Of Pinon and Pueblo

by Ann M. Colford

Legend has it that fate -- in the form of a broken wagon wheel -- brought artists Bert Geer Phillips and Ernest Blumenschein to Taos in 1898. On a trip from Denver to Mexico to paint scenes of the American Southwest for Harpers Weekly, their wagon collapsed about 15 miles outside of Taos, in northeastern New Mexico Territory. The two New York artists stopped in Taos for repairs and decided to stay. Eventually other artists from the East and Midwest migrated to Taos for the light of its high desert landscape and the unique mix of cultures that seemed exotic to 19th-century American eyes.

In 1915, Phillips and Blumenschein, along with four colleagues, formed the Taos Society of Artists, a group whose work helped shape the popular image of the American Southwest, says MAC Curator of Art Jochen Wierich. Their work also inspired later generations of artists like Georgia O'Keeffe to come to Taos and further explore their visions of the Southwest. Paintings from nine Taos Society artists will be on display along with objects from the Pueblo Indian and Hispanic cultures in Enchanted Visions: The Taos Society of Artists & amp; Ancient Cultures, an exhibition that opens Saturday and continues through Sept. 25.

"The exhibition is about encounter," says Wierich. "It is about the interactions between the Taos artists and the indigenous people, the Pueblo Indians and Spanish Americans who had been here for generations -- and all of a sudden they became the subjects of these paintings."

Unlike the current Impressionist exhibition, Enchanted Visions was conceived and developed entirely in-house. Wierich researched the artists of the Taos Society and tracked down many of the paintings in museums and private collections. He worked closely with colleagues in the MAC's Center for Plateau Cultural Studies and collaborated with outside scholars to develop a full-color catalog just for this show.

Much of the impetus for the show came from long-time MAC volunteer and supporter Martin Phillips, who is the grandson of artist Bert Geer Phillips. The younger Phillips and his wife Margie lent several paintings to the show and helped Wierich make connections related to the other Taos artists.

"Martin felt strongly that the show should not be just about his grandfather," says Wierich. "As we decided that we could do something about this group of artists and their context and the culture that they encounter, I got more and more intrigued."

About 20 of the nearly three dozen paintings are on loan from the Stark Museum near Houston and traveling outside the Southwest for the first time. And yet the paintings of the Taos Society represent just a portion of this exhibition; nearly 40 Southwest Indian and Hispanic objects, many from the permanent collection of the MAC and others from private collections, help fill in the context for the paintings.

The High Road to Taos climbs into the hills above Santa Fe, winding across canyons studded with pinon pines, through dusty mountain villages and past sun-baked adobe churches. Just outside the town of Taos -- now home to innumerable museums, galleries and souvenir shops -- lies the Taos Pueblo, home of the Taos Indians since the 1300s and considered to be one of the oldest continuously occupied structures in the United States. The Spanish conquistadores arrived in 1540 and their descendants settled these desert hills, eventually coming to a relatively peaceful coexistence with the Indians of the Pueblo following decades of conflict.

After three centuries under Spanish and Mexican rule, the Taosenos suddenly found their map lines redrawn at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848 as Mexico ceded the present-day Southwest to the United States. Anglos trickled in to the area over the next 50 years, first following old trading routes and later the railroads, but the geography around Taos kept the town in relative isolation for a long time.

When the early Taos artists arrived, they found a rich stew of Indian and Hispanic cultures that was unique within the States. Like many easterners at the time, they were drawn to a romanticized and idealized vision of indigenous Americans, so they tended to ignore the Hispanic elements and focus on the Indians.

"All of these artists were born east of the Mississippi, and they didn't have the cultural knowledge that an anthropologist would have.," Wierich explains. "Phillips grew up [in upstate New York] reading James Fenimore Cooper stories -- that was his exposure to Indians. Many shared the common misunderstanding among European-Americans that [the Indians] were a vanishing race. The artists thought perhaps they could capture images of the Indians before they vanished or perhaps some of them even thought they could help [the Indians] maintain their culture. But Taos Pueblo was built in the 1300s. Nomadic tribes had been in the area for thousands of years. This was a culture that was deeply rooted there and was not going away."

The Taos artists worked closely with Indians from the Pueblo and some developed lasting friendships with their subjects. The artists' approaches to presenting the cultures on canvas varied; some painted what they saw while others preferred to stage scenes and portraits, paying little attention to the cultural authenticity of the clothing and props.

Early on, the railroads played a crucial role as well, supporting the Taos artists and introducing their work to a wider audience. The Atchison, Topeka & amp; Santa Fe Railway commissioned hundreds of paintings from Taos artists during the first three decades of the 20th century, using the images to lure travelers to the Southwest. While intended as advertising, the paintings supplied an image of the Southwest for Americans who had never seen the region, an image of romanticized exotic cultures that persists even today. As Southwest art scholar Dean Porter writes in the soon-to-be-published catalog for Enchanted Visions, "Seldom in the history of America has art been used more effectively to promote a section of this country as a tourist destination."

Of course, the Anglo artists weren't the only ones working creatively around Taos at the time, and Wierich hopes the show will speak with a multitude of voices.

"We have included two sculptures by Patrocino Barela, a Mexican migrant who settled in Taos and was making these beautiful carved wooden santos figures," Wierich says. "The WPA hired him, and then a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York included his work. He became world-famous."

The show also includes watercolors done by painters from the Taos Pueblo, along with examples of pottery, baskets and blankets made by Indians from the region.

"There's all this crossover, which is wonderful," says Wierich. "We try to touch on all these aspects, but it's very difficult to do it right."

The show is bookended chronologically by two images of the Taos Pueblo: a Phillips painting from 1899 and Taos Pueblo, World War II by Oscar Berninghaus, painted in the 1940s. Phillips shows the Pueblo as it had existed for generations, quiet and separate from the modern world.

After a half-century of encounters with artists and other tourists, the Pueblo is part of a collage of images in the Berninghaus piece, a place filled with people and interconnected with a world at war. By the 1940s, the painting shows, the idyllic refuge from the modern world no longer existed, even in the artists' imaginations.

Publication date: 03/17/05