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Why Do Great Artists Move to New Mexico?
A closer look 15 Jul 2022

Why Do Great Artists Move to New Mexico?

It was on a chance visit that a young Georgia O’Keeffe found herself in New Mexico. After her train made an unexpected detour the famous New Mexico artist arrived in Sante Fe in 1917. Whilst we cannot thank this serendipitous event for the birth of New Mexico’s rich artistic heritage in its entirety, it did lead to the artist’s lifelong musing over the geographic landscape for which we can partly thank the New Mexico 20th century art movement. In this article, Artsper seeks to gain insight into the draw of New Mexico holds over artists. In doing so, we shall examine wherein lies this location’s rich artistic heritage. We’ll give you a clue, it comes from way before O’Keeffe got there! Let’s dive in!

Georgia O'Keefe in her artistic practise
Georgia O’Keeffe in her artistic practice © The Telegraph

Why New Mexico?

Perhaps the most famous of the assembly of artists who have set up their easel in New Mexico’s arid desert is O’Keeffe. It was in this detour in O’Keeffe’s travels following her first solo show in New York, that she would discover the inspiration for her life’s work. The vast mercurial skies and incandescent light of New Mexico may give us our first inkling as to why the region has captivated artists over the years. “I’m here in New Mexico and I’m going somewhere, I don’t know exactly where, but it’s awesome. I’ve never seen anything like this before,” O’Keeffe exclaimed in a letter to her husband Alfred Stieglitz.

It is not an unfamiliar narrative to hear of an artist escaping the city, nor to hear of them retreating to the countryside in search of artistic rejuvenation. Here, in the wilderness of New Mexico O’Keeffe found an eternal source of inspiration. Moreover, O’Keeffe was by no means alone in her discovery of the state. In fact, a multitude of other artists of the 19th and 20th centuries including Henriette Wyeth, Peter Hurd, R.C. Gorman, Paul Burlin, Wilson Hurley, Sonny Rivera, Glenna Goodacre, Allan Houser, Luis Jimenez, Judy Chicago, Agnes Martin, Ken Price and Bruce Nauman were all also been lured to the solitude and sweeping landscapes of this state, finding in it a source of refuge and artistic rebirth.

A New Mexican landscape showcasing the barren terrain
A New Mexican landscape showcasing the barren terrain © Wikipedia

Inspiration drawn from the ground up

Geographically, New Mexico is a state located in the southwestern United States. The state borders Texas to the east and southeast, Oklahoma to the northeast and the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora to the south. Its climate and geography are highly varied, ranging from forested mountains to sparse deserts. It is the vast southern region made up of a warmer and more arid Chihuahuan Desert to which many artists like O’Keeffe have been drawn. It is of course ironic that in a parched, infertile, lifeless landscape are artists able to find the fertile foundations of their artistic expression.

famous New Mexico Ghost Ranch, Georgia O'Keefe's home
Ghost Ranch, Georgia O’Keeffe’s home © Architectural Digest

A rich ethnic history embedded in the landscape

Beyond the obvious enticement of the natural beauty of the region, another reason exists for artists flocking to New Mexico. This can be found in the existence of its indigenous cultures so different from the artists’ own. In the 19th century, came the first bought of migrating artists. Many of whom chose a classical painting tradition that tended to romanticize the native life to which they were exposed.

New Mexico’s ethnic and cultural heritage can only be described as rich. In prehistoric times, New Mexico was home to the Ancestral Puebloans, the Mogollons, and the modern Comanches and Utes. A very creative people, the Mogollons are known for their signature brownware ceramics. These examples of highly decorated pottery feature ancient symbolism.

Recognition of the Indigenous peoples of New Mexico

Further along the timeline in New Mexico’s patchworked ethnic history came the Navajo and Apache peoples in the 15th century. Sadly these people’s artistic heritage remains largely undiscovered due to the post-colonial legacy. Still today, is there often a tendency to overlook the artistic heritage of the indigenous New Mexicans and their descendants in favor of the big names of famous New Mexico Modernism. Such is the case of artist R.C. Gorman. A native-American, Navajo artist, R.C. Gorman created drawings and paintings that idealized robed Navajo women of his own ethnic origins.

