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IT'S BLACK & WHITE; April 2013

By David Clemmer

Human beings are fortunate to live in a richly chromatic world where even dim light can host a broad palette of colors. The emotive quality of color is a concept deeply ingrained in human culture and it has been a primary expressive tool for the artist since the days of the paleolithic cave painters. It would be easy to think of art devoid of color as somehow diminished and lacking in emotional quality, but in the hands of a sensitive and skilled practitioner the opposite is proven true. In a black and white format, chromatic distractions are set aside and the bare bones of composition, form, line, light and shade are laid bare revealing the essential architecture of an image.

The majority of the artists of the Taos Society were schooled in traditional academic principles in the United States and Europe. Draftsmanship, with a particular focus on figure drawing, was central to the curriculum of the academies they attended and the benefits of this rigorous training are readily apparent in the quality of their work. The pencil drawings of E. Martin Hennings (preparatory sketches for a series of highly regarded lithographs in this instance) and the pen and ink sketches of O.E. Berninghaus are eloquent testament to this quality.

Following a path typical of their day, many of the Taos Society artists began their professional careers as commercial artists and illustrators. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the world of commercial printing was almost entirely lacking color and, as a result, much original art created for illustrative purposes was executed en grisaille (in tones of grey). Additionally, the most commonly employed fine art printmaking processes of the era—both intaglio and lithographic—were primarily monochromatic. Some exceptional New Mexico printmakers, among them Gene Kloss and Howard Cook, rarely utilized color in CONTINUED: their graphic work. Howard Cook’s woodblocks and wood engravings of the 1920s stand amongst the finest American prints of their era. “Morning Smokes” is an exceptional example of the dramatic possiblities of pure black and white design.

The brothers Moran, Thomas and Peter, were also schooled in traditional 19th century academic methods, although their training was passed down through the family, brother to brother. Both served apprenticeships in commercial printing firms in Philadelphia before launching their careers in the fine arts. Their experience of working en grisaille formed a strong basis for their later work. Both Thomas and Peter were superb draftsmen and Peter’s wonderfully spontaneous and articulate pencil work is readily apparent in his 1888 drawing "Guadalupe Church."

The development of photography, from its beginnings in France and England in the 1830s through the invention of Kodachrome film a century later, traces a long and arduous quest for practical and stable color processes. Despite the allure of color, “fine art” photography was more or less defined as being monochromatic until relatively late in the 20th century. Photographers such as Edward S. Curtis and Edward Weston explored the expressive possibilities of black and white throughout their careers and their work remains at the pinnacle of artistic achievement in the medium. Curtis’s "Canyon de Chelly" and Weston’s "Taos Pueblo" exhibit their authors’ mastery of form, scale, and composition as well as the alchemy of the photographer’s darkroom.

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