Well-known New Mexico artists including Judy Chicago, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Agnes Martin, Maria Martinez, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Susan Rothenberg broke through the glass ceiling of nationally recognized artists. Simultaneously, they fractured the deep-seated, anti-Western bias and are acknowledged east of the Mississippi — even east of the Hudson, in the self-appointed capital of aesthetic modernism. In art circles, these women are so well-accepted that people feel comfortable referring to them by their first names. Among the first questions visitors ask receptionists at the New Mexico Museum of Art is not “Where are the restrooms?” but “Where are the Georgias?” Works by these artists are usually on display at the museum, which receives complaints when they are not.

A larger group of female artists changed the way we interpret art and culture in New Mexico, but unfortunately they are not as well known beyond the Southwest. They, too, are in the museum’s collection, and visitors who see their work for the first time are stunned. It’s common to overhear a conversation in the galleries in which one out-of-towner tells another, “That painting by Agnes Pelton was stunning! I had never heard of her.” Notice that the visitor had to use her last name so as not to confuse her with the better-known Agnes.

Here are my picks for 10 under-acknowledged artists from New Mexico who should be well known east of the Hudson (and west of the Colorado).

Agnes Pelton (1881-1961) is now acclaimed for her deeply spiritual, abstract paintings, but that wasn’t always the case. She lived in poverty and eked out a living painting lonesome desert landscapes before she was driven to paint stunning abstractions such as 1943’s Awakening (Memory of Father). This work addresses painful memories from her childhood, when her father abandoned Pelton and her mother. He died from an overdose of morphine when she was ten.

Awakening at first may look like a collection of unrelated forms, but they are highly symbolic and thematically connected. The mountain range in the distant background is a distorted silhouette of the artist’s father, but the subject of the painting revolves around Gabriel — God’s special messenger — and his trumpet, which is depicted by the spiral flower. As Gabriel blows his trumpet, announcing Judgment Day, Pelton’s father rises from his grave, which is rendered in the foreground. Creating this work after more than fifty years of mental torment must have had a cathartic, liberating impact on Pelton.

Painter Raymond Jonson corresponded with Pelton during the 1930s, and he organized an exhibition of her abstract paintings at the museum in 1933. She joined the Transcendental Painting Group, a loose collection of New Mexico-related artists who from 1938 to 1942 sought to create imagery transcending day-to-day concerns. Pelton shared with many of the members an interest in abstraction, nonobjectivity, and Theosophy, a movement combining elements from Eastern and Western religious traditions. Her works exude mystical qualities, with exotic colors and invented forms. Pelton’s paintings are exceedingly rare; few were sold during her lifetime, and after she died, many were sold inexpensively at a yard sale.

Rebecca Salsbury James (1891-1968) is best known for her reverse paintings on glass, like the undated Divine Lamb and Taos Blue Sky. Working in this European folk tradition, James applied oil paint in layers to the back of a sheet of glass, often incorporating Northern New Mexico Catholic imagery. The technique requires details and highlights to be painted first, before adding the middle ground and finally painting the background. By necessity, the process encourages the use of flat shapes of color, fusing a combination of modernist vision with European folk art roots. Divine Lamb alters a traditional Hispanic religious subject and seems to radiate a celestial light. It is difficult to describe the ethereal visual qualities of these paintings, because they seem to glow from within. While words fail, responses to them are palpable. James and her first husband, photographer Paul Strand, first visited New Mexico in the 1920s and were part of the O’Keeffe-Stieglitz-Mabel Dodge Luhan circle of artists. James moved to New Mexico permanently after her divorce from Strand.

Anne Noggle (1922-2005) soared through gender barriers during World War II by joining the Women Airforce Service Pilots, ferrying multi-engine bombers from the United States to Europe in 1943 and 1944. After the war, she dusted crops and flew as a stunt pilot before rejoining the military during the Korean War. Photography became an expression of her truly independent spirit and well-honed sense of humor. Her portraits of artist colleagues in the 1980s are without equal, and her self-portraits broke unwritten rules. My favorite Noggle image is 1979’s Vertical Stance, showing her photographer friend Judith Golden in cowperson boots, posed in front of a guided missile at the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque (now the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History). This not-so-subtle image intimates that implements of war are merely substitutes for masculinity and power. Vertical Stance rejects the “phallacy” that feminists are humorless. Wit counts in New Mexico.