A portrait of women from the Navajo people
A portrait of women from the Navajo indigenous people © Ms. Magazine

The Spanish influence

In the course of a turbulent history, the indigenous peoples were colonized first by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. The settlers named the territory Nuevo México after the Aztec Valley of Mexico. After Spain gave up its control, the region became an autonomous region of Mexico in 1821.

Through unstable domestic policy culminating in the Mexican Revolt of 1837, the region became increasingly dependent on the United States. This big power annexed the territory in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War. With the Puebloans, Mogollons, Navajo and Apache peoples, as well as the Spanish explorers and the influx of Modernist painters of the 20th century, this confluence of influences can only be described as an artistic and cultural melting pot.

Example of traditional Navajo ceramics
Example of traditional Navajo ceramics © Navajopeople.org

Route 66: A route to artistic freedom

The mass immigration of people to this region is in part thanks to its vast transportation network. El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the country’s oldest highway, played the crucial role of transporting European colonists from Mexico to New Spain along a 1,200 mile trade route. Many of New Mexicans today are descendants of these early settlers composed of gold seekers, adventurers, fur trappers, and emigrants in search of prosperity. Another reason for the ease of migration came in the form of the commission of Route 66 in 1926. Since then, the road has become synonymous with an artistic cult following known for its famous New Mexico, hippy philosophy.

famous New Mexico Route 66
Route 66 © Wikipedia

These roads symbolize the migration of people, and with them, of ideas. As artists flocked to the region, they brought with them artistic influences from the West and beyond. They did so whilst also soaking up the artistic inspiration that famous New Mexico landscape and indigenous artistic history would provide in return.

New Mexico: A mecca for artists since the early 20th century

Georgia O'Keefe, Black Mesa Landscape, 1930, Alcalde, New Mexico, USA
Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Mesa Landscape, 1930, Alcalde, New Mexico, USA © Wikipedia

She was nicknamed the mother of American Modernism and patron saint of Southwestern sunsets. If a single name represents fine art in New Mexico in the 20th century, it would be Georgia O’Keeffe. As previously discussed, O’Keeffe fell in love 20 years prior to permanently moving to Abiquiú in 1949. Gigantic flowers, bleached animal skulls and vast landscapes filled her canvases as she took up residency in the summer months at the Ghost Ranch, ​​Abiquiu. O’Keeffe’s other beloved New Mexico locations included Black Place, near Chaco Canyon, which she reinterpreted by grinding that area’s black earth into pigment that she implemented directly onto her canvas. Demonstrating the diversity of the New Mexican landscape in her work, O’Keeffe also favored the White Place, or Plaza Blanca as subject matter of her art. O’Keeffe adored painting the sweeping drama of White’s Place’s sandstone cliffs. 

Yet, she was not the only one…

In good company: An artist collective

Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Project, New Mexico artistic affinity blossomed in the years following the Great Depression. The WPA Federal Art Project was a New Deal program intent on the provision of funding the visual arts in the United States. It is thanks to this state-funded project investing in the artistic realm of New Mexico that local artists like Patrocinio Barela were able to keep their careers. A sculptor, his participation in the WPA led to a successful career with his work even being exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art.

An important figure of the early Modernist art movement was Santa Fe resident Paul Burlin. “He was for many years the point man for modernist ideas in New Mexico,” says Andrew Connors, curator of art at the Albuquerque Museum. His work was presented in the Armory Show of Modern Art in New York in 1913. From the mid-20th century, many other modernist artists found inspiration in New Mexico. Among them was Raymond Jonson, co-founder of the Transcendental Painting Group in Albuquerque. He became a professor of Modernist art at the University of New Mexico.

A famous New Mexico artist retreat

Therefore, to ponder the question of, “why do great artists flock come to New Mexico?” The answer remains simple. Escapism. The rugged geology, mass stretches of uninhabited land and pristine skies provide the ultimate artist’s escape. Free from the distractions of urban monotony, such a landscape can only inspire. In fact, the cultural legacy in New Mexico continues to this day. Many artistic retreats welcoming new artists to the area every year. The New Mexico Museum of Art of Santa Fe and the Dallas Museum of Art continue the indigenous and American Modernist legacy. Holding ambitious collections of significant artworks relevant to New Mexico’s communities and beyond, New Mexico deserves a spot on the international art scene. Or perhaps O’Keeffe wanted to keep her idle a secret!

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