Taos Portraits at Moby Dickens Today
The publisher, Paul O’Connor and editor, Bill Whaley, of Taos Portraits, invite you to a Moby Dickens book-signing event today, 2-4 pm on Bent St in Taos. O’Connor and Whaley will answer questions about the genesis of the book, both the photographs and the profiles, and share unusual anecdotes about members of the art community. Below is Whaley’s Afterword from the book, which should give readers a flavor of the book.
There was no school of painting in Taos. Everyone was doing their thing every which way. —Robert Ray, Mandelman-Ribak Oral Histories
I first saw the photographs featured in Taos Portraits at a 2005 show of Paul O’Connor’s work in Philip Bareiss’s gallery. In the June 2005 issue of Horse Fly, I wrote that O’Connor’s photos capture the soul and spirit of the local art community, past and present. Philip noted that there was a photo of Taos’s own St. Agnes Martin on the wall, just above a photo of that devil, Saki Karavas.
Philip’s comment reminded me of how these artists, generous of spirit and soul, emerged from their studios to do more than sell paintings. They donated their work and wealth to worthy causes, whether the performing arts, individuals, or the environment—none more so than the “Anonymous One,” St. Agnes. R.C. Gorman, too, and all the rest, never stinted when it came to the spirit of giving.
Paul and I discussed then the idea of publishing a book with profiles of the artist-subjects. I contemplated writing a few personal essays about artists, friends, or local characters whom I had known. Just as Paul began photographing art and artists based on chance or association, so I had encountered the members of the art community while I was a neophyte escapee from mainstream America in 1966.
Later—as the owner of the Plaza Theatre, a saloon proprietor, and while managing the Taos Center for the Arts and participating in community fundraisers—I met more of these singular characters. During the last year or so I’ve either renewed old acquaintances or made new ones while discovering the hidden talents of visualists—artists who have doubled as copy editors, fact checkers, and critics.
In the sixties and seventies, Taos social activity centered around café life. Improvised and impromptu meetings led to intimate and revealing conversations in bars or after hours at somebody’s place or in the morning over coffee at the Rexall Drug Store. Older and experienced artists and members of the community treated me less like an uneducated and untutored lad and more like a social peer—drinking buddy or fellow hell-raiser.
I came of age at a time when the gods were smiling.
One might discuss movies at night over a beer with Dennis Hopper–the merits of Easy Rider or El Topo and Luis Bunuel’s Viridiana. Then, the next morning see Saki at the Rexall and hear his tale of an all-night conversation with an actor whose name he had forgotten—“You know, buddy, the actor who played the fighter, Jake LaMotta” (Robert DeNiro).
For me, Jim Wagner, who served this underage arriviste his first beer in 1966, set a very high standard as a model of survival. We got drunk together, played cards, cut down billboards, traded art in order to pay for bad habits, and otherwise experienced the ups and downs of life. Whether he was making stuff for movie stars in Malibu or sending home gratuities to gangsters in Taos, Wagner managed to transcend epic self-destructiveness and remind me of the sublime notion that guardian angels must exist. Wagner keeps on working, turning chickens into greenbacks, leaving behind a trail of very human anecdotes wonderful to tell.
Saki used to say, “If you want to live in Taos, you’ve got to make a deal, buddy.” As deal-maker and entrepreneur, Larry Bell stands first among equals. He epitomizes the artist as existentialist, taking responsibility for both the art and the action. When whim strikes, the wheel turns, and Bell bets with Lady Fortune. Like a Biblical character, he alternately experiences the bountiful and lean years. His legendary exploits—financial risk-taking—on behalf of his public art projects is breathtaking.
From his famous solar fountain project in Denver during the seventies to the giant Gilgamesh figures he created in the eighties and nineties for a San Francisco office building or a busy boulevard in Hong Kong, Larry represents a mind boggling chutzpah and vision. He is generous in his support of artists and the arts and friends—as likely to call up Artie Shaw in L.A. to wish the clarinet player happy birthday as to phone Leo Castelli in New York to bullshit about the business. Even as Larry receives visitors in his office, the giant vacuum tank lurks like a Leviathan in his studio, warming up for another run of vapor drawings or a delicate glass coating project. Larry has persuaded art patrons, museums, and even local bankers to back what he calls his “investigations.” The spirit of creativity in Larry’s studio—like his supply of hand-rolled cigars—is always full to bursting.