Florence Miller Pierce (1918-2007) explored the cycles of life through her flat sculptures that reflect a mesmerizing light. Early in the morning, her sculptures appear solid and opaque, but by midday, as light streams through a window, they spring to life — reflecting pure colors of amazing intensity. As the sun sets, the sculptures calm, lose their reflectivity, and return to opacity. But when morning returns, the cycle begins again. The visual intensity of these sculptures adjusts through the year as the position of the sun changes with the seasons. As the youngest member of the Transcendental Painting Group, Pierce continued to pursue the group’s aesthetic ideals throughout her life. Her sculptures exemplify the search for spirituality outside of organized religion. These are kinetic works of art, but they don’t move.

Retablos are a reverential tradition in New Mexico art. Elizabeth Kay (b. 1953) continues in this practice by painting recognized Catholic saints, along with others of her own creation, like the 1997 Our Lady of Mount Pedernal (Twentieth-Century Devotion to the Arts). She notes Our Lady’s devotion to the art and culture of New Mexico and surrounds her portrait with symbols associated with O’Keeffe. The references are clear: a cow skull, the black frock and wide-brimmed hat, and two putti (in the form of O’Keeffe’s companions Alfred Stieglitz and Juan Hamilton) reverentially holding a shawl. Around the perimeter of the work, Kay features small vignettes of the subject’s well-known paintings. The scene painted at the bottom depicts a flaming artistic purgatory from which Our Lady’s followers can climb a ladder to reach her, seeking transcendence and redemption from her imagery. 

Betty Hahn (b. 1940) grew up in the Midwest watching The Lone Ranger on a small black-and-white television during the 1950s. The show always confused her because Tonto’s clear thinking usually solved the day’s crime in less than 30 minutes, but in the end the Lone Ranger always received the credit for Tonto’s efforts. Later, Hahn’s rethinking and reordering of popular myths evolved into a major aspect of her work.

By transforming an experience shared by millions of baby boomers into art, Hahn delves deeply into American culture and its ability to turn falsehood into truth, as in White Hat, White Horse, White Guy (1998). In this work, the emphasis on whiteness speaks to the stereotype that cowboys were Anglo (many were black or Hispanic), and the darkness of the piece alludes to Hollywood’s cowboy-and-Indian mythology of the West.

La Guadalupana, Delilah Montoya’s (b. 1955) larger-than-life 1998 portrait of an incarcerated man named Felix Martínez, presents the subject with his arms shackled behind his back. A colorful tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe dominates his back and symbolizes the dedication of his life to the redeeming powers of the Virgin’s guidance. Additional photographs framing the representation of Martínez show other tattoos of the Virgin partially obscured by rose petals, a symbol of her powers. The installation on the floor below the mural functions as a shrine, replete with candles, roses, and rosaries. Montoya’s work focuses on slices of modern life, addressing the treatment of Hispanics within a mainstream world.

Beverley Magennis (b. 1942) is the ultimate recycler. Between 1984 and 1995, while she was tiling the exterior of her Albuquerque cottage with eclectic geometric designs, contractors often dropped off boxes of leftover tiles that she incorporated into the venture. As the project progressed, Magennis created figurative ceramic sculptures that became maintenance-free landscaping without the need for pruning, watering, or weeding. She created ceramic garden chairs to go along with the tile house and landscaping.

Over the years, Magennis has created monumental ceramic sculptures for the Art in Public Places program around the state. But then she began writing about life in the rural Southwest. She based her 2016 novel Alibi Creek on her experiences living and working as an artist for 17 years in Apache Creek, New Mexico. The book deals with ex-cons and crooked land deals amid the beautiful wilderness in southwestern New Mexico. A second book, Desplazado, was published in March by Bosque Press.

Artist Carol Sarkisian (1936-2013) converted popular culture into art, and did so by flawlessly adding rhinestones to common objects, like Deluxe Samba Pulling Bambi (2005). The great thing about Sarkisian’s work is its resistance to categorization. Are her pieces sculpture? Jewelry? Camp? Kitsch? None of these? All of them? Her small sculptures (that’s what I call them) defy conventional descriptions. It really doesn’t matter what these works are called, because most viewers would like to take one home and install it on a bookshelf as a treasured keepsake.

And in a similar manner, the moccasins created by Teri Greeves (b. 1970) slide seamlessly between a Kiowa origin myth and mainstream culture. Do they necessitate extended explanation? No. They exemplify the ways in which New Mexicans, for thousands of years, have exchanged, borrowed, lent, and absorbed aesthetic ideals across cultural divides. Greeves’ moccasins epitomize New Mexico and contemporary New Mexico art.

These women aren’t just good artists. They have changed the trajectory of art in New Mexico and the way we New Mexicans have thought of ourselves over the 20th and early 21st centuries. They broke through stereotypes about women and women artists by challenging ethnic categories, political pleasantries, and spiritual notions. Their work crosses aesthetic borders and shatters material barriers. Best of all, these artists have lived and worked here, and their art can be seen at the New Mexico Museum of Art — where their works belong to all of us.

Joseph Traugott retired after 18 years as curator of 20th-century art at the New Mexico Museum of Art. He has written eight books on New Mexico art and received his PhD from the University of New Mexico.

Missed connections: Georgia O'Keeffe and the Museum

The New Mexico Museum of Art acquired its first Georgia O’Keeffe painting in 1968, when Rebecca Salsbury James died in Taos. “Beck” (as she was known) and O’Keeffe had been friends since the 1920s and had traveled to New Mexico together in 1929. In the 1930s, Beck divorced photographer Paul Strand, moved to Taos, and married Taos business owner Bill James. The painting she gave to the museum was Landscape on Lake George, a nocturnal view of the lake that measured roughly 9 by 13 inches and was painted around 1924. In the subsequent 49 years, the museum has acquired 11 other O’Keeffe works, all by bequest. This month, in honor of the museum’s 100th birthday, the Museum of New Mexico Foundation is transferring ownership of Desert Abstraction (also known as Bear Lake), which the foundation bought in 1984, to the New Mexico Museum of Art.

Visitors to the museum before 1968 must have been baffled by a lack of artwork by America’s most famous woman artist, especially since she was a New Mexico resident. Even after the museum acquired Landscape on Lake George, visitors were dismayed to find there weren’t more. Curator Don Strel wrote to O’Keeffe in May of 1973: “I often find myself standing at the entrance to the museum and hear visitors walk up to the sales desk and ask the attendant, ‘Where are the O’Keeffes?’ and then the girl at the desk is only able to direct them to the one O’Keeffe that we have.”

Strel was trying to increase the museum’s collection of O’Keeffe works, but his timing was unfortunate, because the 1970 retrospective exhibition of O’Keeffe’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art had served to price her artwork beyond the budget of the New Mexico Museum of Art. The resulting correspondence between the museum and O’Keeffe did not result in a museum acquisition.

Did O’Keeffe spurn the museum? Rumors of her animosity toward the institution surface from time to time. They seem to stem from a few interesting letters from 1936 in the archives at the library of the New Mexico History Museum. In the summer of 1936, Museum of New Mexico director Edgar Lee Hewett was in Mexico on an archaeological dig. Winifred Stamm Reiter was acting curator in Hewett’s absence. She had a master’s degree from UNM in archaeology, an eye for detail, and a sharp wit. It had been suggested by Russell Vernon Hunter that O’Keeffe might paint a mural at the art museum as part of the New Deal-era Federal Arts Project. The program was designed to put artists, writers, musicians, and actors to work creating art for the general public, and Hunter was the state director of the program in New Mexico. On July 10, 1936, Reiter sent a typewritten letter to Hewett in Mexico, and then, realizing she didn’t send the letter by airmail, she sent another version on July 14.

Reiter no doubt intended her letters only to be read by Hewett, and they have a breezy informality. She wrote that Hunter had been “after me for several weeks” to find a spot where O’Keeffe could paint a mural. “Do you know her? She’s a strange sort of freak with big hands, but she seems to be regarded by most of the people in town and most of the art magazines that I read as the Foremost Woman Painter in America.” In the July 14  recap letter, she said: “Vernon Hunter, State Director of the FAP wants to have Georgia O’Keeffe, THE OUTSTANDING WOMAN PAINTER (invariably spoken with capitals) do a mural for the Art Museum.”

Reiter goes on to explain how the museum would pay for canvas and paint and the FAP would pay the artist. She knows how particular Hewett is about “permanent decoration of the building” and says that it should be up to him to decide, but she is clear about her recommendation. “I believe it would be to the Museum’s advantage to own something of O’Keeffe’s, and since her easel paintings are so tied up with dealers that we couldn’t get one for any reasonable sum, to accept the government’s offer of a mural seems the only way we could get one,” she wrote on July 10. “We probably never would find an angel who could afford to buy us one. If we are ever to include her in our permanent collection, this seems to be the opportunity.”

