Sunday, September 28, 2014

Historic Route 66 and the Old Santa Fe Trail

Hard to believe, born in New York City to German Jewish Parents, I dreamed of becoming a cowboy.  I thought that sleeping out on the range and singing songs by the campfire all night and twirling my six-gun was as romantic as you could get.

Then there were all the Westerns on television and radio, for that matter, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers etc.  In 1960 a TV series called Route 66 commenced and ran until 1964.   One of its stars was a Corvette convertible which was also seductive to a teenager.  Not to mention the song that inspired it, “Get your kicks on Route 66”.  Maybe it is a good thing that we grow up but still it is a notion that I treasure. 

I remember driving on a Route 1 when I was a child and my parents explaining to me that it was also called the Boston Post Road.  As the name implies it was a series of mail routes that eventually hooked up Manhattan to Boston. Its genesis can be traced back to the mid seventeenth century.  Route 66, on the other hand, was first laid out in 1926 and quickly became one of the best-known roads in America.  It reached from Chicago to Los Angeles, a road covering almost 2,500 miles.  Along the way it went through Arizona, Texas and New Mexico becoming closely associated with the West.   Needless to say, it went right through Santa Fe whether by the Old Pecos Trail or the Old Santa Fe Trail is a matter of debate but there is no question that the La Fonda Hotel, one of the original Harvey Hotels, at the end of the Old Santa Fe Trail was a major “watering hole” for those who traveled Route 66.   In 1938 as the Federal Highway system continued to devolve a short cut was found and Santa Fe was bypassed.  Slowly but surely over the next 40 years the Federal Highway System totally took its place.  Many parts of Route 66 have in recent years been designated as “Historic Route 66”.

I haven’t seen it but the Autry Museum in Los Angeles has a current exhibition called, “Route 66: The Road and The Romance”.  It traces the history of the “Mother Road” from its inception to the beginning of its demise from 1956 when the interstate highway system bypassed it.  There seem to be continuous efforts to revive the lore of the road, however,---nostalgia for a long lost age.

The border town of Gallup, New Mexico is on Route 66.  It is the first town you come to if you come south from the Hopi, Navajo and Zuni Reservations.  In Gallup there is a hotel called El Rancho where every famous cowboy and cowgirl on film stayed when they were working on a Western and all their photos are up on the walls.  The rooms are also all named after famous actresses and actors.

Most of Route 66 still boasts the self promotion of its former time with billboards such as “Tucumcari  Tonight - 2,000 Rooms” which must have looked very good when chugging along the old roads in cars of yesteryear.  Just like the Howard Johnson bill board did to me and MacDonald’s to the kids of today.

You may have read some of my missives and know that it took over 50 years until I ended up living even part time and now full time in the Southwest where many of the TV Westerns were and are filmed.   Today, I live not only on the Old Santa Fe Trail, a major commercial and military route from Franklyn, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. pioneered by William Becknell in 1821,  but right here it was part of Route 66 as well!  I still can’t believe that I have reached part of that romantic dream.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Alcove Shows 1917-1927

Two years ago I wrote a Missive called the Alcove Shows where you can see their genesis. That exhibition returned to the New Mexico Museum of Art’s initial use of alcoves to present the work of contemporary local artists.

When the Art Gallery (now the New Mexico Museum of Art) of the  Museum of New Mexico was established by Edgar Lee Hewitt in 1917 he had an open door policy where any artist working in New Mexico could put up a show of his work in one of the alcoves for a month on a first come first served basis.  “The Alcove Shows 1917-1927” is a historical exhibition showing the artists who were around at the time and exhibited in one of the alcoves.

I have one quibble with the exhibition, which I will dispense with at the beginning.  I always go around an exhibition or a fair counter clockwise particularly in a small show.  Unfortunately, for me, this exhibition, although laid out in a roughly chronological order,  was conceived in a clockwise manner with no explanatory label of the show on the outside walls.  Therefore, I only saw it on my way out! Only then did I discover the first alcove devoted to samples of the different  types of art exhibited in the Art Museum in its early years, not just paintings but other ethnographic materials such as Japanese woodblock prints and pre-Colombian art.

Every artist in the original alcove presentations came from elsewhere.  Many had studied in Paris but with the advent of World War I artists were staying at home.  Traveling almost as far, they came to exotic Santa Fe and the wonderful landscapes and ethnic varieties that it offered.  In the first alcove a set of pueblo pots shown near a 1917 painting by Henry C. Balink  (1882-1963) called “Pueblo Pottery”  demonstrates the cross-cultural fertilization that occurred in this part of the world.

Photograph supplied by the New Mexico Museum of Art

Just as you cannot believe Georgia O’Keeffe’s clouds until you have actually seen them in the New Mexico skies, you cannot understand the cloud patterns or the amazing light in the morning and evening skies.  A painting done in 1917 called “Light” by Raymond Jonson (1891-1982) gives a vivid representation.  It is quite different from much of his flat abstract work.

