The story starts in 1898, when two East Coast artists hoping to paint their way from Denver to Mexico collided with the city-boy limits of their rugged individualism: A rut in the road ruined their wooden wheel. They tossed a coin to decide who would take it however many miles to the next town.
That town was Taos, the artists were Bert G. Phillips and Ernest L. Blumenschein, and their misfortune eventually gave birth to the Taos Society of Artists. To honor the 100th anniversary of the society’s official founding, the town is hosting a year’s worth of special exhibitions and events, including a July 9–19 burst of festivities (see “Need to Know").
The centennial provides a prompt to reconnect with the romantic works of Phillips, Blumenschein, E. I. Couse, Joseph H. Sharp, Oscar E. Berninghaus, W. H. “Buck” Dunton, and more, but it’s also an opportunity to appreciate the power of a moment in time. Consider: A sleepy frontier town with a deeply rooted past embraces a group of European-trained artists who quickly establish a national market for what at this time is cutting-edge art. Though their movement faded just 12 years later, Taos was evermore a magnet for artists. A bevy of museums and a bounty of galleries speak to a fundamental force of Taos then and now.
“The artists were looking to create real American art,” says Virginia Leavitt, Couse’s granddaughter and an art historian who specializes in the Taos Society. “The western landscape was unique, the indigenous people were a big attraction to them. Always there was that romance of the West. Once they got here, it was so incredibly beautiful and different. They just always wanted to come back.”
Coming back to Taos these days is as easy as hopping on a two-lane highway and wending through northern New Mexico villages lining the Río Grande. At the turn of the last century, that journey carried far more peril. Visitors needed to brave primitive roads, questionable hotels, and the last vestiges of the Wild, Wild West. Railroads laid tracks as fast as they could, but the old “Chile Line” never reached farther south than Tres Piedras, 30 miles from town. From there, a bumpy wagon ride down the Río Grande Gorge led to John Dunn’s bridge, which the proprietor allowed you to cross only after you bought a night’s lodging in his “road ranch.”
Those amenities had yet to be built when Phillips and “Blumy” limped into town. But the reward for their trouble fit into an ethos then popular among their fellow artists. Crafting portraits of well-fed industrialists was passé. The common man was the new cool, and Taos had those folks by the score—along with painterly light and vast vistas. Art colonies were already a hit back east, but nurturing one in Taos would demand pluck and sure-footedness. Blumenschein soon headed to New York, Phillips stayed behind, and both extolled the town’s virtues to their friends.
Slowly, artists arrived. They moved into Territorial houses, adding tall windows to flood their studios with light. They persuaded Native people to pose in clothes perhaps more authentic to an earlier era or a different tribe. They caught Wheeler Peak in every stage of sunlight, moonglow, and snowstorm.
All they needed was buyers.
“You couldn’t sell paintings in Taos,” Leavitt says. “Can you imagine? This was a small frontier market.”
On July 15, 1915, six artists—Sharp, Blumenschein, Couse, Berninghaus, Phillips, and Dunton—formed the Taos Society of Artists. Others were later added, including Walter Ufer, Victor Higgins, Julius Rolshoven, E. Martin Hennings, Kenneth Adams, and their only female member, Catherine C. Critcher. They borrowed motifs from Native potters and Hispanic santeros. Though their art shared similarities—primarily, academy-trained dramatic lighting and realistic devotion to the human figure—their subjects ranged from Couse’s campfire-lit crouching Indians to Dunton’s stoic cowboys to Adams’ detailed sketches of local people’s faces.
“I think the colony in Taos is doing much for American art,” Berninghaus once told a reporter. “From it I think will come a distinctive art, something definitely American and I do not mean that such will be the case because the American Indian and his environment are the subjects. ... We have had French, Dutch, Italian, German art. Now we must have American art. I feel that from Taos will come that art.”
