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West by Southwest

By the early twentieth century, artists from the East Coast, as well as emigres from Europe, were making their way to the handful of art colonies springing up out West. They came to places like Santa Fe, Sedona, even Colorado Springs, for a variety of reasons, ranging from magnificent scenery to a relatively low cost of living.

But none of these art colonies attained the lasting fame of Taos, which today boasts a national-class scene studded with such stars as Larry Bell, Agnes Martin and Susan Rothenberg. Contemporary art isn't the town's greatest artistic asset, however. That honor goes to art dating from Taos's golden age, from the 1920s to the 1940s, a period that shines in two handsome exhibits currently on display at the Foothills Art Center in Golden.

First up is Gustave Baumann Woodblock Prints, a selection of pieces displayed in the Metsopoulos Gallery, just past the entryway. Today Baumann is more highly regarded than he ever was during his lifetime. His signature woodblock prints are avidly sought by collectors, including the local law firm of Holme, Roberts & Owen, from whose collection independent art consultant and curator Ann Daley compiled much of this show. And even this small sampling quickly reveals why Baumann's work is in such demand: It's stunning.

Born in Germany, Baumann moved to Chicago as a child in 1891. After studying at the Chicago Art Institute, Baumann, already an accomplished printmaker, went to Taos for a visit in 1917. He never left.

Unlike many artists of his era who used master printers as collaborators, Baumann carried out the printmaking process from start to finish. He created the original sketch, carved the block, colored it and pulled the finished print. (The Foothills show includes four of Baumann's original, ink-smeared blocks, loaned by local collector Thomas Kerwin.) Baumann's most frequent subject was the Southwestern landscape. "Talaya Peak," an undated woodblock print, depicts the mountain of the title in the background, with a small group of men leading pack mules in the foreground. The scene is executed in exquisitely colored inks that have been applied in a thin and even wash, revealing the texture of the paper. This same effect marks "Church, Rancho de Taos," an undated woodblock print in which the famous mission is seen from the rear, with a group of pilgrims walking toward it and away from the viewer.

Baumann was one of the first American artists to experiment with applying metals to prints, and one of the finest pieces here is the still life "Tulips," an undated woodblock print that includes silver leaf. While the flowers are done in colored ink, the background is covered in silver that has been inscribed with geometric abstract patterns. This piece alone is worth a trip to Golden.

But there's much more to see at Foothills. Taos Masters From the Harmsen Collection, installed in the Bartunek Gallery, focuses on the history of the famous art colony. The works here are part of the 2,000-plus-piece collection of retired Jolly Rancher tycoons Bill and Dorothy Harmsen, who've been collecting Western art with a passion for the past forty years. The Taos art shown at Foothills is just one specialty in their collection, which also includes cowboy bronzes and Indian pottery. And the couple isn't finished yet: The Harmsen Museum of Art is slated to open in the fall of 2000 in the not-yet-completed Denver West regional shopping district in Lakewood. The museum will occupy a 60,000-square-foot structure, built from the ground up with special features to accommodate the collection. Although construction has not yet begun, the Harmsen already has a governing board that includes representatives of the Harmsen family as well as a director, Daniel Provo, who was hired last summer.

Provo selected the paintings for the Taos Masters exhibit, and his choices include many works from the turn of the century, when Taos was already a center for art production. Before the East Coast artists arrived, inhabitants of the Taos Pueblo were producing pottery, among other artifacts; Hispanics in nearby Chimayo were already known for their weavings. But the art influx began in earnest in 1898, when Bert Phillips and Ernest Blumenshein set out from Denver on a painting excursion and broke a wheel on their supply wagon just north of Taos. The rest is art history.

Although this first generation of Taos artists embraced many styles, impressionism predominated. And examples of the unique Southwestern impressionism that flourished in New Mexico, with its characteristic dusty palette, abound in Taos Masters. In his magnificent oil-on-canvas portrait of an Indian chief, "Eagle Fan," Blumenshein employs big, slashing brush strokes for a freely painted piece. Another American impressionist master, Robert Henri, takes the same uninhibited approach in his gorgeous "Water of Antelope Lake," an oil-on-canvas three-quarter portrait of a Navajo woman. Although Henri, who lived in Philadelphia, was not a permanent Taos resident, he did make several painting trips to the town.  

