Blumenschein moved to Taos permanently in 1919. By this time he was a modernist, and though he was incorporating the influence of abstraction, he resisted doing abstract work, the ultimate expression of modernism. That seems like a shame when you look at a piece like "Superstition," from 1921, one of the artist's great masterpieces. The background is semi-abstract, but in the foreground is a depiction of an Indian who glowers out at the viewer. Behind him are symbols of Native American religions and of Christianity, including a crucifix. The Indian holds a "Wedding Jug," a non-traditional vessel form the Pueblo potters had taken up to cash in on the tourist trade. The painting is a pointed political work aimed at protesting the federal policy of assimilation; Blumenschein was a staunch defender of Indian rights.

Another type of painting that Blumenschein did during the '20s involved the landscape with architecture in the foreground; though he includes figures, they play only minor roles in the compositions. An example would be "Sangre de Cristo Mountains," painted in 1925, which shows a sun-lit adobe town running horizontally across the painting. With the mountains in the background, the people in the foreground are cast in shadows and recede in importance.

The 1930s was a high point in Blumenschein's career, and he produced a number of remarkable paintings of the American scene type in that decade. These include "Ourselves and Taos Neighbors," first completed in 1931 and then reworked over and over for more than fifteen years. The painting shows the people of the Taos art colony standing in Blumenschein's old adobe studio. In a sense, it's a history picture, with each character a specific portrait of an actual person, and it has a heroic scale, suggesting a WPA mural. Of much the same character is "Jury for the Trial of a Sheepherder for Murder," from 1936. This painting is considered to be one of Blumenschein's greatest accomplishments, and I agree. In an alcove in his studio, the jury of Indians and Hispanics listen to the proceedings, as a Hispanic clerk records it on paper.

"Ourselves and Taos Neighbors," by Ernest Blumenschein, oil on canvas.
"Ourselves and Taos Neighbors," by Ernest Blumenschein, oil on canvas.

Details

Through February 8, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, www.denverartmuseum.org.For a slide show of this exhibit, go to westword.com/slideshow.

In the post-war period of the '40s and early '50s, the kind of work Blumenschein had done since the beginning of the century was out of fashion, and though he became an elder statesman of the Taos group, he was no longer nationally renowned. The last paintings in the show, done in Albuquerque in the 1950s, are the views from his hotel window. He died in 1960, having given up painting the year before.

Regardless of style, Blumenschein was a true painter's painter. So even if you don't go in for Western subjects, In Contemporary Rhythm is not to be missed.

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