Here is an image from an industrial part of town and another from a professional office area.  It is all about the desert landscape, the blue blue skies with the amazing cloud patterns that they would look made up if found in a painting.

Along the path we walked between the aspens there were secluded picnic tables, sometimes occupied.  At one there was a woman with 2 dogs feeding them lunch.  When we found a table to ourselves we discovered a brook running down the mountain bouncing over the fallen tree branches and rocks making a wonderful sound.

Having spent most of my life in a city where in winter you searched out what side of the street you might find the sun, if you were lucky enough to be out at mid-day.  On the sweltering days of summer you desperately searched out the shady side.  If you were not near a park the only view would be shops and tall buildings that allow no more than a peek at the sky and maybe some shops.

In the Southwest at high altitudes the heat is dry and it remains warm in the sun even as temperatures drop.  As the season changes we have vast expanses of land colored in green and gold that absorb the mind.  When you look up at the sky and see the deep blue contrasted with the yellow of the sun-lit leaves and trees, all physical concerns desert you.

In graduate school my wife had a professor who said that their papers “had to walk on their footnotes.”  I think we will let this missive walk on its images!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Festival of the Drum

I received an invitation from Tony Chavarria, Curator of Ethnology at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) in Santa Fe.  It was for the “Festival of The Drum”.  He had arranged for 10 different drum groups to come to Santa Fe to play on Milner Plaza on Museum Hill.  It coincided with a show within the museum called “Heartbeat: Music of the Native Southwest”  “Festival of the Drum” was an event with a far larger cultural range, however.

The Master of Ceremonies was a member of MIAC’s Advisory Council, Angelo Joachin, Jr. a member of the Tohono O’odam Nation in southern Arizona, said it was a celebration of the differences and so it was.  There were demonstrations of Native American music and dance as well as representations from Africa, Scotland and Japan.

For Native America there was the Southern Red Drum Group led by Myron Garcia from Santa Domingo Pueblo with one large base drum.  There were two drummers and it took them both to carry their drum on and off the plaza.  The closing was also Native American with J .R. TeCube of the Jicarilla Apache Nation singing a song he had written for a film he had been asked to work on.  The bookends of Native American music were most appropriate for the day.

One of the best events was the Kya’na Dance group with Daryl Shack from Zuni and his family.  While he sang with his father Bobby Shack who had given the opening blessing for the event and another friend: his son, niece and nephew danced.   The boys were each 5 years old and the girl was 10.  It was not just that they were adorable, they could really dance and follow the musical instructions precisely.  They did several performances during the day and each was a great crowd pleaser.

Probably the most exciting performance that got everybody into the act was Ehren Natay and the break-dancers.  I half jokingly said to Penelope that they rival the break-dancers in the 42nd Street subway station in New York City, but they belong to a different tribe.  Then Natay’s group did a couple of things that surpassed anything I have ever seen.  Again there was a child of 4  or 5 who actually walked on his head and hands and did other great stunts but it was his mentor (I believe it was the little one’s brother) who was an amazing break-dancer.  For the finale he donned a khaki helmet and spun like a top on his head.  That was worthy of the large round of applause from the crowd surrounding the dancers.

The groups representing other cultures were not necessarily all foreigners, or at least the majority weren’t, but they were interested in the culture and either in an informal or formalized way learned from the leader of their group.

The first was Agalu West African Drummers led by Akkem Ayanniyi.  The beat was so intoxicating that there were many in the crowd who could not stop moving to the music, sometimes in what looked to me as a legitimate African dance.  Those of us who did not dance joined by clapping our hands.

Bushido Kenkyukai Taiko Drummers performing in the Japanese discipline, were led by Anita Lee Gallegos who has a proper school.  The members of her group had all been with her from 4 months to 5 years.  After they were done with their performance they invited members of the audience to come play with them.  The amazing thing was that within a very few minutes the amateurs sounded quite good, considering their total lack of training, though one woman, I suspect, had played in her own right at one time.

The High Desert Pipes and Drums – Scottish Pipe Band was quite different from everything else.  The bagpipes and drums totally complement each other in yet another way that can get under your skin.  They came onto the plaza playing and it was rather stirring.  Their drums sound quite different from all the others.  They have double snares so they can sound like a flock of birds.  I actually saw birds flying above the museum as the drums were playing and wasn’t sure which I was hearing.  It was yet another stirring experience of the day.

In between the performances I took a look at the “Heartbeat” exhibition inside MIAC.  It was a small show in one gallery of the museum, the subject being restricted to Native music of the Southwest.   The main instruments are the drum, the rattle and the flute.  By far the most beautiful is the flute.  Robert Mirabel, a renowned flautist made his own flute and stand which MIAC acquired in 2004.

Photo credit: Blair Clark

Though perforce I missed some of the performances I found the day was a total delight and I certainly hope that it will become an annual event.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Historic Route 66 and the Old Santa Fe Trail

Hard to believe, born in New York City to German Jewish Parents, I dreamed of becoming a cowboy.  I thought that sleeping out on the range and singing songs by the campfire all night and twirling my six-gun was as romantic as you could get.