The glue that held them together was a need to make money. The society was their Kickstarter—crowdfunding way before crowdfunding was even a word. They organized exhibits, the first one at the brand-new Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, then in American art capitals. At a New York gallery, Mabel Dodge Luhan spied a barely clad Native man in a Couse painting and re-routed her life to build an artsy intellectual salon in Taos. John D. Rockefeller came on buying trips. The Santa Fe Railway commissioned Couse to paint Native Americans in ways that would entice tourists to visit.
“By getting together to market their goods, they told the American art world what was going on out here and what the area looked like,” says Barbara Brenner, Berninghaus’ granddaughter, who grew up riding her horse on local lanes. “In those days, people didn’t hear everything the minute that it happened.”
In their free time, the artists went hunting and fishing, played baseball, held recitals, and raised families. They also argued. A lot. Could printmakers be admitted as members? (Yes.) How about really good painters who weren’t born in America? (Not so much.) What about those guys in the new art colony down the road in Santa Fe? (Yes, but only as associate members. Welcome aboard, Gustave Baumann.)
“They were opinionated friends,” says Paul Figueroa, vice president of the Taos Arts Council.
By 1927, the artists had earned enough buyers to vote the society out of existence. Other art movements and artists were on the way—the Taos Transcendentalists, the Moderns, Emil Bisttram, Andrew Dasburg, Agnes Martin, R. C. Gorman. American art had arrived.
“They left a tremendous influence, a legacy,” says Cyndee Gustafson, administrator of the Couse-Sharp Historic Site. “The art was here, but nobody knew how to market their stuff. The Taos Society of Artists brought the patrons.”
How great was that legacy? Critics disagree. On August 8, as part of a benefit for the Couse-Sharp site, painter and historian Dean Porter will speak on “TSA: America’s Most Important Art Colony?” If asked, curator Joseph Traugott might well argue no. In his 2012 book New Mexico Art Through Time, Traugott wrote that the society’s paintings tended to conjure an “idealized image of Pueblo life.”
“The artists were looking backward and trying to empower the past,” he said in an interview.
Even in their heyday, the artists’ depictions of the region raised eyebrows—mostly, defenders say, because Easterners had no clue what kinds of lives New Mexicans led or how brilliant the high desert can appear.
“I was born in 1932 and I remember that people looked like they do in the paintings,” Leavitt says. “With Couse, I always think that he’s painting not the realistic, but the sort of spiritual side of life. It’s not just an Indian painting or weaving, it’s what that Indian is thinking. What is his relationship to what he’s holding?”
To re-create a sense of life as the Society artists experienced it, a visit to the Couse-Sharp site is a must, as are the Ernest L. Blumenschein Home and Museum and the Taos Art Museum and Fechin House. (Park at the museum and walk to the rest. It’s easier than trying to outwit Taos’ narrow roads and elusive parking.) After that, Figueroa suggests heading to the John Dunn Bridge, near Arroyo Hondo. “Maybe take a swim in the river or fish,” he said. “Go up the Ski Valley, or to Taos Pueblo, or go horseback riding. You have to appreciate and relate to the spirit of the place. Search out the place on your own terms, and the people, and the culture.”
Kate Nelson is an award-winning journalist and author of the biography Helen Hardin: A Straight Line Curved. She is the marketing manager for the New Mexico History Museum.
TAOS’ OLD COUNTY COURTHOUSE MURALS
The Old County Courthouse, on the north side of the Taos Plaza, is directly opposite historic Hotel La Fonda de Taos (where you can view the D. H. Lawrence Forbidden Art collection). The high-ceilinged upstairs courtroom, no longer used for legal proceed- ings, is adorned with 10 fresco murals painted by four Taos artists funded by the Works Progress Administration and completed in 1934. Most visitors and many locals tend to overlook this trove of work by the early Taos art colony painters. They’re more familiar with the old Taos County jail cells on the first floor. Many consider them to be haunted, and they do feel that way. Jack Nicholson was put away in one of the cells to the back left in Dennis Hopper’s iconic 1969 film Easy Rider.
The theme of the murals, “use and misuse of the law,” was decided by a committee of artists that included Jesse Nusbaum and Gustave Baumann. The work itself was done by Modernist painters Emil Bisttram and Ward Lockwood and the Taos Society of Artists’ Bert Geer Phillips and Victor Higgins—dubbed the Taos Fresco Quartet.
