Mabel at the Harwood and Art News

By: Bill Whaley
20 July, 2016

Harwood’s Mixed Messages

On the one hand the Harwood Museum of Art Show recognizes and portrays Mabel (Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne) Luhan as a progenitor of modernism and proto-feminist, the doyenne of political and artistic influence, affecting Taos and the Southwest, and perhaps the greater narrative of modernism, and its thematic variations or “manifestoes.”

Mabel, as a Salon hostess, gathered round her the luminaries of early 20th Century glitterati from the rather small world of art, literature, and progressive politics, and had a singular effect on Taos. Whether seen as a public relations force, like the Taos Society of Artists, or the epigone of art, literature, psychology, or the search for a spiritual antidote to the times, Mabel has become, thanks to scholar Lois Rudnick, a symbol of modernism and a prism through which to look at cultural history while she also remains all too human due to a mercurial temperament.

The best part of the Harwood show and I dare say the most long-lasting effect will be Rudnick’s so-called catalog or book for the show: “Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West, “ Edited by Rudnick, the Mabel aficionado and Malin Wilson-Powell, while also featuring Wanda Corn’s and Carmella Padilla’s contemporary remarks on Luhan’s influence in the broader and current culture of the greater Southwest. The book above serves as a summary and synthesis long overdue and accessible to the interested reader.

At a long seminar at the TCA,  Taos Councilman Nick Evans represented the town’s recognition of “Mabel Dodge Luhan Day,” and the above official referred to the controversialist as not untypical, given her place in history between Kit Carson and Dennis Hopper (the latter, too, was thusly honored but also made “Honorary Mayor of Taos”). Mabel and Kit Carson, of course, lie in adjacent graves in the Kit Carson Cemetery, a proper distance from Manby’s grave, one of the local characters Mabel first encountered, delightfully narrated by Luhan in “The Edge of Taos Desert,” which I am currently reading to my own surprise and enjoyment.

Despite the renewal of Mabel and her revised place in history as an influential modernist, a second viewing of the show at the Harwood, featuring Mabel and her effect, confirmed my suspicions or intuitions, encountered upon my first visit. The show is heavy on text and a textual approach  but thin on the impact of imagery due to the way the show has been curated and hung.

There is enough interesting work to fill a couple galleries but not the whole Museum. Some of the more stunning work in the show, ironically, is from the Harwood’s own collection, like Victor Higgins “Winter Funeral” and Patrocino Barelas’s Death Cart. The irony of the show’s mish-mash can be felt when you pass by the rather reassuring permanent side galleries where the work of Ken Price and Agnes Martin resides or even upstairs in the contemporary shelter behind the panel where Bell, Davis, Price, Abeyta, etc. lie in state sheltered from the storm.

Since the exhibition focuses on Mabel’s lifelong permutations the curators had a chance to present various portraits, painted or photographed in juxtaposition in order to fulfill the narrative of Mabel’s life. Instead, the curators chose to intersperse images of Mabel or images pertinent to the work of Mabel’s visitors as if used to illustrate ideas but which decision detracted from a rhythmic sense of the visual forces that rippled like spontaneous impulses through the nascent 20th Century.

The second time I visited was on a Sunday wherein a group of about 20 had traveled up to Taos from Santa Fe to visit the Mabel Dodge Luhan House (See Rudnick’s “Utopian Visions) and the show at the Harwood. The visitors wanted to look, not listen to or read a narrative about Mabel. The perfect venue for this show is not the Harwood but the Mabel Dodge House itself, whee, given Mabel’s peripatetic presentation of self, art, and artists to the public, more small rooms might have housed the scattered show. Ultimately, the show’s curators seem to lack confidence in the power of visual narrative or the intelligence and intuition of the viewer.

Despite the lack of thematic or paradigmatic visual focus, (several works seem dated and rather ill-placed in a public exhibition), the Harwood-Mabel show revives or presents many works that are worth seeing either again or for the first time. There’s a brief incidental history of work by Andrew Dasburg, one of Taos’s best-known “modernists.” From the text for the show I learned that Dasburg enacted an early version of the late Larry Frank, when it came to capitalizing on the trade in Retablos, Santos, Bultos, etc: buy cheap, sell dear.

The rather fetching Jacques-Eile Blanche Portrait of Mabel Dodge and Son, circa 1908-1915, oil on canvas, 71 x 51) portrays her as a descendant of the Italian Medici. Dorothy Brett’s “”Feather Dance” (n.d.Oil on canvas, 50 x36 is one of her more fully developed pieces. The Bisttram “Taos Indian Woman Plasterer” (n.d.Oil on canvas (50 x 35,” is an old favorite and Marsden Hartley’s “New Mexico Recollection #12” (Oil on canvas 30 x 40) presents a powerful statement on early Southwest abstract expressionism cum modernism. The Bisttram above contrasts with one of his geometric transcendental works. The works from Georgia OKeeffe are mildly interesting, including the almost stunning Grey Cross with Blue” (1929, Oil on canvas, 36 x 24).

Taos Public Library

In a particularly modest but stimulating presentation, thanks to Paul Figueroa’s “Taos Council of the Arts,” the master of community acronyms (a virtual one-man show), those in attendance at the Taos Public Library got a quick review of the Taos Art scene in the 20th Century.

Scholar Sharyn Udall, who has written several books, including “Contested Terrain: Myth and Meanings in Southwest Art,” Albuquerque, UNM Press, 1996) demonstrated how the recurring “mountain” motif tied together several different visual eras for the benefit of the audience.

David Witt, who has written and published two books on the Taos Moderns, emphasized the role of women as gallerists and their position of public influence in the history of the Taos art scene. He candidly referred to the “sexism” that has prevailed among the male artists and their world.

Jina Brenneman, who is working on a film about “Agnes,” curated shows at the Harwood during its most exciting recent period. There she managed to juxtapose historic and contemporary works, while also correcting cultural slights in the interests of broadening local knowledge of the arts. Jina at the Library presented the work of several working women artists of Taos. The quizzical format tested the limits of the women artists present, who weren’t always able to identify the work of their own peers. The complexity of Taos, in short, prevails despite the conventional wisdom that “everyone thinks they know everyone” or what everyone is doing.

The Complex

Here’s something most of you don’t know. Sculptor John Suazo of Taos Pueblo has carved a fine sculpture (7000 pounds) that is ready for installation in the courtyard of the Taos County Complex. Just as Taos Plaza incorporates the Bataan Memorial WWII Cross and the Huberto Maestas bronze of Padre Martinez, so John’s sculpture embodies and narrates the history of Taos in stone. It’s a magnificent piece designed for its final resting place. You can see it now in the courtyard of the Complex. For once, somebody did something right here, including the artist, the art and artifacts committee, and the county commissioners. Congratulations to John Suazo.

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