Sunday, May 31, 2015

Rich on Red

From Memorial Day through Labor Day Santa Fe is celebrating “A Summer of Color”.  The State Museums and some private museums have all picked a color and many galleries as well.  It all began when Shelley Thompson, the Director, Marketing and Outreach at New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs and publisher of El Palacio the official magazine of the Museums of New Mexico, started to hear about what the museums planned for the summer.  One was planning to open a new silver and jewelry wing to the museum, another focusing on turquoise.  Since the bureau of tourism for the state had been looking for a public relations hook she suggested “Summer of Color” and they parlayed it from there.

I will probably write a number of Missives, on the exhibitions derived from this theme but I doubt there will be any that will surpass the one at the Museum of International Folk Art as far as International interest is concerned.

The exhibition is called “A Red Like No Other Color”, Red for short.  It is an international survey of the subject of cochineal which, I learned from the catalog is not about a restaurant in Marfa, Texas which many art lovers know since the artist Donald Judd made it a center for minimalist art but rather a tiny red bug found in the pear cactus.  For centuries it was the favorite source for the color red for artists in many media.  It was known in Mexico since Pre-Columbian times and by 1600 became the second most important commodity after silver that the Spanish exported from New Spain.  In fact, the ships carrying the cochineal were favorite targets of British piracy on the high seas.  The Earl of Essex became an instant hero in Britain when in 1557 he returned from a voyage having plundered 3 Spanish ships and returned with 55,000 pounds of cochineal.

I had never heard of this bug until Santa Fe began buzzing about several years ago.  I am sure that all participants in a summer of color will explain why their color is dominant above all others.  In the case of cochineal, however, they have a great argument in their list of Lenders including U. S. Museums such as the Getty, Denver Art Museum and the Metropolitan plus museums in Spain, Italy and Great Britain and from institutions in Mexico and the Canary Islands as well as others; plus all those who worked on this show for which there were over 40 international scholars and scientists who swarmed to the subject.  Red is a color that we all understand and can identify, unlike mauve and chartreuse.   Remember that red pencil on your term papers… but that may not have been cochineal.  We would only know by scientific analysis. That was done on each piece in the show either at the institutions themselves that had the equipment or in the New Mexico State Museum lab.  Its chief conservator, Mark MacKenzie went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan to learn what equipment would be needed and what to look for.

In order to know when cochineal was actually used in works of art before contemporary times it took careful analysis without harming the work of art.  This became an expense not usually needed to put on an exhibition but clearly there was enough interest at institutions where all wish to use the wonders of science in the study of the arts that even the National Endowment for the Humanities thought it important enough to give their maximum grant of $400,000 allowing the museum to get some loans that otherwise they could not have been able to bring in. 

The cochineal dye gave the possibility of a rich color, which had a great deal of flexibility in its shades of red.  It was used for paintings, drawings, and decorating boxes and most often in textiles. It is not limited to the art world, however, it can be found in make-up and has even been used by Starbucks to color their brews until vegans began to complain about it!

The guest curator who led this six-year effort was Barbara Anderson who has just retired from the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs and was formerly the Head of the Getty Research Institute Exhibitions and Consulting Curator for Spanish and Latin American Materials.  Her cohort as editor and an author for the catalog was Carmella Padilla, a prominent freelance writer, who has written extensively about Hispanic art and culture in New Mexico.  The in-house curator was Nicolasa Chávez and the show was conceived of by the director of the Museum, Marcia Bol.

You may want to know what kind of art I am raving about.  It is what my father used to call a Mixtum Compositum, a little bit of everything bound together by the common denominator of cochineal and the quality of the work.  There are reasons that the greatest art made for the richest patrons costs more.  The artist took more care and was able to pay more for their materials.

The best known artist in the show is El Greco and the Museo del Greco in Toledo, Spain lent their portrait of El Salvador Apostolado. Though it is an excellent example of the artist’s work it is almost hidden in a corner rather than on an end wall showing that they were not looking just for names but fine examples of the cochineal technique.

Photo Credit: Tomas Antelo, Instituto del Patrimonio
Cultural de España, Madrid

Probably the most famous red in the world is that of the English Red Coat soldiers and there is a fine example from the National Army Museum in London.  Unfortunately, when I write about any museum exhibition I run into the problem of Rights to images.  In this case, however, the Folk Art Museum was not granted those rights.  But the Army Museum’s website has an excellent image.

The cochineal bug existed in the United States as well and Native Americans were always using colorful dyes for their art so naturally they adopted the cochineal red.   This Lakota Sioux headdress and trailer of the late 19th century was given to the Folk Art Museum by Florence Bartlett in 1955.

Photo Credit: Blair Clark

From Santa Fe there is a fabulous gown by Orlando Dugi lent to the Museum by the Navajo fashion designer and beadworker himself.  I just kept imagining how stunning it would look on some Starlet on the red velvet carpet at the Academy Awards!


In Santa Fe We have not had many world-class exhibitions that could stand in any museum in this country or abroad but this is certainly one of them.