Photograph supplied by the New Mexico Museum of Art

I have quite a number of favorites in the exhibition “The Basket Ceremony” ca. 1922. by Alfonso Roybal (Awa Tsireh) (1895-1955). Roybal was from San Ildefonso Pueblo and this is typical of the kind of painting that Dorothy Dunn would soon be teaching at her Studio School in Santa Fe.  Many of the most famous Native American artists studied with her.

An artist that I mentioned last week is Ernest L. Blumenschein (1874–1960), he was a member of the Taos Society of Artists.   At the beginning of the 20th century it was a major trip between Taos and Santa Fe but like today, exhibition space was paramount  for an artist if he wanted his work known so he came to exhibit in the Alcoves.  This is his “Dance at Taos” from 1923.

Photograph supplied by the New Mexico Museum of Art

Another favorite is “Ancestral Spritis (The Koshare)” of 1919 by John Sloan (1871-1951).  Here is another case where an artist known for a totally different kind of painting has adopted not only Indian subject matter but also an interpretation that seems directly taken from the Indian dances.  We are at the center of Native American, Hispanic and Anglo culture in New Mexico it is fascinating to see the influences that each had on the other.  In contrast look at Sloan’s “Music in the Plaza” of 1920.

Photograph supplied by the New Mexico Museum of Art

Photograph supplied by the New Mexico Museum of Art

One of the facts that surprised me is that between 25 and 50% of the artists who participated in the Alcove shows were women. 

I “discovered” the photographer Laura Gilpin (1891-1979) back east at New York museum exhibitions and galleries like the Witkin Gallery.  I am not sure I even knew where Santa Fe was at the time.  She was born in Colorado, educated at Eastern boarding schools, studied photography in New York, went back to the west, ended up in the Santa Fe art scene. The other evening I sat next to a woman at dinner who told me that Laura Gilpin had taken her baby pictures and photos of both her and her husband when they were children.  Clearly Ms. Gilpin, a small thick set woman with her ever present camera  and tripod had to make a living on more than the art photos that are so highly prized today.   Here is an image she took in San Ildefonso in 1927.

There are 61 works on view representing 24 artists so there is plenty more to see and discuss if you want to learn more about the art of the Southwest.   The exhibition was masterfully guest curated by Malin Wilson-Powell and the will remain on view until February 23, 2015.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Weekend in Taos at the Couse-Sharp Historic Site

Taos, New Mexico is famous as a ski resort but it is also part the state’s history since it is where the famous tracker, Kit Carson lived, and it has been an artists’ colony since the early 20th century .  E. Irving Couse (1866-1936) was a founding member and the first president of the Taos Society of Artists.   They included Ernest Blumenshein, Victor Higgens, Joseph H. Sharp and E. Martin Hennings among others.  The Taos Society  lasted from 1915 to 1927.  Couse’s home and studio and Sharp’s adjacent studio are located on Kit Carson Road.  The Couse Foundation was established in 2001 and the Couse-Sharp Historic Site was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

"The Couse House" by Couse

We visited on a recent weekend because our old friend, May Brawley Hill, was on her way there to lecture and stopped by to visit us in Santa Fe.  It is a beautiful drive up to Taos.   The Foundation arranged for us to stay at a lovely Bed & Breakfast, The Casa Benavides, right opposite the Couse Foundation.   That day there was an open house and it was also a book signing opportunity for May for her book, Grandmother's Garden: The Old-Fashioned American Garden 1865-1915.

That evening Virginia Couse Leavitt, the artist’s surviving granddaughter, and her husband, Ernie Leavitt, hosted a cocktail and dinner for May.   Virginia made a fabulous home cooked meal and we ate in the dining room in which Irving Couse and his family must have eaten in the early 20th century.

After spending a decade studying painting in Paris as so many of his generation had, Couse moved back to the states and in 1909 came to Taos and built his home there.   When his wife, Virginia, whom he had met abroad, died, their son, Kibbey, came home to take care of him and live there with his family.  The house has stayed in the family for three  generations.  Couse’s granddaughters, Elizabeth and Virginia, with the help of the community, have restored the estate beautifully including the famous garden created by their grandmother. This was known in Taos as “The Mother Garden” since it was the first Anglo garden to be established there.  (2 Image of the garden through the trees (photo credit: Penelope Hunter-Stiebel) Video cropped at the beginning and end)

Photo credit: Penelope Hunter-Stiebel


Kibbey turned the garage into a machine shop  where he worked on an automatic car transmission in the 1920's which never made it into production.  He did, however, create a mobile machine shop which was widely used since it could driven to fix equipment where it  broke down. It was part of our arsenal during World War II to fix tanks and other equipment without moving them. Large scale production could not be done in his converted garage so he opened a factory in Newark, New Jersey.

