Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted in Resource Library Magazine on March 12, 2003 with permission of the Harwood Museum of Art. The essay was earlier published in a 16-page illustrated catalogue titled Three Taos Pueblo Painters in connection with an exhibition of the same name held at the Museum January 24 through April 20, 2003. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Harwood Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Three Taos Pueblo Painters
by David L. Witt
A very long time ago the first great artists of the Taos Valley located their Village in the most magnificent setting imaginable. They must have considered the practical matters of water, soil fertility, and defense in making this decision, and doubtless there were spiritual concerns. As art was integrated with all else in life, one can imagine that the decision they made to build where they did was also based on the overwhelming beauty present everywhere from the high enfolding mountains to the view of infinity to the west.
In a subsequent era, art has been perceived as a pervasive force in the Taos Valley. Cross-cultural artistic influences have been shared back and forth since the time when the first peoples arrived, continuing into the recent past when the latest group of outsiders founded the Taos Art Colony at the end of the nineteenth century. Beginning in the 1920s, a handful of Taos Pueblo natives began adding Euro-American art traditions to their own ways of visual expression.
From the time that Joseph Sharp, Ernest Blumenschein, and Bert Phillips began painting here in the 1890s, the Taos landscape became the subject of innumerable paintings. These compositions frequently focused on Taos Pueblo and its residents -- as imagined by the newly arrived painters. In the years following World War I, a few of those residents began using newly learned painting techniques to reveal something about how they imagined themselves.
Visual representation, along with music and storytelling, is most revealing of who a people are as a people. When a few Native Americans adopted easel painting in oils into their visual repertoire, they assimilated a foreign tradition. At a time when cultural appropriation steered in the other direction, with Anglo artists freely taking traditional Indian imagery for use in their own work, this borrowing must have seemed surprising. Until this time, representational painting by Native Americans was known in a different form, including traditional hide and teepee paintings, kiva paintings, and depictions drawn on ledger book paper by Indian artists newly confined to reservations in Oklahoma. Those design elements were formalized at the Santa Fe Indian School and came to define authentic Indian art in the early twentieth century.
No consideration was given by the Anglo culture brokers in Santa Fe that any art made by Natives was, ipso facto, authentic Indian art. Schools and museums in their exhibitions, largely ignored the new developments coming out of Taos Pueblo. Indian acceptance of modernity in the making of their art flew in the face of the romantic notion conceived by the whites about what their Native neighbors should paint.
Albert Lujan, Albert Looking Elk Martinez, and Juan Mirabal are among the most important painters who emerged at Taos Pueblo from the early to mid-twentieth century. Through the exhibition Three Taos Pueblo Painters, we hope to bring these painters to the attention of a larger audience. Recent scholarship supporting this process included art historian Samuel E. Watson's 1993 presentation of a paper on the Taos Pueblo painters at the New Mexico Art History Conference in Taos. The following year he wrote an article on Looking Elk for american indian art magazine. The same magazine published a major article on Albert Lujan in 2000 by Bradley F. Taylor, an independent researcher and art collector. One previous exhibition in 1998, organized by artist Tony Abeyta at his gallery in Ranchos de Taos, included works by the three artists featured here. An article about the artists by historian Elmo Baca was published in the January 2003 issue of New Mexico Magazine. We are finally, if belatedly, recognizing these fine Taos painters as the rightful tellers of their own stories.
In such a small place as the Pueblo these three artists must have had some degree of acquaintance, but what that might have been is not known to outsiders. They shared a break with previous tradition -- creating art for the marketplace. For this, they were largely ignored by the art establishment, but their breakthrough was significant. No longer would representational painting of the Taos Pueblo be the exclusive domain of outsiders. Looking Elk, Lujan, Mirabal, and a few others emerged as the carriers of older art traditions and the creators of new ones.
ALBERT MARTINEZ (ca. 1888-1940), better known as Albert Looking Elk, entered the art world as a model when he was around twelve years old.
At first reluctantly posing for Irving Couse, a founding member of the Taos Society of Artists (TSA), he went on to make a career modeling for artists. Later, his wife and children would also work as artist models. Looking Elk took his first and only art lessons from Oscar Berninghaus, another TSA founder. By 1917, if not earlier, Berninghaus set up Looking Elk with his first basic painting equipment including oils, easel, brushes, and canvas. He also received attention from the Taos Valley News in the July 16, 1918 edition: "Taos has a native artist...Albert Martinez of the Pueblo...He has painted a number of pictures of merit, several of which he has been able to sell at a fair price."
