Trading Sea for Sky
by Jo Ann Baldinger

For most people, the term "New Mexico art" evokes images of mountains, arroyos, adobe walls and Indians in traditional dress. Certainly it was the region's awesome landscapes, exotic peoples and picturesque villages that drew painters from the East and Europe to northern New Mexico around the turn of the last century. For hundreds of years before that, however, the Southwest's original Native American populations and subsequent Hispanic settlers were using abstract designs on their pottery and textiles.

An exhibit that opens today, July 11, at Anderson Contemporary Art celebrates this less-recognized but vibrant artistic genre. Abstract Art in New Mexico is an ambitious show of work by 38 contemporary abstract artists who live and work in our state. Curated by Stuart Ashman, former director of the Museum of Fine Arts and now executive director of the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, the exhibition includes paintings, photographs, prints, Sculptures, mixed-media work and video.

The same artists appear in a handsome new book, Abstract Art: The New Mexico Artists Series (to order: $45). The book opens with an introductory essay by Ashman, followed by individual profiles of the artists by Suzanne Deats and excellent reproductions of their work. The book is dedicated to the late Arlene LewAllen, and a signing will be held at LewAllen Contemporary on Sunday, July 13.

The artists in the book include Sally Anderson, Garo Antreasian, Larry Bell, Stephanie Dragon, Frank Ettenberg, Frederick Hammersley, Robert Kelly, Eugene Newmann, Nancy Ortenstone, Florence Pierce, Zachariah Rieke, Johnnie Winona Ross, Peter Sarkisian, Sam Scott, Earl Stroh and Emmi Whitehorse, to name but a few. Within the broad category of abstract art, their work might be further classified as expressionist, minimalist, cubist, constructivist, color field, geometric, conceptual, or any number of other subgenres. For the exhibit, each artist was asked to submit one of the works appearing in the book.

"This exhibition is far from being an exhaustive study of abstract art in New Mexico," Ashman emphasized. "It is simply a survey, one of many that could be made. Because of space limitations, there are omissions, not only of individual artists but also of styles. I wanted diversity in terms of genre. It's a very wide spectrum, and I was trying to dot the map with the kinds of abstract imagery that are going on today." Ashman's definition of abstraction is intentionally broad, embracing the use of recognizable forms, and is rooted in process rather than product. "Don Fabricant, an artist that lived in Santa Fe for many years, said that the main difference between figurative and abstract artists is that the latter go to the canvas without knowing what they're going to paint," Ashman explained. "The canvas speaks to the artist, and the image emerges out of that discussion."

In his introductory essay, Ashman uses the terms abstraction, modernism and nonobjectivism interchangeably as he traces the artists' history in Northern New Mexico&

Like the 38 artists featured in the exhibition, most of these artists came to New Mexico from elsewhere. The abiding question of course, is why. What was, what is the attraction? Ashman does not claim to have the answer but suggests some possibilities. "You could say it's the light, or the people, but I think it's the spirit of the place. New Mexico has an inspiring effect, even on people who don't have artistic sensibilities."

A related question concerns the effect, if any, that living in New Mexico has on the art produced here, particularly if that art is not pictorial. "I can't pinpoint it, but I would say that a New York artists who moves to New Mexico will paint differently than if he or she had stayed in New York," Ashman said. "This place changes people. There's a feeling of a range of possibilities, perhaps due to the openness of the landscape. Richard Diebenkorn, for instance, who studied art at UNM in the 1950's may have been here only a short time, but clearly he was influenced by New Mexico. Something happened to him here, as he later acknowledged. He traded the sea for the sky.

(Reprinted from Pasatiempo, The Santa Fe New Mexican, July 11-17, 2003)