Hewett’s response was not unreasonable. In a  July 21 letter on stationery from the picturesquely named Hotel L’Escargot, he wrote, “During the last two years we have quite insistent tenders of depression art which were so much worse than the depression itself that I had to place a very emphatic and, no doubt, a very disagreeable veto on the whole business.” He goes on to ask Reiter to check with Hunter to see if they can confer in person in Santa Fe  around Aug. 1, after Hewett returned.

The trail at the History Museum Library goes cold after Hewett’s response, which might explain the rumors that O’Keeffe and the museum hated each other. All that remains are these two unflattering letters from a glorified secretary and one tepid response from a disinterested and no doubt male chauvinist museum director. However, a few key facts from O’Keeffe’s biography; further digging in the archives at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale (where O’Keeffe’s papers are housed) and the Archives of American Art (home of the FAP papers); as well as a closer reading of Reiter’s two letters revealed some interesting information which perhaps can put the rumors to rest for good.

In April 1932, O’Keeffe accepted a $1,500 commission to paint a mural in the powder room at Radio City Music Hall. By October, the problems she encountered in completing the mural were so intense that she abandoned the project and stopped painting completely until January 1934.

O’Keeffe was in Abiquiú at Ghost Ranch (at that time a working dude ranch) in the summer of 1936. Her letters to her husband Alfred Stieglitz (who was in New York) are full of references to her health and well-being, as well as various paintings she was working on. She wrote frequently of being out in the landscape or in her studio, happily alone. She reports that she enjoys visiting friends in Taos and camping in Gallup.

In a handwritten letter to Stieglitz dated July 6, 1936, O’Keeffe said that when she came back from riding, Vernon Hunter was waiting to visit with her. “He is the head of the Federal Arts projects for the state. Wants to give me a project to paint a picture for the museum. We laughed and talked over it.” This does not indicate she was jumping at the chance; moreover, she didn’t write about it again to Stieglitz during the summer. She did, however, mention earning windfalls of a few thousand dollars (the rough equivalent of $50,000 today) from two separate sales of stocks, and at some point in the summer enters into an agreement to paint a large painting for Elizabeth Arden’s new fitness salon in New York for $10,000. (The painting she completed for Arden was Jimson Weed, currently in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.) It seems unlikely that O’Keeffe would have wanted the pressure of another mural project, or been enticed by the FAP salary.

O’Keeffe was represented by one of the most important gallery owners of the 20th century in Stieglitz. She was a wealthy forty-nine-year-old woman who came to New Mexico to get away from the distraction of having lots of people around. She was not spending a lot of time in Santa Fe, and she did not “need” the art museum the way other locals did. Reiter wrote in both letters that she had never seen an O’Keeffe painting in color, which can only mean that O’Keeffe was not interested in exhibiting her artworks in Santa Fe.

She did have a painting in the 25th Annual Southwestern Show at the Santa Fe museum in 1938. El Palacio magazine, in the August-September 1938 issue, reported, “The painting of the cross by Georgia O’Keeffe is a good example of this famous American artist’s command over symbolism used in creative design.” In 1982, the museum added two new galleries and below-ground collections storage. The inaugural exhibition in those new galleries included the O’Keeffe painting Summer Days. In 1985, then-museum director David Turner worked with O’Keeffe’s companion Juan Hamilton and the artist herself to curate an exhibition of her works on paper — “a body of work,” according to Turner, “which has never been exhibited on its own.” 

Taken on their own, out of context, the descriptions of O’Keeffe that Reiter used in her letters to Hewett seem harsh, provincial, and foolish. These days, leaked tweets with a similar tone have gotten people fired. And O’Keeffe might have rightly been offended, had she known of them. But there is no evidence that she did. There is cordial correspondence between O’Keeffe and directors and staff from the museum throughout her life. Robert Ewing, who was director in 1968, invited O’Keeffe to tour the exhibition of James’ collection, which contained Landscape on Lake George. He recalled taking the painting off the wall and “handing it O’Keeffe, who held it and looked at it as though it were a child she hadn’t seen in a while.”

As for Reiter, we can be the judge. At the end of the July 10 letter, she wrote, “Everyone is quite well and happy. The Museums are over run from morning to night with Texans wearing Centennial Buttons and eating popcorn.” — Ellen Zieselman

Ellen Zieselman served as curator of education at the New Mexico Museum of Art for 25 years, and was the recipient of the Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2009.

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