Colors of the Southwest
New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe
Date Visited: May 8, 2015
During a whirlwind trip through Santa Fe and up to Denver over Mother’s Day weekend, we had time on our first day to stop and visit this little gem of a museum right in the heart of Old Town Santa Fe. Which is one mark, right there, in its favor: it is a small and manageable museum. So for those of us who can only spend a couple of hours (tops) during a single visit, the New Mexico Museum of Art is perfect.
That compares to say the Louvre in Paris, where it takes you two hours just to get in the front door…
The smaller museums also offer a chance to spend some real quality time in an exhibition without feeling the pressure of move-it-along-move-it-along, even with a time crunch hanging on your head. I am a museum nerd, so I don’t do the rush visit very well anyway, but if you expect me to rush through a museum the size of the Louvre? Well, that’s like taking the kids to Disneyland and telling them they have 5 minutes to get on all the rides…
But tell me I have to move through a museum the size of the New Mexico Museum of Art? I can handle that. And still have time to take in the incredible exhibit, Colors of the Southwest, which featured artworks by several legendary New Mexico artists, many of whom were part of the respected Santa Fe Art Colony.
In the early years of the 20th century, westward movement was still very much on the rise as cities west of the Rockies continued to develop, and thus, offer opportunities for pioneering spirits not found on the older and more established east coast. Furthermore, the fresh air and dry climate of the Southwest was an attractant for many who suffered from various respiratory ailments – tuberculosis primary among them – and countless easterners were advised to move west to improve their health. Among those numbers were several artists who all found themselves settling in the tiny, isolated, mesa-enclosed hamlet of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Stunned by the natural beauty around them, these artists discovered a whole new world of artistic inspiration. Mountains that scrape against the sky; smooth-faced rocky outcroppings that gleam red; sunrises and sunsets smeared with purples, pinks, yellows, and oranges; mesas with tops flat as ironing boards; and night skies choked with stars – all were created on canvas with brush and paint by artists who were astounded that such beauty existed. And they didn’t stop with the natural landscape. Many of the Santa Fe artists were equally impressed by the Native cultures of the Southwest, and their exquisite craftsmanship in the creation of rugs, pottery, and jewelry as well as their simple adobe and wood homes.
Before long, the Santa Fe artists started collaborating with each other, and when an artist / archaeologist named Edgar L. Hewett started the Museum of New Mexico, and created studio space just outside the Governor’s Palace for the artists’ use, this informal collaboration became the Santa Fe Art Colony.
Their styles were different, their art diverse, but the inspiration was the same: the culture and natural beauty of the American Southwest. And in Colors of the Southwest, the New Mexico Museum of Art honed in on artists that captured the landscape’s stunning palette of colors in their work. Deep reds, turquoise, purples, pinks, yellows, greens, and oranges are all part of the color family in the depiction of outdoors New Mexico, and each piece in the show pops out at you like bursts of … well, color.
I was completely enraptured, especially since I really love landscape art. Give me a painting like Sunset of the Rio Grande (1939) any day over a contemporary artwork that consists of a blank sheet of paper…
No joke – I once trekked through an exhibition that had a blank piece of paper on the wall. It had a label and everything. I do not understand modern or contemporary art.
But I do understand and appreciate the vibrancy of landscape paintings. And I do mean vibrancy – the colors are so stunning and so bright, it feels like light is shining from the canvas. Furthermore, I appreciated the nuance of portraying the detail, like the shadows, and the shifting hue of the colors, oh so subtle in the execution but oh so amazing in the realistic portrayal of a setting sun, or a winding river, or a rocky outcrop. It felt like I was standing in front of the real landmark; I could almost feel the sun’s heat and the tickle of a breeze. I could almost hear the howls of coyotes and the chirps of birds.
Transformative. That is one descriptor I apply to art. I want to feel like the work has taken me somewhere, shown me something new and incredible. Colors of the Southwest did that beautifully. Even standing right in the heart of Santa Fe, and literally within walking distance of some of the landscape features depicted in the art, I still felt like I had been taken to a new place.
And I loved it there.