Then there were all the Westerns on television and radio, for that matter, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers etc.  In 1960 a TV series called Route 66 commenced and ran until 1964.   One of its stars was a Corvette convertible which was also seductive to a teenager.  Not to mention the song that inspired it, “Get your kicks on Route 66”.  Maybe it is a good thing that we grow up but still it is a notion that I treasure. 

I remember driving on a Route 1 when I was a child and my parents explaining to me that it was also called the Boston Post Road.  As the name implies it was a series of mail routes that eventually hooked up Manhattan to Boston. Its genesis can be traced back to the mid seventeenth century.  Route 66, on the other hand, was first laid out in 1926 and quickly became one of the best-known roads in America.  It reached from Chicago to Los Angeles, a road covering almost 2,500 miles.  Along the way it went through Arizona, Texas and New Mexico becoming closely associated with the West.   Needless to say, it went right through Santa Fe whether by the Old Pecos Trail or the Old Santa Fe Trail is a matter of debate but there is no question that the La Fonda Hotel, one of the original Harvey Hotels, at the end of the Old Santa Fe Trail was a major “watering hole” for those who traveled Route 66.   In 1938 as the Federal Highway system continued to devolve a short cut was found and Santa Fe was bypassed.  Slowly but surely over the next 40 years the Federal Highway System totally took its place.  Many parts of Route 66 have in recent years been designated as “Historic Route 66”.

I haven’t seen it but the Autry Museum in Los Angeles has a current exhibition called, “Route 66: The Road and The Romance”.  It traces the history of the “Mother Road” from its inception to the beginning of its demise from 1956 when the interstate highway system bypassed it.  There seem to be continuous efforts to revive the lore of the road, however,---nostalgia for a long lost age.

The border town of Gallup, New Mexico is on Route 66.  It is the first town you come to if you come south from the Hopi, Navajo and Zuni Reservations.  In Gallup there is a hotel called El Rancho where every famous cowboy and cowgirl on film stayed when they were working on a Western and all their photos are up on the walls.  The rooms are also all named after famous actresses and actors.

Most of Route 66 still boasts the self promotion of its former time with billboards such as “Tucumcari  Tonight - 2,000 Rooms” which must have looked very good when chugging along the old roads in cars of yesteryear.  Just like the Howard Johnson bill board did to me and MacDonald’s to the kids of today.

You may have read some of my missives and know that it took over 50 years until I ended up living even part time and now full time in the Southwest where many of the TV Westerns were and are filmed.   Today, I live not only on the Old Santa Fe Trail, a major commercial and military route from Franklyn, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. pioneered by William Becknell in 1821,  but right here it was part of Route 66 as well!  I still can’t believe that I have reached part of that romantic dream.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Alcove Shows 1917-1927

Two years ago I wrote a Missive called the Alcove Shows where you can see their genesis. That exhibition returned to the New Mexico Museum of Art’s initial use of alcoves to present the work of contemporary local artists.

When the Art Gallery (now the New Mexico Museum of Art) of the  Museum of New Mexico was established by Edgar Lee Hewitt in 1917 he had an open door policy where any artist working in New Mexico could put up a show of his work in one of the alcoves for a month on a first come first served basis.  “The Alcove Shows 1917-1927” is a historical exhibition showing the artists who were around at the time and exhibited in one of the alcoves.

I have one quibble with the exhibition, which I will dispense with at the beginning.  I always go around an exhibition or a fair counter clockwise particularly in a small show.  Unfortunately, for me, this exhibition, although laid out in a roughly chronological order,  was conceived in a clockwise manner with no explanatory label of the show on the outside walls.  Therefore, I only saw it on my way out! Only then did I discover the first alcove devoted to samples of the different  types of art exhibited in the Art Museum in its early years, not just paintings but other ethnographic materials such as Japanese woodblock prints and pre-Colombian art.

Every artist in the original alcove presentations came from elsewhere.  Many had studied in Paris but with the advent of World War I artists were staying at home.  Traveling almost as far, they came to exotic Santa Fe and the wonderful landscapes and ethnic varieties that it offered.  In the first alcove a set of pueblo pots shown near a 1917 painting by Henry C. Balink  (1882-1963) called “Pueblo Pottery”  demonstrates the cross-cultural fertilization that occurred in this part of the world.

Photograph supplied by the New Mexico Museum of Art

Just as you cannot believe Georgia O’Keeffe’s clouds until you have actually seen them in the New Mexico skies, you cannot understand the cloud patterns or the amazing light in the morning and evening skies.  A painting done in 1917 called “Light” by Raymond Jonson (1891-1982) gives a vivid representation.  It is quite different from much of his flat abstract work.

Photograph supplied by the New Mexico Museum of Art

I have quite a number of favorites in the exhibition “The Basket Ceremony” ca. 1922. by Alfonso Roybal (Awa Tsireh) (1895-1955). Roybal was from San Ildefonso Pueblo and this is typical of the kind of painting that Dorothy Dunn would soon be teaching at her Studio School in Santa Fe.  Many of the most famous Native American artists studied with her.

