This is a museum-wide exhibition of art by women from the collections of the Harwood Museum of Art. The artists in Work by Women are pioneers. They are stewards of the living legacy of Taos Arts, described by Harwood director Richard Tobin as “a complex narrative shaped over centuries by the confluence of Native American, Hispano and Anglo cultures against the towering landscape of Taos.”
WOMEN IN ART
In the 1950s, Lee Krasner, not yet famous but a promising Abstract Expressionist painter, approached her teacher Hans Hoffman to see if he could help her land a gallery exhibition. His comment was to say of her work, “This is so good, you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman.” And he declined to help her.
At that very time her former colleague and lifelong friend, Bea Mandelman was in Taos, painting in a tiny studio behind the adobe house beside La Loma Plaza. Louie Ribak, her husband, had all the attention and painted in a studio three times the size. Despite early success and curatorial attention in New York, it is safe to say that Bea struggled her entire life for representation and attention towards her ground-breaking imagery. Seven weeks prior to her death in 1998, an article in Forbes magazine proclaimed her as a forgotten important abstract expressionist. This incited a flurry of international attention and sales. Today we laud both Krasner and Mandelman as important American artists.
It would seem in more than half a century we have come a long way toward recognizing women artists, in the Western world at any rate. It is argued that critics, dealers and directors shouldn’t be paying attention to gender and it is the quality of the work that matters most.
Yet Judy Chicago, whose seminal art examines the role of women in history and culture says, “I believe that it is crucial for women artists to situate ourselves in the context of our own gender, class and ethnic histories and struggles, rather than in relationship to male histories.”
This exhibition is an attempt to pay homage to the visual stories of women who chose for a myriad of reasons, to self-actuate and express their inner conceptions for part or all of their careers in Taos, NM. They are, for the most part, in the Harwood Collection. Truly, Agnes Martin, presenting in her geometric vocabulary, a world of sublime silence, is the doyenne of female American artists. The Harwood is an international destination to view her “room.” However, she is the exception, and too often female artists have been kept in storage, beneath the museum galleries. Many indeed, though they knew they had work in the collection, did not expect to see it on exhibition.
It is important to note that as underrepresented as women artists have been, the world of women in the arts in western culture is conspicuously Anglo-centric. The wives of the “founding fathers” who painted, and the female artists who built careers in Taos, did so as a privileged Anglo elite. The Navajo rugs on their floors, the Chimayo blankets on their beds, their fireplaces and the plaster and santos on their adobe walls, the houses themselves, and their pottery – all were the work of nameless Native and Indo-Hispano women – the most forgotten artists in Taos. We have tried to represent them to the extent the collection offers.
Anita Rodriguez, award-winning writer and a premier painter of her culture said: “Native and Indo-Hispano people created the ambience that brought the Anglo artists here in the first place. And I commend the efforts the Harwood has made to include the work and voices of women of color. But before we can claim democracy in the arts – all museums need to do more to feature the ones who have been silenced and forgotten too long.”
For my part, having been a fine art gallery owner and director over twenty years, I represented extraordinary women artists in Taos. It was a focus to present artists living and working in Taos who may have had wider exposure but chose Taos as their home. The original five artists included only one male. In the early years, I would hear people remark, “Oh, that woman’s gallery” when in fact it was the art I respected, felt a kinship with and understood the struggles of these women. I sought integrity of vision and original conceptions. As I added artists, I did not actively seek women at all, but there they were.
From my experience, locating to Taos over forty years ago, the Space of this place has been the compelling bind to the landscape. Uninhabited, expansive space became integral to my sense of self, my well-being. Working with artists in Taos, asking, “Why Taos?” whether abstract or landscape painters, photographers or sculptors, they, without exception, responded to their relationship to the ever-present horizon with the immense sky reaching down and the sense of spacial freedom it offered.
Ginger Mongiello, an abstract painter, felt she could have a family and also be an artist in Taos. Though her work is studio based, the external landscape poses a challenge and informs her work. “There is something about looking outside and seeing all that space that’s very comforting. It’s as though it’s all up to me.” While she may not see anything outside she wants to paint directly there is “this incredible sky. What am I going to find within myself that wouldn’t emerge unless I had that much spaciousness in the external environment?”
The Taos community has harbored and continues to harbor many strong empowered women artists who share a love of place, a place that allows them to mind their spaces. This often supersedes the pressures of an unaccepting global art market, of gender and ethnic inequities and lack of representation. Gender equality has been a slow social movement, as the culture changes, so goes the artist. In our digital world an explosion of opportunities awaits artists who wish to enter an increasingly global market, making living in Taos easier.
Alexandra Benjamin, former curator of the Mandelman-Ribak Foundation, recalls Mandelman’s intense pleasure at finally achieving the recognition she desired for most of her 85 years,” Bea realized that all along she really had what she wanted: She had the life of a painter. All she wanted to do was paint.” Perhaps the freedom to be within this spacious world, Taos, affords the creative integrity women seek.
It is our hope that the selection presented in this exhibition celebrates women in Taos, spanning more than a century of creative endeavors. The achievements of woman artists must no longer be hidden from view.
Judith Kendall has lived in Taos since 1976. From 1989 to 2009, she was the owner/ director of the Fenix Gallery, representing Taos Modernists along with a stable of emerging and established Taos artists collected nationally and internationally.
The Harwood Collection: Work by Women
- 238 Ledoux Street
- Taos, NM 87571
- Harwood Museum of Art
- Recurring weekly on Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday