Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ted’s Totem Pole Finds a Home at the Coe Foundation

A large totem pole is a rare sight in Santa Fe yet one 14 ½ feet tall has just been installed at the Ralph T. Coe Foundation.  I have written before about the Foundation and Ted Coe (1929-2010), its founder.  Aside from being a great scholar in several different fields he was also a voracious collector.  His main personal interest was in tribal art and in particular that of the Native Americans.  In his early days of collecting as a young man he could collect in this field with very little money earned in scholarly or advisory roles.  Early on he was able to buy well and make discoveries where others may have missed an opportunity. 

Ted’s parents were great collectors of art as well including tribal arts and Impressionists that they had bought at the beginning of the last century.  Unfortunately, through the vicissitudes of the Depression and later on age and health issues many of these paintings had to be sold.  Ted, however, was able to preserve a few pieces and in particular a great painting by Claude Monet of “Monet’s Garden at Giverny”.  As he got older and published and advised less he began to sell shares in the latter and eventually sold the picture at auction.  This gave him more serious funds near the end of his life and he was able to buy works of art that had become more expensive and that he could not afford before.

The totem pole known as a Hams’pek Pole, was carved by Calvin Hunt of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe (Kwakiutl) in British Columbia.  On a visit to Portland, Oregon in 2007, Ted saw the pole lying on the floor of the Quintana Gallery.  According to Cecily Quintana, the gallery had to cut through a beam in order to set it upright in their space, but Ted had decided on the spot that he had to have it.   By January of 2008 it was fully paid for.  It took a while to ship the pole and decide when and how it would be possible to put it up in his small back yard.  He wanted to make sure that there would be a proper welcoming ceremony that he could invite his friends and family to.  Here is an image of the artist with Ted.

Photo Credit: Antonio Ferretti

At the end of August 2008 Calvin Hunt, the carver came with his wife Marie and other members of his family to raise the pole and do a Pole Blessing.  When the pole was erected it stood almost as high as Ted’s house and way over the adjoining fence.  Friends and family had been invited, including his sister and brother-in-law, Nancy and Bill Wixom, from New York.  Penelope and I were lucky enough to be included.  The artist and his family, a troupe called the Copper Maker Dances said the blessing and did a ceremonial dance where others including Ted joined in.

Photo Credit: Antonio Ferretti

The Hams’pek pole plays a role in the initiation to the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe’s most secret society of the Hamatsa.   An initiate is usually the oldest son in an important family.  When the dances are over there is much feasting and many gifts are given so the family must also be well to do.  The Hamatsa is a Cannibal ritual based on legends of bird monsters that ate human flesh.  There are 4 dance cycles of 3 years each and with each cycle the initiate rises in cultural stature.  At the end the initiate is taken to a forest where he is taught the secrets of the society and when he returns there are four  days of feasting and gift giving.  The entire ceremony is far more complicated and here is a link to one of the better descriptions: CLICK HERE.

After Ted died, his niece, Rachel Wixom, came to Santa Fe as President of his Foundation. She wanted to put the pole in an appropriate place and since the Foundation had no permanent home at the time she gave it on loan to the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) where so many Native artists have studied.  There it stood on the plaza with a great Santa Fe Landscape behind it for almost three years.  At the welcoming ceremony a student now, graduated, Crystal Worl of the Tlingit Nation in Alaska did the blessing.

Unfortunately, the weather got the better of the pole and when a conservator for the Smithsonian and the Santa Fe State Museums, Landis Smith, recommended it be taken away from the elements Rachel had just the place for it in the new home of the Foundation at 1590 B Pacheco Street. 

Before this could be done, however, there was a small farewell ceremony at IAIA. Steve Fadden of the Mohawk tribe said a few words and sang, with board members from the Coe and Native students in attendance as well as the director of the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Patsy Phillips and the President of IAIA, Robert Martin.   

After transport to the Coe Foundation building the pole was literally laid to rest with blankets around it just inside the loading dock for about 4 months to give it as slow as possible chance to acclimatize to its new home.

Then a couple of weeks ago it was resurrected on a newly constructed base in the center of the Coe’s exhibition space.

Last week a ceremony was held at the Foundation with about 30 in attendance to welcome the Pole Rachel Wixom did welcomed everyone and Alvin Sandoval, from the Navajo Nation (Diné), who works at IAIA explained what the pole was about and gave a short blessing.  From the few English words that he used and I could understand he included the foundation and its staff in his blessing.


All these ceremonies were deeply moving and personal in different ways.  I think that the fact that Native Peoples from different Indian Nations have added their blessings give the Hams’pek Pole an additional aura fitting for the Foundation as a nexus, a study center and a place for those interested in tribal art to meet.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Mateo Romero

Our first acquisition of a painting by the artist Mateo Romero (b.1966) marked a significant change in our collecting of Native American art.  We had been totally focused on works by the Hopi until we “discovered” this artist from Cochiti and Pojoaque Pueblos and fell in love with his work. He has since become one of a very few artists that we have collected in some depth. 

We met Mateo in 2002 when he was just finishing up on a Dubin Fellowship at what was then called The School of American Research, today, The School of Advanced Research.  The fellowship offers a two-month residency program where the artist can develop his work on the School’s campus in Santa Fe.

At the end the artist gives a brief talk about what his aims and accomplishments are.  The audience is invited to the studio where he or she has been working and many of the works of art are for sale.  That is when we bought our first Mateo.  It is called “Pot Hunters” referring to archeologists and collectors who have illicitly taken ceramic objects found buried on Indian land and grave sites for their personal collections or that of their institutions.  The painting also includes many of the other subjects of interest and concern to the Indians. On the right you can see men working at Los Alamos Laboratory suited up for their hazardous work on nuclear energy polluting the land.  Lower left though very difficult to see in the photo are a number of Pac-man like heads with feathers mocking the logo of the Cleveland Indians baseball team.  In the center is a portrait of Mateo in a Buffalo dance.

Mateo’s father, Santiago Holly Romero, was from Cochiti Pueblo and studied with Dororthy Dunn at the Indian School in Santa Fe.  He met Mateo’s mother, Corneria, when he was recovering at a Naval hospital in Oakland California from wounds suffered in Korea.   Corneria was studying anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.  Mateo grew up in Berkeley, California and went to  Dartmouth College where he graduated cum laude and then went on for an MFA at the University of New Mexico.  His partner for the last 20 years is Melissa Talachy from Pojoaque pueblo where they live today with their 3 children.  She worked at the Poeh Museum on the pueblo and is currently working in the tribal government offices where her brother is Governor of the Pueblo.

Melissa is a noted ceramicist in her own right but to my knowledge has only collaborated with her husband on one piece and that was a vase of micaceous clay on which Mateo has used a photo transfer process to impose images of a number of native dancers.  The piece was in a vitrine at a special exhibition at the Poeh Museum in Pojoaque.  From our knowledge it was a unique effort and there might never be another opportunity to acquire such a collaboration, we asked the price and bought it then and there.

Mateo’s nephew came back from Iraq suffering from all the stresses that many other soldiers do and stayed with his uncle and Melissa for a while trying to decompress.   He brought with him an album of photos of his exploits that became the genesis of a body of work for Mateo.  He presented it in an exhibition called “War Paint”, 2007, for which he was a co-curators. The show was an incredible expression of artists against war spanning work from Vietnam to Iraq.   Before it opened Mateo showed us the work in his studio.  I remember an upside down Pieta, which was far too big for our house.  There was, however, a medium sized painting of a soldier with his rifle standing over five body bags.  We knew the subject because we had seen the original graphic photo but here the bags were somewhat impressionistic.  It was rather upsetting particularly when Mateo added that his nephew had 5 definite enemy kills, 5 possible and 5 kills from “friendly fire”.  Here is the painting in Mateo’s studio.

Though my wife appreciated the poignancy of the painting she was very worried about living with it and asked where I planned to place it.  I said I would store it if I had to, but it was important and needed to be preserved.  I must have been prescient in this case.  These paintings were a total break with Mateo’s usual pueblo themes.   A museum that was a big backer of Mateo’s work and a curator that had been encouraging him to push the envelope felt that they could not acquire such anti-war images when the war was still going on.  It was a sad commentary on the courage of our public institutions and unfortunately no surprise.  Mateo became so discouraged that he painted over his “War Paint” canvases.   Sadly ours is the only souvenir of that moment in his oeuvre and it hangs in my office.

As you know or can tell from this Missive I like the unusual and probably the most unusual Mateo we have acquired is a pair of Toms shoes.  In case you are not acquainted with Toms they fall between a moccasin and a sneaker.  A number of Indian artists were asked to paint these shoes for a benefit auction event at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.  All the other artists painted on top of the shoes as if people would buy them to wear.  Mateo painted the soles with images of deer dancers.  As soon as I saw them I knew I had to have them and as a result caught auction fever and behaved truly stupidly.  As I put my first bid down on the silent auction sheet someone came over and stood over my shoulder and every time I put a bid down he took the sheet and raised the ante.  I was furious at this unsportsmanlike behavior and said, “I am going to buy those.”  Finally the other man stopped and I got them.  As any poker player knows, you don’t show your hand!  Later I found out he was the Anglo president of the board of the museum and he was just making more money for the benefit.  I can promise you, however, I would be much more upset today had I walked away and not gotten them!

I will end this missive with what we consider his best painting in our collection in terms of painterly mastery.  It started out when Mateo asked us to do him a favor and he asked could he give us a painting as a thank you.  We told him that I had seen a very small picture once in a gallery of his daughter and that we would love it if he would make us a similar portrait of his partner Melissa, a subject we had not seen before.  When Mateo came with the painting it was about 6 times the size that we expected and was a total masterpiece.  It shows Melissa with a mesa in the background.  When I asked him to identify it, Mateo call the mesa “Tunyo” in the Tewa language.  “Kind of like if Black Mesa and Pedernal south of Abiquiu had a baby together (The Pedernal is the mesa that Georgia O’Keeffe said was god’s personal gift to her and she painted it often!)

Mateo recently asked if I would consider opening a gallery and handling his work as well as other very talented members of the Romero family.  It was certainly one of the greatest compliments an artist could possibly pay me.  I am afraid, however, I am not prepared to start another gallery but I certainly want to support his efforts to go as far as he can go.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

America Meredith and “First American Art”

The Inaugural issue of the new quarterly publication “First American Art” appeared in the spring of 2013.  It took a few issues before I became aware of it.  I was surprised at what a polished publication it was both from the point of view of image and content.   When you open it you do not get lost, articles are not split up but are kept neatly together.  In every issue there are several articles that focus on individual Indigenous artists in all media and a lot more.  The paper quality is thick and glossy, the print is large and clear and the photography is excellent.   America Meredith who is both publisher and editor has written, “We hope First American Art Magazine provides primary research from which to draw”.  I believe she has begun to do that and in a few years one will have a resource for an encyclopedia of Native artists.  It will become a necessary resource for any library.
I became curious as to why does someone decide that they want to start a magazine.  What is the goal?  I met with, America Meredith, a member of the Cherokee Nation, on her visit to the Ralph T. Coe Foundation.  I immediately saw this very intelligent person with an extremely high level of energy. Her questions and ideas came out on top of each other as if she would explode in a hundred different directions.  It was, frankly, sometimes difficult to keep up!

I did have one planned question and I asked America how she got her first name.  I was surprised to learn that she was named after her great-great-great, grandmother, Mary America Schrimpsher Rogers, Will Roger’s mother.  I had forgotten that the famous actor (1879-1935) known as Oklahoma’s favorite son and whose famous quote is so oft repeated, “I never met a man I dident [sic] like", was Cherokee.

Both America’s grandmothers were Swedish and both grandfathers were Cherokee.  Her parents are also both from the Cherokee Nation.  Her mother is a museum director and curator and her father is an author and professor.  She grew up in Oklahoma and is the 6th generation of Oklahoma Cherokee.  Her ancestors arrived in the early part of the 19th century before the “Trail of Tears”, the deportation of tribes from the Southeast to designated Indian territory in the West, following the law of 1830.

America received her BFA in painting from the University of Oklahoma and her MFA in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute but the first college she attended was the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe where so many well known American Indian artists have gone.  She is an award winning artist and between 2008 and 2010 taught Native American Art History at IAIA.  This is the image that she posted in her inaugural issue.  It is a gouache she painted called, “Bringing Harmony into the World” and as you can see from the tools in the image she is using the arts to accomplish this.

America became absolutely passionate about her desire to educate but she wanted more.  She wanted to communicate between the many art worlds in all Native American communities throughout the Americas.  She realized that in order to reach so many constituencies she would need to write.

A magazine seemed to be the best vehicle with which to cast the widest net.  To get started she raised funds using the Kickstarter program, an internet funding platform.   When that was not enough she added her own funds and borrowed money from her family.

Her magazine covers Native Arts throughout the Americas, which includes Canada, the United States and South America.  Her interest is art, something for which there is no word in the Native American languages.  Why? Because it is integral in their culture.  An Indian child learns how to draw, paint, weave, bead etc. from the time they are tiny tots.  I am guessing it is to some extent like learning to play games, its just part of life.  Her magazine is not about ethnography or history in their own right but only how they pertain to art.  This is an image of one of her magazine’s covers with partial contents.

While Anglos have written about Indian art for some time, Native young people have only recently begun to study their own art history.  These are the voices, which America feels are missing today and wants for her magazine.

Hers is a niche publication among the few magazines devoted to Native American culture, some of which are focused on a specific region.  It currently has a print run of 5,000 which she intends to expand.  She is presenting her publication at as many Indian art shows and markets as possible.  She even went so far afield as to  go to the College Art Association whose annual meeting was in New York this year.  She said she was particularly well received there by other minority constituencies like the feminist contingent and the Black American Art Caucus.

In her first issue America wrote, “There are thousands of Indigenous tribes, nations and villages in the Americas, who speak thousands of different languages” and these are the people she believes she can unite through the language of art under the umbrella of her publication.  It may a bit of a Utopian idea but the concept fills a vacuum that can only have a positive influence on the field.  Take a look at the website and subscribe.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

David Bradley's Indian Country

The exhibition “Indian Country: The Art of David Bradley” at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture focuses on a Minnesota Chippewa artist who grew up in the Anglo world. David Bradley (1954-) writes that before coming to Santa Fe 37 years ago to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts, “I was like a tumbleweed blowing in the wind.  But New Mexico had such an immediate impact on me I knew that I would live the rest of my life here.”   I liked his comment on his work, “Each viewer brings something of their own life experiences to it, and their interpretations are often as valid as mine”.  Not all artists feel that way.  Some want you to understand the art in the context that they believe is “correct”.  Both are valid but we cannot help but bring our own experience and interpretation to a work of art. 

Bradley’s work is certainly social commentary on this part of the world.  Santa Fe has become very “Anglofied” by all the tourists and summer residents changing the Spanish town in Indian country. These constituencies feel that in many ways it was better before we came.  Yet, assimilation is inevitable and the Anglos have brought some things that everyone  can appreciate.  Bradley’s work is researched and he records in his inimitable style Society, Social Movements and Culture.  His work shows his sense of humor in the incongruous groups he forms including locals, celebrities, many of whom visit or live here, as well as those deceased and fictional characters.

I have many favorite pictures in this exhibition and many others that are included in the catalog by Valerie K. Verzuh, curator at the museum and friend of the artist.  Unfortunately, there has been a clearly conscious decision in most cases not to identify characters in the paintings which I am sure is often because there are too many figures to identify and also to protect the guilty!

Let us start, however, with the Mona Lisa or rather “Pow Wow Princess, Southwest”, 2009.  It was purchased by the Museun of Indian Arts & Culture.  Bradley has done a series of these including one of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe as the Mona Lisa.  In this case, the sitter is also identified by her Miss Indian Universe sash which is, of course, not only a commentary on the enigmatic Mona Lisa but also on the Miss Universe Contest.  I am sure someone in the area will know who this young lady is.  One can see on the rampart a dollar bill which might well refer to how much money is spent on art these days especially in a town that bills itself as the 3rd largest art market in the U.S.  Then another interpretation might be that Miss Universe usually ends up promoting products once she has the title.  Note the sitter’s watch which has the figure of a dying Indian on horseback slouched over as in James Earle Fraser’s sculpture called, End of the Trail.   Santa Fe is the end of the Old Santa Fe Trail and the city’s name is displayed on a hilltop in the background.  Her smart phone says “Hollywood Agent” with a phone number, a commentary on many aspects of Santa Fe not only do actors live here also many movies have been made in this town.  As you read this Tina Fey is filming “Taliban Shuffle” here, characterized as “Drama, Comedy, Biography” it is based on the memoirs of an American journalist in Afghanistan which apparently has a similar landscape to New Mexico.

 Bradley has done a series of dollar bills a hand colored lithograph that we own is called, “Santa Fe Indian Market Dollar”.  It is about the money spent at Indian Market in Santa Fe over a single weekend.

The painting “El Farol, Canyon Road Cantina”, 2000, is a gift from James and Margie Krebs to the New Mexico Museum of Art, 2004.2.7  It shows a restaurant a short distance from our home where we go every once in a while to have tapas and sangria.   There are many art galleries on the street so El Farol is a famous watering hole for the community with music in the bar area.  Here you see Bradley playing sax on stage with some of his friends.  Bill and Hillary Clinton have stopped by and are sitting at the “Reserved” table.  Georgia O’Keeffe is at the far left and Van Gogh is passed out at the bar!  Something for everyone!

Photo credit: Blair Clark
I have always loved the Lone Ranger and Tonto.  I am old enough to have listened to the show on the radio and later watched it on television.  This picture is titled, “End of the Trail: Tonto and the Lone Ranger Revisited”, 2008.  It has been loaned by Jan Musial from Flagstaff, Arizona.  At first I thought the Lone Ranger in Bradley’s 2008 painting was suffering from allergies which is a common problem out here but this picture actually is placed in Los Angeles.  You can tell by the Hollywood Sign upper right and the Grim Reaper coming out of the pollution from the smoke stacks above.  Tonto is pointing an accusatory finger at the Lone Ranger who is crying asking for forgiveness for what the Anglos have done to Indian land.

The largest picture in the show is called, “Santa Fe Indian Market” 2002 lent by the University of Wyoming Art Museum, Laramie.  There is so much in this panorama I wish I could identify more.  On the right a woman potter poses for a TV cameraman while her Anglo husband sells to a line of clients each, holding cash at the ready to buy something that might remain from what the prize-winning celebrity brought to the market. While couples fight over their acquisitions another potter, who unlike her neighbor has no prize ribbons, sits alone and dejected. In the window at the center we see a Mona Lisa type and to her right is Georgia O’Keefe staring or glaring at her. All the way on the left are the Lone Ranger and Tonto and to their right is a Koshare, an Indian clown who lends comic relief to the dances , on his a skate board carrying a stereotypical watermelon.  Behind them are the Natives’ booths erected in front of the shops around the Plaza and, of course in the foreground you see the ubiquitous tourist photographer.

The one sad note about this show is that, as acknowledged in the catalog, David Bradley has been diagnosed with ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, better  known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which is considered terminal.  His expressed concern is, however, the work that he still wishes to complete in this life time.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

El Greco in New York

Another exhibition that I saw in it’s last days at the Metropolitan Museum and Frick Collection was “El Greco in New York”.  It was a show that opened near the end of 2014 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of El Greco’s death.  There have been tributes to El Greco also at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and at the Prado in Madrid with the largest one in Toledo, Spain.

