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.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia