THE NEW MEXICO PAINTERS; February 2012
By Stacia Lewandowski
For aficionados of New Mexico historical art, the Taos Society of Artists is likely the best-known organization of artists associated with the state. The story of its founding has become legendary and its members’ artwork has enjoyed broad appeal.
Yet there was another group that came together in New Mexico that overlapped with the Taos Society, but its story is less known. They called themselves the New Mexico Painters. For this first issue of the centennial year—New Mexico became the 47th state of the U.S. on January 6, 1912—we wanted to present to our readers the story of another important, albeit short-lived, New Mexico artists' group.
In 1923, a meeting of artists was held at B.J.O. Nordfeldt's house in Santa Fe. Dissension was in the air and a small group convened to discuss the formation of a new artists' group, one that would be more open to "progressive" ideas. Taos artist Ernest L. Blumenschein had become disenchanted with certain aspects of the Taos Society. Disagreements among its membership were not infrequent and the grumbling was growing. Then something else happened that is considered the likely spark for a brand new initiative.
For the annual Taos Society of Artists meeting in May of 1923, Blumenschein, Victor Higgins, and Walter Ufer wanted to nominate Santa Fe artists Jozef Bakos and William Penhallow Henderson for membership into the Taos Society. Apparently the very idea was rejected, because the nomination was somehow prevented from being presented. Blumenschein and his colleagues were furious. From its original number in 1915, the Taos Society of Artists had grown over the years with the acceptance of associate members that included certain acclaimed artists who worked in Santa Fe. They were Robert Henri, . . .
CONTINUE: Gustave Baumann, B.J.O. Nordfeldt, John Sloan and Randall Davey. The Bakos/Henderson nomination should have been treated as standard business, but was not. Art historian Robert White, who has researched this topic extensively, surmised that the two artists were rejected because of their overly modernist approach.
Shortly after this fateful meeting, a bi-city group of artists met at Nordfeldt's house in Santa Fe. They included: Blumenschein, Higgins and Ufer from Taos, and Jozef Bakos, William Penhallow Henderson, Frank Applegate, Gustave Baumann and Nordfeldt from Santa Fe. The meeting was newsworthy. An article about it appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican (June 21, 1923) where the artists were called "three of the strongest painters of Taos and five of the most individual artists of Santa Fe." At the meeting, the artists agreed to formalize a group and selected their moniker. Blumenschein, whose name lent considerable credentials to the group, was named secretary. In a revealing twist, he withdrew from the Taos Society of Artists the same year because of his refusal to act as secretary for them (according to their by-laws, it was his turn).
Later in life, in an interview, Jozef Bakos said that the New Mexico Painter's secretary position was supposed to transfer according to alphabetical order. Following Blumenschein, Applegate and Bakos each handled the secretarial duties of correspondence and organization of exhibits, but according to Bakos, when Baumann took over, "he absolutely fell down on it." Nonetheless, the New Mexico Painters generally enjoyed a growing national recognition during this period when they were able to organize shows around the country. Their first exhibition was in New York at the venerable Montross Gallery and the artists received favorable reviews in the press. After this auspicious beginning, other Santa Fe artists joined. The new artists were John Sloan, Randall Davey, Andrew Dasburg, Theodore Van Soelen, and Walter Mruk. Olive Rush joined a couple of years later. Over a period of some five years, the group garnered publicity through exhibits at important venues around the country. According to Robert White, it seems likely that the final year for the New Mexico Painters was 1927, with shows held at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Denver Art Museum.
By that time, Walter Ufer had already pulled out of the group due to the growing success of his own solo exhibits. Andrew Dasburg also left the group. He had just won third prize at the prestigious 1927 Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh (where the Frenchman, Henri Matisse took first prize). As a result, an art dealer agreed to take on Dasburg, but at the same time, also suggested that Dasburg leave the group to help solidify his individual artistic identity. Bakos further noted that, by 1927, the New Mexico Painters had begun receiving advice to conform to the tastes of the New York public and not pursue so much subject matter of the Southwest. Instead, Bakos said, the group simply "dwindled out."