The reason I can write about this show guilt free is that you can re-enact it for yourselves by visiting the three museums, all within New York City.  The exhibition was split between two venues. The larger event was at the Metropolitan Museum where they showed 16 paintings by El Greco and the remaining 3 were at the Frick Collection. 

The reason why they were not all together is that the original gift by Henry Clay Frick (1814-1919) stipulated that no work in his collection could leave the building.  The result is that anything acquired before his death cannot be loaned.  Frick was a great fan of El Greco and had acquired 3 paintings by the artist.  The fact that the artist had been forgotten and not resurrected as an important artist until the late 19th century gave collectors like Frick and Havermeyer  a chance to buy the best.  At the Met there were 10 from its own collections and the remaining 6 came from the Hispanic Society of America.  This wonderful gem of a museum that most people miss since it is at 613 West 155th Street way above Columbia University.  There one can study treasures of Spanish art in relative peace and quiet if you compare it to the Metropolitan!  As it was put in The Guardian, “The important but unloved Hispanic Society of America, stranded in a Beaux-Arts penitentiary way uptown, gets about 20,000 visitors a year (the Met gets 300 times that).”  Now that the exhibition is over you have an excuse to visit the Hispanic Society to see  El Greco in a more authentic, i.e. Spanish, environment.

El Greco, whose given name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos, was born in 1541 in Crete, which was at the time, part of the Republic of Venice.   In 1567, already an accomplished artist he moved to Venice and from there he went to Rome in 1570 where all serious artists of the time were drawn.  It was, and some would argue still is, the Mecca of European art world.  Then in 1577 he moved to Toledo, Spain where he was known simply as The Greek and where he made his reputation and and worked until his death in 1614. 

My first interaction with El Greco, I know, was before the age of 10, because at that age I was finally allowed to enter the Frick Collection and discovered Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert”.  But first, I had been mesmerized at the Metropolitan Museum by El Greco’s “View of Toledo”.  There was this road that led into a fantastical city.  I think that today the kids could believe that Zombies live there.  It is green like the Emerald City but in my mind still belongs to the Wicked Witch of the West waiting for Dorothy’s arrival.  The painting was given to the Metropolitan as a bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929.

El Greco in the 20th century has been considered totally in tune with contemporary artists.  He took mannerism to an extreme where he actually deformed figures in a very meaningful way.  No wonder he had an influence on the likes of Picasso. Take the Frick’s “Christ Purifying the Temple”: Christ is standing on one foot almost in a balletic pose.  The figures all seem part of a great bravura performance.  The mysterious muted hues of garments turn the picture into an essay in modulated colors.

El Greco’s “Pietà” from The Hispanic Society of America is a rather unusual composition.  The way one usually sees this subject depicted is to have Christ’s body laid across his mother’s knees as The Lamentation but here you see his body being dragged by his mother together with Mary Magdalene and Mary, Mother of James, to his grave?

The Met’s “Vision of St. John” is from an altar commissioned for the church of the hospital of Saint John the Baptist in Toledo.  From the Metropolitan Museum web site, “It depicts a passage in the Bible, Revelation (6:9-11) describing the opening of the Fifth Seal at the end of time, and the distribution of white robes to ‘those who had been slain for the work of God and for the witness they had borne.’ The missing upper part may have shown the Sacrificial Lamb opening the Fifth Seal. The canvas was an iconic work for twentieth-century artists and Picasso, who knew it in Paris, used it as an inspiration for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”   If you go to Google images and put in The 5 Fifth Seal you will find many images of El Greco’s images of St. John as well as Les Demoiselles d’Avingnon.

We are fortunate indeed to have such riches in this country and easily accessible in New York’s public collections, albeit that one of them is generally overlooked!

The images have been each kindly supplied by their institutions.