Kibbey’s Machine Shop in the Garage

The painter, Joseph H. Sharp had bought the Luna Chapel right behind the Couse house and turned it into a studio which he eventually grew out of and built a bigger one.  After he died in 1953 the Couses acquired that property as well.  Since the Taos Artists often used the Indians as models, at the moment there is a small exhibition of Indian artifacts there.

Couse’s studio in the main house has been preserved intact. There is a painting in process on the easel beside the platform where the artist posed his models, and also many of the objects that he used as props in the paintings that hang on the walls in originals and reproductions.

 This is just one of the early Taos painters’ houses that are open to the public and give a vivid picture of their time.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

What Should I Collect ?

What should I collect? How do I know what is good?  What is the right price?  All these questions come to art professionals on a regular basis.

The first question cannot be answered by anyone aside from your self.  If the question is asked from an investment point of view no honest art person will answer because they do not know.  I have collected in some areas that have gone down in value, while one has risen dramatically, and  that was photography. Even there I will have to sell at the right time if I wish to profit from it, which is never my goal, though one can be seduced by the concept.

I thought by way of example of what goes through our heads from the professional and collector’s point of view. I will take some concrete examples and explain why we bought the art.  Since it is our most recent collection this will be about Native American Art, though the concepts apply to all areas of art.  We went to a silent auction to benefit the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe.  People crowd in and have a half hour to decide what they like and can bid until the director says stop and the top bid written on a sheet “wins”.  The guide to the pricing is usually done on the basis of the valuation given the piece upon donation.  Since these are often from dealers they have the sales price as a guide.

A couple of years ago we took my son-in-law to Indian Market and on my wife’s recommendation he bought a ceramic jar by a Navajo Artist, Alice Cling.  I loved it because of its smooth texture mottled deep brown color and delicate curves.  Still in our family it is my wife who is in charge of ceramics and her interest are in the Hopi pieces.  Now, however, at this silent auction was a Cling jar that I found equally attractive to the one I saw when my son-in-law bought it.  The starting bid was $300 and Buy Now Price (if you paid immediately it would be taken out of the auction and it was yours) was $650.  I soon learned why upon turning the jar over I saw a price tag that said $570.  So the Buy Now price was 10+% more.  I thought, not much to lose if I put down a minimum bid of $300.  Then, of course, I worried, if someone put their number on the next increment, would I put in another bid?  I kept changing my mind on that.  On the other hand there was a Katsina doll I left a minimum bid on and never looked back.  I knew I did not want to compete for it.  I had decided, however, that I would not chase the Cling to the full price.  To my total astonishment no one else bid and I got it for the minimum.  I have examined the piece several times and I can find no defect in the pot.  I guess, that for whatever reason, no one who was interested in Navajo ceramics was there that day.

That was the end of my bargain hunting for this season.  At one of the fairs we went to this summer a dealer who we had bought from in the past, Philip Garaway from California.  He had a Katsina doll with a surprise underneath its breechcloth.  Traditionally at Hopi these dolls are given to little girls to teach about the tribe’s religion and familiarize them with the hundreds of different Katsinim.  Though several tribes have made dolls the Hopi are probably best known for theirs, partly because they have made them for trade as well.  This has allowed, though not with universal approval, the doll makers some latitude, in that not all the dolls are representative of the Katsinim.   There was a tendency starting around mid 20th century to make the traditionally stylized dolls more anatomically correct action figures to appeal to the Anglo market.  As you can imagine, though this concept reached a high in the 1970’s and 80’s few were carved with such details and they were not widely distributed since there would be a limited market.  I remember that we saw one being carved on the reservation in the 90’s with a big fuss being made about showing it to us.  Like Philip Garaway’s doll, it was a Kokopelli, the fertility Katsina.  What added to the seduction for me was that Garaway had bought it back from a vice-president of Hearst publishing whom he had sold it to years before.  You may be surprised to hear that it was my wife who picked it out but then she looks for the unusual object not necessarily the sensual one.  No reason we can’t each have a different reason to acquire an object.

One of the most gratifying things one can do is upgrade.  There are different kinds of opportunities but availability is obviously the most important.  Sometimes, it is also what you can afford at the time.  Teri Greeves, as I have said in various places before, is a superb bead worker and my wife bought a simple bracelet from her at Indian Market years ago.  It was a modest bracelet for a modest sum and one could see a number of others around town.  We have followed Teri’s work, seen life size beading on canvas with images of people without faces making them even more powerful, and seen her bracelets become more and more elaborate.  So here at Indian Market, as I mentioned last week, was an opportunity to spend many times as much as on the first bracelet but get not just a much larger bracelet but a tour de force, a real work of art.  It is made with seed pearls and 24 karat gold beads imported from the Czech Republic where Teri believes that the best beads are made, definitely an upgrade!

Over more than two decades of collecting we have sought to build a good representation of every aspect of Hopi art, so today our acquisitions in this area are more selective.  We are now starting to branch out to acquire outstanding works from Native artists of other tribes.