The "fair price" was seldom more than a few dollars, but his success at selling was such that he was said to be the first tribal member at Taos Pueblo to purchase an automobile -- a Studebaker. Looking Elk received more recognition than the other artists of that time, occasionally showing his paintings between 1923 and 1930 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, winning a special art award during his first group. Perhaps he earned this recognition because he sometimes painted in the style of the Santa Fe Indian School.
His primary work however, like Lujan and Mirabal, depicted scenes of the Pueblo itself. Although he sold paintings from his house in the Village, like Lujan he also painted on the Village plaza where tourists could find him. He often painted near his house on the south side but many of his compositions feature the north building. Also, like Lujan, he painted prosaic, non-romanticized scenes of the Pueblo, in contrast to the often sentimentalized images created by the TSA artists. Looking Elk painted, however, with more atmospheric light and color than Lujan, giving his work much appeal to tourists and apparently commanding a higher price.
ALBERT LUJAN (1892-1948), who sometimes signed his paintings Weasel Arrow, seems not to have found a patron among the TSA artists -- although a passing tourist influenced his career. His nephew, famed hoop dancer Bobby Lujan, provided information about his uncle's start as an artist to Brad Taylor.
Albert Lujan was a farmer in his early life and also a fiscal (deacon) at the church. It was in this role, while taking a break from doing maintenance on the church, that a visitor noticed him painting a landscape on a leftover board. This visitor bought him painting supplies and reportedly thereafter bought one or more of the resulting paintings. Thus encouraged, around 1915, Lujan began his prolific career, estimated to include over two thousand oil paintings as well as watercolors. His signature almost always included the drawing of an arrow.
By the 1920s, Lujan built his business by posting signs and printing business cards advertising himself as an artist. Like Looking Elk, he painted plein air on the plaza, attracting customers who could purchase a painting fresh off the easel. His nephew, Bobby, who was then a boy, was also available to perform the hoop dance in the presence of visitors -- for a fee. Depictions of the Village became his sole subject, usually painted on a small scale and sold inexpensively. Acquiring one of these paintings was something like getting a painted postcard. Lujan sold lots of images, but could not have realized any great amount of money for his efforts.
Perhaps experiencing the reality of life in the Village, rather than viewing it as an outsider, led Lujan, like Looking Elk, to present the place almost starkly. Outsiders could create their storytelling images of Indians without regard to accuracy. In his early work, Lujan shows the architectural arrangement of structures without people. When he adds blanketed figures, there is still little sense of motion. Instead, the compositions suggest feelings of timelessness, that is, a place that is removed from the Western concept of linear time. Maybe the scenes are not so much static as they are a kind of figurative abstraction, capturing a sense of time as it might have been traditionally sensed in cyclical terms. Like abstract art, there is no narrative here, and little other frame of reference.
JUAN MIRABAL (1903-1970) remains the least known of the three artists. It is not certain whether he worked as a model for any of the TSA members or if he ever attended the Santa Fe Indian School. In the late 1940s, he studied for a time with the Taos modernist painter Louis Ribak who ran an art school for a few years after World War II. During that period, the Taos Valley News ran a photograph of Mirabal with some other students. This was unusual for, unlike Martinez and Lujan, he seems to have pursued his career in a less public way. There is no mention of him painting on the plaza in the Village nor did he open a shop there.
Visitors from outside the Pueblo did, however, come to see him and some of them at least must have purchased his paintings. He differed from the other two painters in this exhibition in several respects. The most surprising thing he did was to depict ceremonial dances at the Pueblo. Before this time, no Taos Pueblo artist created such realistic pictures for a non-tribal audience. These paintings are highly evocative of the power and beauty represented by the dances. They are also interesting for their modernist flavor. From the 1930s, Mirabal's work shows a decidedly Cubist influence which was probably unique among Southwest Indian painters of the time.
He most likely learned about modernist painting from Marjorie Eaten, a painter of his own age who lived in Taos in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In addition to being well educated in European Modernism, Eaten was enamored of Mirabal. She later became an assistant to Diego Rivera from whom she learned the art of true fresco, painting with dissolved pigment on wet plaster. She may have taught Mirabal the technique because in 1950 he painted a large mural on the portal of a residence in Ranchos de Taos, now the Adobe & Pines Inn Bed & Breakfast. In whatever medium, it is Mirabal's inherent design and color sense that make his paintings come alive.
Considered together, the work created by Martinez, Lujan,
and Mirabal represents an important development in the art history of Taos.
Undaunted by their position outside the art mainstream and outside of tribal
art traditions, each of them persevered, following their own vision and
forging their own artistic path.
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