The New Mexico Museum of Art has always been a collecting institution. In the early days, the museum benefited from having artists on site who gifted many of the works created right here in Santa Fe to its holdings. One example is John Sloan, whose Music on the Plaza is in the collection and captures a scene to which Santa Fe residents and visitors can all relate: an evening’s entertainment on the historic Plaza. The image is distinguished from contemporary experiences mainly by the period dress of the figures (it was painted in 1920). Connections between past and present are a component of the three exhibitions currently on display. “We didn’t really want to do three exhibitions that were just a literal history of the Museum of Art,” said Merry Scully, head of curatorial affairs and curator of contemporary art. “But something that seems to happen when people tell art history is that they start to tell the history of the founding of a lot of other institutions. So we started to think about people as opposed to institutions. While it’s not a series of biographies, there’s a focus on people and the personal in all the exhibitions.”

Scully’s show, Contact: From Local to Global, looks not only at the historic and contemporary. Like Horizons: People & Places in New Mexican Art and Shifting Light: Photographic Perspectives, it explores the works of regional and local artists in relation to the broader spectrum of the national art scene. The museum may be Southwest-centric in terms of its collecting, with a focus on 20th-century and contemporary works, but its purview extends to fine arts from other periods and locales. Works by Michelangelo, Goya, Picasso, and Gauguin are in the collection, though not currently on view. Bruce Nauman is a major American artist, and while he has no particular or long-term relationship to the museum, his presence in New Mexico, where he currently lives, makes what works the museum does have relevant. “As the collecting repository, we’re part of the state’s collective memory,” Scully said. “We’re a little bit like the memory bank for the visual arts in New Mexico.” 

Contact includes works by artists who have come to visit for long periods of time, artists who have come to work over short periods of time, and artists, like the Sarkisian family, who have made their life here. “We have Paul, Carol, and Peter Sarkisian.” Scully said. “It’s this whole family of artists who lived here. While this show focuses on the late 20th century until now, it points out the fact that artists have always been coming here.”

Peter is the son of Paul and Carol, who died in 2013; all three artists do vastly different work. The untitled Paul Sarkisian work from 1987 on display looks photographic, but is an acrylic on linen. Carol’s Deluxe Samba Pulling Bambi from 2005 is a miniature Volkswagen van and trailer sculpture with mixed media, and Peter, who does work in video and new media, is represented by his Mandolin Series #3 (Book Series), a mixed-media video installation. “Paul’s is done on a fantastic scale, made when he was doing photorealist work,” Scully said. “It’s constantly revealing that what you’re seeing is not real even though it looks real. This idea that something needs to be unraveled or figured out is kind of highlighted, at least to me.”

Some slightly older pieces in the show include Garo Antresian’s large-scale oil painting Aleppo, and two watercolors by Clinton Adams (1918-2002), two people known for their work as artists but also for contributions to the academic world. Along with June Wayne (1918-2011), Adams and Antresian co-founded the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles in 1960, which they relocated to Albuquerque in 1970. Tamarind Institute, as it is now known, is currently under the auspices of the University of New Mexico, and it remains America’s premier institution for lithographic arts. Over the years, many prints produced by the institute have been exhibited at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

Adams’ watercolors recall works produced by Stuart Davis, who accompanied Sloan to New Mexico in 1923 and produced his monochromatic work New Mexican Peak that year while working in a studio space inside the Palace of the Governors. New Mexican Peak is unusual due to its colorlessness, made at a time when, as El Palacio wrote in 1940, “Everyone paints the country around him; the mountains, canyons, sparkling atmosphere, and incredible color make it real artist country.” Like Ashcan painters Sloan and Robert Henri, Davis was an anti-academic painter who attempted something unique by creating black-and-white landscape. The Adams’ watercolors, according to Scully, were inspired by the artist having seen a Stuart Davis exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “All roads don’t lead to Robert Henri, but a lot of them do,” she said. “Stuart Davis’ father was quite close to Henri, and Stuart Davis was very influenced by him.” Looking at those particular pieces by Adams, they almost look like some of Davis’ work from that time period, before he came to New Mexico. They play against works in the show by Frederick Hammersley (1919-2009) and an emerging artist Scully is including named Jen Pack, who lives in Silver City.