The Taos artists looked not only to the local scenery, but also to its inhabitants, giving their narrative scenes true local color. The oil on canvas "Morning Shade," by Oscar Berninghaus, shows Indians standing in an adobe village in the shade of a shed; beige, brown and blue convey the heat and the dryness of the region. A very different mood is cast by Walter Ufer's "From Winter Pasture," an oil on canvas that captures the profile of an Indian on horseback before the snow-covered mountains.

One of the most important paintings here is "Rabbit Hunt," an oil by E. Martin Hennings. In this extraordinary piece, Hennings places the dead rabbit right at the front, with an Indian on horseback in the middle. Hennings's sense of color is accomplished: Although most of the painting has been carried out in muted sage green and a soft grayish-blue, a red blanket wraps one of the Indians.

Taos artists also had their less serious side. In the charming "Bronco Rider," a regionalist-style oil by William Leigh, a bucking bronco has just thrown a cowboy. Both the horse and would-be rider are seen from behind, caught in mid-air by Leigh. Another lesser-known artist, Frank Hoffman, uses expressionism for his paintings, including the splendid "Bear Surprise," an oil on canvas that depicts a cowboy on horseback coming upon a grizzly bear. The palette is predominately green, cream and yellow, but Hoffman has applied paint in overlapping smears to break up the color.

Creating art that depicts social interaction--or, in Hoffman's case, interaction with bears--fell out of favor with the triumph of abstraction after World War II. But the neo-expressionists, including Denver's own Tony Ortega, resurrected the tradition in the 1980s. Like his artistic sources among the Taos masters, Ortega depicts scenes starring local residents--in this case, Mexican-Americans.

Although Ortega was born in New Mexico, he was quite young when his family moved to Denver. He studied at what is now the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design and then at the University of Colorado, where he received his MFA. Over the past decade, he's been widely exhibited and has received many honors, including a Colorado Governor's Award last year and the Denver Mayor's Award for Excellence in Art this year. But Tony Ortega: 15 Year Retrospective, which currently fills the William Havu Gallery, is his most comprehensive show to date.

The exhibit offers not just older work, but also many brand-new Ortega pieces, most notably twenty monotypes that were just completed at the renowned Shark Lithography in Lyons. Unfortunately, the show is not arranged in chronological order, which makes it hard to see the subtle changes in Ortega's work over the past fifteen years. The oldest pieces, all dating from the mid-Eighties, are grouped together at the end of the show on the mezzanine rather than at the start, where they belong.

These early pieces, which were printed by Colorado Springs' Sandy Kinnee, reveal Ortega's connection to Bay Area figuration, especially the work of Richard Diebenkorn. Like Diebenkorn, Ortega reduces the figure to a simplified, roughly geometric shape. In "AQue Pasó Con el Camión?" a 1984 monotype, figures are merely suggested while large, geometric forms take the fore. In another monotype, "A la Isla III," from 1986, the faces of the sailors are left mostly blank, as Diebenkorn would have done. Also related to Diebenkorn is Ortega's use of bright, sunny colors.

But Ortega quickly broke away from Diebenkorn's influence. By the end of the Eighties, the artist had developed his own signature style, and since then his work has been remarkably consistent, with toned-up colors and conventionalized forms. While Ortega's earlier work is on white paper, which gave the finished product a dazzling lightness, the newer pieces are done on black and, more infrequently, red paper, which darkens the palette considerably.

While Ortega has mostly worked in various printmaking techniques over the years, recently he's begun to focus on painting. One of the most impressive pieces here is the three-panel mural-sized "La Gente Sentados a Comer por la Noche," a 1999 acrylic on Masonite that dominates Havu's front gallery. "La Gente" depicts an outdoor nighttime party with a row of revelers sitting at a bar, their backs to the viewer. Ortega's colors, even when he uses cream and yellow, are dark and richly saturated. The smaller "Comiendo por la Noche," another acrylic on Masonite, this one from 1998, shows a similar event, with partygoers again seen from the rear.

But the other pieces in this retrospective offer a plethora of sights, from the pageantry of traditional scenes of Mexican cowboys on horseback to their contemporary corollary, Denver Chicanos in Chevy vans. Like the Taos artists, Ortega captures the signs of his times and in the process proves that the unique regional forces in Western art have not only a long and illustrious history, but a vibrant future as well.  

Gustave Baumann Woodblock Prints and Taos Masters From the Harmsen Collection, through March 21 at the Foothills Art Center, 809 15th Street, Golden, 303-279-3922.

Tony Ortega: 15 Year Retrospective, through March 13 at the William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360.


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