When I booked jazz acts at the TCA in the seventies, I sought advice from Kenny Price about the probable success of, say, Earl “Fatha” Hines, which concert quickly sold out. After the concert, Fatha joined us at the Prices’ for a reception. Kenny played albums from his jazz collection and Fatha described their historical context and the other musicians and chorus girls in a memorable evening.
One of my favorite memories concerns Kenny’s shock at local mores. During a Boo-Ray (combo of poker and bridge) at the Prices’ house late one night, a number of us were on the verge of fatigue. Someone suggested we needed a “pick-me-up.”
A couple of us said, “Why not send out for a delivery?” Kenny said, “What? You can’t get pizza delivered in this town ….” True, we said. But the magic man arrived and even joined the game. He was inept at gambling so we got a discount on our indulgences.
One of our more successful collaborations occurred when Kenny’s new series of what we called “condominiums” appeared on the cover of a national magazine. The geometric sculptures with askew shapes painted in primary colors possessed Price’s impish sense of humor. I dropped by the studio, picked up a couple of pieces and headed off to Santa Fe, where I sold them to a renowned Santa Fe art dealer. I returned, cash in hand, to Kenny’s studio, and we all dined on escargot that night.
As Taos Portraits flew off to press, Kenny himself took leave. Kenny’s last toast at a family gathering was to love, family, and fine art. He was the best of men. (O’Connor photo)
While working on this project, I read a number of publications, including though not limited to David Witt’s Taos Moderns and Modernists in Taos: Dasburg to Martin (Red Crane Books) and Tally Richards’ secretive and privately published Open to the Public: The Diary of an Art Dealer (Wiz Allred Productions); Taos Artists and Their Patrons:1890-1950 (Porter, Ebie, Campbell; Snite Museum of Art, University of Norte Dame) and even In Contemporary Rhythm: The Art of Ernest L. Blumenschein (Hassrick and Cunningham; Oklahoma Press). John Nichols copied clippings from his files about Bea and Louis for my use.
(In the photo above, Tizia O”Connor catches Nichols and Whaley discussing whatever during the Millicent Rogers Museum opening and books signing, attended by 250 folks celebrating an exhibition of photos and the book signing on Friday, June 1.)
The Mandelman-Ribak foundation and technician Desiree Manville provided oral histories, which turned up fascinating commentary on the historic post-World War II scene by Ted Egri, Robert Ray, Agnes Martin, and Mildred Tolbert. Hank Saxe noted the existence of the fine DVD biography, Finding Lee Mullican, by the artist’s son, John, One night at Video Casa I stumbled upon a copy of The Cool School: How L.A. Learned to Love Modern Art, about the rise of the art scene in the sixties and seventies, featuring several of our friends from here in the southland, including Bell, Price, Hopper, and Stockwell, and their colleagues, whose names lacked faces until I saw the film. At the Harwood, the sweetest repository of exhibitions and history in Taos, Lady Brett’s archives helped me bridge the gap between the Mabel Dodge-Lawrence-Brett generation and the Bob Ray-Taos Moderns. Bob conceived of his generation as relatively colorless in comparison to Brett, et al., and welcomed the arrival of new energy and the publicity associated with the Cool School refugees.
As Charley Strong eagerly points out, in serendipitous Taos artists and aficionados from urban enclaves and both coasts meet and overcome a single degree of separation. One morning in the seventies I walked out the door of my house on Valverde St. and met up for the first time with my neighbor, San Francisco artist and Taos Modern Clay Spohn. I don’t know if he was aghast at my ignorance, but we walked to town and spent the next few hours at El Patio while he gave me an art history lesson.
As the proprietor of the Plaza Theatre for parts of three decades, right next door to Hotel La Fonda, I witnessed and/or met a stream of representative creative types from all the disciplines, who found their way to the office of Saki Karavas. The in-house D.H. Lawrence paintings may have been the lure, but everybody left whispering about the line-up of Saki’s shiny black shoes or kvetching about the ridiculously high prices he asked for anything he owned—poster, painting, or property.
I take all the blame for the mistakes in the book. The praise should go to publisher Paul O’Connor, designer Kelly Pasholk, and Dory Hulburt, my conscience and the conscientious copy editor. We, the editorial staff, enjoyed working with the insightful writers and the willing subjects, who also provided another layer of proofing, and even censorship. While some artists live their lives as if they were characters in a wild and crazy comic book, others rarely smoke a cigarette or drink more than half a glass. Un-huh. We can leave the real stories to dinner companions. Some of the real stories about these colorful souls are here—if not in the prose, then in Paul’s photographs.
— Bill Whaley