Occasionally, a major gift to the museum adds to its depth and breadth, and such is the case with the donation of works from the collection of ceramist Rick Dillingham (1952-1994). Contact features an untitled ceramic of Dillingham’s from 1985 as well as a 1976 Nauman lithograph, Eat Death, donated by the Dillingham estate in 1994. “Longterm, an exhibition that I would like to do, would focus on Rick’s work that he collected and the work that he studied,” Scully said. “He dealt in historic and Pueblo pottery and collected historic and contemporary pottery, and he did a lot of serious academic research.” Dillingham is the author of Fourteen Families in Pueblo Pottery, which was published the year he died. His estate also donated drawings and ceramics by avant-garde artist Beatrice Wood (1893-1998) and ceramic works and sculpture by Peter Voulkos (1924-2002). “Dillingham was an early casualty of AIDS and died quite young, so it’s amazing, the contributions he made,” Scully said. “But to have those three parts — the academic, the maker, and collector — all be so high level is something that’s unusual.”

The museum is also recreating minimalist and conceptual artist Sol LeWitt’s (1928-2007) Wall Drawing #73, a work that exists as a set of instructions, essentially, and is designed to be installed according to plans set forth by the artist. Few works get more conceptual than that. The work is being produced by artist Roland Lusk and Santa Fe-based sculptor Susan York and took about eight days to create. “You contact the studio and talk to them about which wall and discuss what show it’s going to be in and then they hook you up with studio-approved drawers,” Scully said. “They usually work with a local person. I brought it up with Susan, and she said, ‘I’d love to do that.’ I said, ‘That’s a lot of drawing, eight days,’ and she thought it would be really interesting to know that drawing in that way, having spent the time to produce it.”

York’s solid graphite sculpture Floating Column from 2008, owned by the Lannan Foundation, as well as her 1:1 Lannan Floating Column, an associated graphite work on paper, are also on view, as are video works by Nauman, Yorgo Alexopoulos, and Ati Maier, and ceramic works by Diego Romero and Virgil Ortiz. An interactive installation by Postcommodity, an artist collective made up of members Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist, offers viewers a unique take on peep shows. A series of doors give way to individual-sized viewing rooms in which screens open up to reveal idyllic floral compositions instead of nude figures. The large-scale installation, called Pollination, is from 2015 and is on loan from the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s a wry commentary on the subjugation of nature and its separation from human experience.

That hideous strength: New Mexico artists of the Atomic Age

The painter Cady Wells (1904-1954), who served in the Army in the 1940s, returned from World War II a changed man. Though he had lived in Santa Fe since the 1930s, he became concerned about dwelling so close to Los Alamos National Laboratories and the nuclear experiments being conducted there, so he began spending more time in Taos — as well as in the Virgin Islands. He struggled to paint, suffering from what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. When he did resume his work, his palette was transformed. His landscape, which once reflected the sun and light of New Mexico, went dark — apocalyptic, even ghoulish — conveying an inner world of personal terror.

Wells was among the first local artists to grapple with the Atomic Age, but its fallout has since become fertile creative ground. The theme has informed the work of many artists over the years, among the most well-known of whom is Tony Price (1937-2000). The New York native relocated to El Rancho, New Mexico, in the late 1960s, and began using metals that he found at Ed Grothus’ Los Alamos salvage yard — dubbed “the Black Hole” — in his sculpture, making what he called “atomic art.” At first, he made household objects like tables, chairs, and utensils, and in some pieces, he incorporated sound elements. Over the decades, Price made larger, more futuristic-looking works that were appreciated and collected far outside of New Mexico. In 1983, Price installed his Atomic Wind Chimes and The Last S.A.L.T. Talks: A Trophy for the Winners of the Next Nuclear War in Battery Park, near Wall Street, at the invitation of the City of New York.

In 1995, Santa Fe artist Meridel Rubenstein created Oppenheimer’s Chair as a commission for the first SITE Santa Fe International Biennial. The biennial coincided with the 50th anniversary of the detonation of the first nuclear weapon in the Jornada del Muerto southeast of Socorro, in what was named Trinity Site by LANL director J. Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist and father of the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer’s Chair was a room-size glass house with sandblasted images and video projected onto a glass chair, all guarded by a transparent armored sentry. The installation was meant to stimulate a meditation on nature and the multiple decades spent in the Cold War. 

A photograph made milliseconds after the blast at Trinity Site inspired mixed-media artist Judy Tuwaletstiwa’s 1998 glass project, created when she was an artist-in-residence at the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington. (She currently lives in Galisteo, but at the time she lived on the Hopi reservation.) She and artist Karen Willenbrink-Johnsen intended to make a dome showing the beginning of the blossoming radioactive cloud. They were surprised when a mushroom-cloud shape formed inside the clear glass sphere from gases created during the firing process. Other works in the Trinity/Ashes series center on the bombs dropped on Japanese cities, including a black sphere, three inches in diameter, that represents the amount of plutonium used to destroy Nagasaki. Other spheres are translucent but clouded with ash. From deep inside, they are glinted with gold leaf. — Jennifer Levin

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