For many of the American artists who painted some of the best portraits of the people and landscapes of New Mexico in the first half of the 20th century, they didn’t arrived to the state under the best of circumstances. A lot of them, apparently, were stricken with tuberculosis, the period’s most ubiquitous contagion.
New Mexico, and other Southwestern states, were the only ones that would welcome “tuberculars,” allowing them to convalesce in their wide-open spaces. According to newmexicohistory.org, “health-seekers were an increasingly significant part of the economy and society of territorial New Mexico. In the Southwest, so many of them came to seek their health that they were sometimes called the ‘one lung army.’”
Which is all to say that these painters’ sicknesses were the art world’s gain; the silver lining of their New Mexican recovery is art immortality as a member of the now legendary Santa Fe Art Colony. In the Boca Museum’s studious and pastoral new exhibition, “Southwestern Allure: The Art of the Santa Fe Art Colony,” the movement gets its due and then some, with more than 50 pieces showcased. The exhibition chronicles the artists who gravitated to the area – to get well, get cultured or get inspiration – and, naturally, the land itself, which could look markedly different when viewed through the eyes of a wide range of painters and styles.
The exhibition begins with Carlos Vierra’s “Zia Pueblo Vision,” circa 1914-1918; Vierra was the first resident artist in Santa Fe. But the rest of the show moves in a stylistic, rather than chronological, arc, from arid landscapes untouched by human life – Edward Hopper, who breezed in and out of Santa Fe for a spell, made his watercolor ranch house scene (pictured) resemble a desolate ghost town, absent a tumbleweed or two – on through to wondrous portraits of native American residents and their rituals. For the first half of the exhibition, the differences between the artists are subtle: Homer Boss’ vivid oil paintings seem to find darker hues his contemporaries did not; Jozef G. Bakos’ works have the textures of expressionistic fairy tales; And Willard Nash’s “Nude With Olla” takes inspiration from Old Master nudes.
But most of them hew toward realism, some with almost photographic clarity. The second half of the show – meaning the paintings on the right side of the first-floor gallery space – are the ones that take the most liberties with the natural land, offering up a modernist counterpart to the more traditional works on the other side, engaging a conversation and, if you will, ushering in a new guard for the Santa Fe Art Colony.
Where the artists on the left side of the gallery saw open landscapes of rolling hills and natural curves, Andrew Dasburg found lots of defined geometric angles in gridlike patterns. Raymond Jonson’s “Santa Fe Placita” depicts the city’s edifices as slanted, like in a cartoon. Cady Wells saw an Asian influence in her complex representation of Otowi Mountain, and Georgia O’Keeffe, of course, saw a flower blooming in front on her own mountain painting, as if her datura were superimposed on top of it.
The more the exhibition progresses, the more our conventional image of Santa Fe’s romantic natural plains and their humble natives disintegrates into the sheer unrecognizability of Jonson’s “Earth Rhythms No. 9,” a work that runs amok with the artist’s powerful imagination. But pieces like this are far from blasphemy; they are vital to appreciating diversity in vision. Ultimately, while it serves a direct function as a great historic survey of an important movement, “Southwestern Allure” is equally significant as a re-affirmation of the universal artistic creed to make familiar things look new and alive.
“Southwestern Allure” is at the Boca Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton, through Dec. 29. Admission is $5-$8. For information, call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.