All ten murals are allegorical in nature, and quite dramatic. Victor Higgins created the largest panel, titled Moses, the Law Giver. Contemporary artists and art lovers today appreciate his dramatic use of clouds.
At the time, the paintings would have been considered to be in the Modernist style, much in keeping with the influence of Diego Rivera. Each is a narrative dramatization of its chosen title. Bisttram, a founding member of the Transcendental Painting Group (painters of an abstract style perhaps most similar to Wassily Kandinsky), included a classic robed Madonna in his frescoes, as a symbol of protection.
Two of the panels at the back were never completed by the Fresco Quartet. In 1994, Frederico Vigil (one of the last living students of Diego Rivera) restored the murals and added his own panel, Respect Creates Harmony. One last panel to this day remains blank.
The Mural Room is now being used in a variety of community-minded ways. Concerts, plays, readings, classes, and workshops are held there for small fees. The room may also be rented for family gatherings and weddings. The courtroom is now open to the public on a daily basis, free of charge. 121 North Plaza; (575) 779-8579
Robert Cafazzo is a Taos tour guide and gallerist. Learn about his tours at twograces.blogspot.com.
NEED TO KNOW:
TAOS ART CALENDAR
TAOSEÑOS HAVE ARRANGED A YEAR OF EXHIBITIONS AND EVENTS CELEBRATING THE CENTENNIAL OF THE FOUNDING OF THE TAOS SOCIETY OF ARTISTS. FOR THE FULL CALENDAR OF EVENTS AND DETAILS ON HOURS, FEES, AND RESERVATIONS, GO TO TAOS.ORG/100.
Past, Present and Future: A Celebration of the Taos Art Colony, through July 17. Featuring artists of northern New Mexico. Taos Town Hall, 400 Camino de la Placita; (575) 751-2000; taosgov.com
Living the West: Ralph Meyers and the Taos Society of Artists, through October 4. Paintings by the trader and guide who learned by watching Taos Society artists work. Taos Art Museum at the Fechin House, 227 Paseo del Pueblo Norte; (575) 758-2690; taosartmuseum.org
An Enduring Appeal: The Taos Society of Artists, through September 7. Rarely seen works from private collections and the museum’s collection. Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux St.;
(575) 758-9826; harwoodmuseum.org
Catching the Light, through September 7. Watercolors by
Taos Society of Artists members. Ernest L. Blumenschein Home and Museum, 222 Ledoux St.; (575) 758-0505; taoshistoricmuseums.org
The Lighter Side of Taos: Historic Photographs from the Archives, through September 30. La Hacienda de los Martínez, 708 Hacienda Rd.; (575) 758-1000; taoshistoricmuseums.org
Margaret Tafoya: Santa Clara Pueblo Potter, through January 29. Millicent Rogers Museum, 1504 Millicent Rogers Rd., El Prado; (575) 758-2462; millicentrogers.org
Italy to Taos: Rolshoven and the Taos Society of Artists, July 5–September 30. Couse-Sharp Historic Site, 146 Kit Carson Rd.; (575) 751-0369; couse-sharp.org
Taos Now, July 9–August 24. A show featuring contemporary artists. Taos Center for the Arts Encore Gallery, 133 Paseo del Pueblo Norte; (575) 758-2052; tcataos.org
July 14: Historic walk with Virginia Leavitt, granddaughter of E. I. Couse. taos.org/100
July 15 is the official anniversary of the founding. Enjoy events that include remembrances by grandchildren of the Taos Society of Artists, poetry readings, lectures on W.H. “Buck” Dunton and the old County Courthouse frescoes, a champagne toast, and an outdoor movie, Adventures in Kit Carson Land. taos.org/100
July 16: Walking literary tour in the Taos Historic District and a picnic at Sierra Vista Cemetery. taos.org/100
July 17–19: Fiestas de Taos, with parades and art exhibits. fiestasdetaos.co