A BLEACHED ADOBE with a clay tile floor is the setting for "Art in New Mexico, 1900-1945: Paths to Taos and Santa Fe," at the Museum of American Art.
The show explores the call of the land of enchantment for Anglo artists. They took off in search of a truly American art -- bringing with them their hopes and prejudices, which they promptly applied to canvas. They longed for the simple life, away from factories and cars, and they found it in the Pueblo Indians and the Hispanic peoples of New Mexico.
They found, too, in the pervasive hills under an unforgiving sun, the colors of Indian corn -- brick, maroon, maize, ocher, rust. A new palette was required in this hard bright light away from the cities. For painter Irving Couse, there was "Elk-Foot of the Taos Tribe," cloaked in a blood-red cape, scarlet feathers in his jet-colored hair. For Martin Hennings, there were the towering cottonwoods' golden leaves, embracing the Indians on horseback in "Passing By."
The rituals they saw there fascinated the painters as if sociologists. They followed and painted the Indian dances -- the corn dance, the sunset dance, the antelope dance. A contrast in individual styles, Emil Bisttram's "Hopi Snake Dance" projects a brute animal force with harsh tones, while John Marin's "Dance of the Santo Domingo Indians" is a light touch, a crazy quilt of action, the dancers' bodies like shattered glass.
As depicted here, the Hispanic peoples had their santos, folk religious images that were painted or carved, and their Penitentes, the men who performed passion-play rituals during Holy Week, their backs bloodied from flagellation.
While the artists saw the Indians as living at one with themselves and nature, they were also of a single mind in viewng the Hispanics as living lives of quiet resignation.
In Kenneth Adams' "Evening," the dismal mood in an old woman's lined face is unrelieved by the stark red hills outside her window. Theodore Van Soelen sums up "The World of Don Francisco": A timeworn man with a cast in one eye has a wedding on his right and a funeral on his left and dark sky and hills in between.
When they were finally able to get beyond their fascination with the people, the artists were ready to tackle those hills. They backed away to show the crystal clear air -- and no one in this show does that better than Walter Ufer, who portrays the Pueblo Indians in the stark relief of midday: "The Bakers" are women preparing loaves that are shaped like the ovens that are shaped like the hills.
Where the realism of the people left off, the potential for abstraction began with the landscape. Always the mountains trudging along the horizon like a train of elephants. A bent-backed religious procession serves only to reflect the powerful, slumped-over mountains, in Ernest Blumenschein's "Sangre de Cristo Mountains." But it was Georgia O'Keeffe, with her brilliant abstractions, who best evoked an awe-filled sense of the indifference of nature, in the stony silence of a rockface.
There are about 70 artists represented in this show -- but not all artists who came to see New Mexico were conquered there. While Stuart Davis conformed the landscape to his flat-planed compositions, he said New Mexico was "a place for an ethnologist, not an artist." And he complained of the scenery, "You always have to look at it."
ART IN NEW MEXICO, 1900-1945: PATHS TO TAOS AND SANTA FE -- At the Museum of American Art through June 15.