An artist that I mentioned last week is Ernest L. Blumenschein (1874–1960), he was a member of the Taos Society of Artists.   At the beginning of the 20th century it was a major trip between Taos and Santa Fe but like today, exhibition space was paramount  for an artist if he wanted his work known so he came to exhibit in the Alcoves.  This is his “Dance at Taos” from 1923.

Photograph supplied by the New Mexico Museum of Art

Another favorite is “Ancestral Spritis (The Koshare)” of 1919 by John Sloan (1871-1951).  Here is another case where an artist known for a totally different kind of painting has adopted not only Indian subject matter but also an interpretation that seems directly taken from the Indian dances.  We are at the center of Native American, Hispanic and Anglo culture in New Mexico it is fascinating to see the influences that each had on the other.  In contrast look at Sloan’s “Music in the Plaza” of 1920.

Photograph supplied by the New Mexico Museum of Art

Photograph supplied by the New Mexico Museum of Art

One of the facts that surprised me is that between 25 and 50% of the artists who participated in the Alcove shows were women. 

I “discovered” the photographer Laura Gilpin (1891-1979) back east at New York museum exhibitions and galleries like the Witkin Gallery.  I am not sure I even knew where Santa Fe was at the time.  She was born in Colorado, educated at Eastern boarding schools, studied photography in New York, went back to the west, ended up in the Santa Fe art scene. The other evening I sat next to a woman at dinner who told me that Laura Gilpin had taken her baby pictures and photos of both her and her husband when they were children.  Clearly Ms. Gilpin, a small thick set woman with her ever present camera  and tripod had to make a living on more than the art photos that are so highly prized today.   Here is an image she took in San Ildefonso in 1927.

There are 61 works on view representing 24 artists so there is plenty more to see and discuss if you want to learn more about the art of the Southwest.   The exhibition was masterfully guest curated by Malin Wilson-Powell and the will remain on view until February 23, 2015.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Weekend in Taos at the Couse-Sharp Historic Site

Taos, New Mexico is famous as a ski resort but it is also part the state’s history since it is where the famous tracker, Kit Carson lived, and it has been an artists’ colony since the early 20th century .  E. Irving Couse (1866-1936) was a founding member and the first president of the Taos Society of Artists.   They included Ernest Blumenshein, Victor Higgens, Joseph H. Sharp and E. Martin Hennings among others.  The Taos Society  lasted from 1915 to 1927.  Couse’s home and studio and Sharp’s adjacent studio are located on Kit Carson Road.  The Couse Foundation was established in 2001 and the Couse-Sharp Historic Site was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

"The Couse House" by Couse

We visited on a recent weekend because our old friend, May Brawley Hill, was on her way there to lecture and stopped by to visit us in Santa Fe.  It is a beautiful drive up to Taos.   The Foundation arranged for us to stay at a lovely Bed & Breakfast, The Casa Benavides, right opposite the Couse Foundation.   That day there was an open house and it was also a book signing opportunity for May for her book, Grandmother's Garden: The Old-Fashioned American Garden 1865-1915.

That evening Virginia Couse Leavitt, the artist’s surviving granddaughter, and her husband, Ernie Leavitt, hosted a cocktail and dinner for May.   Virginia made a fabulous home cooked meal and we ate in the dining room in which Irving Couse and his family must have eaten in the early 20th century.

After spending a decade studying painting in Paris as so many of his generation had, Couse moved back to the states and in 1909 came to Taos and built his home there.   When his wife, Virginia, whom he had met abroad, died, their son, Kibbey, came home to take care of him and live there with his family.  The house has stayed in the family for three  generations.  Couse’s granddaughters, Elizabeth and Virginia, with the help of the community, have restored the estate beautifully including the famous garden created by their grandmother. This was known in Taos as “The Mother Garden” since it was the first Anglo garden to be established there.  (2 Image of the garden through the trees (photo credit: Penelope Hunter-Stiebel) Video cropped at the beginning and end)

Photo credit: Penelope Hunter-Stiebel


Kibbey turned the garage into a machine shop  where he worked on an automatic car transmission in the 1920's which never made it into production.  He did, however, create a mobile machine shop which was widely used since it could driven to fix equipment where it  broke down. It was part of our arsenal during World War II to fix tanks and other equipment without moving them. Large scale production could not be done in his converted garage so he opened a factory in Newark, New Jersey.

Kibbey’s Machine Shop in the Garage

The painter, Joseph H. Sharp had bought the Luna Chapel right behind the Couse house and turned it into a studio which he eventually grew out of and built a bigger one.  After he died in 1953 the Couses acquired that property as well.  Since the Taos Artists often used the Indians as models, at the moment there is a small exhibition of Indian artifacts there.

Couse’s studio in the main house has been preserved intact. There is a painting in process on the easel beside the platform where the artist posed his models, and also many of the objects that he used as props in the paintings that hang on the walls in originals and reproductions.

 This is just one of the early Taos painters’ houses that are open to the public and give a vivid picture of their time.