Exhibition Archive

The birth of Abstract Expressionism and the social disruptions of World War II helped energize the New Mexico village of Taos, creating an exciting center of American Modernist art in the 1940s and 1950s and a group of abstract artists who came to be known collectively as the Taos Moderns.

The Taos Moderns came from both coasts. They had in common a commitment to European theories of Modernism and their rejection of then-fashionable academic depictions of Western scenery and native peoples. The Taos scholar and Harwood Museum curator David Witt observes: “The New York School and their West Coast counterparts provided a model for how American artists could develop a truly American art. The possibilities of abstraction––even where figuration and subject matter re-emerged finally––became the model for a new American art.”

Among San Francisco painters who forged ties with Taos were veterans returning after World War II; some initially attended or taught at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. Clay Spohn, Edward Corbett and Richard Diebenkorn found Taos in the early 1950s. Other artists important to the Bay Area and to New Mexico were J Ward Lockwood, who was on the faculty at Berkeley, and Louise Ganthiers. Lawrence Calcagno and Lilly Fenichel, both of whom left San Francisco for New York, eventually worked in Taos. “Despite the cross-continental flow of artists,” according to Witt, “the progressive painters of San Francisco maintained a separate identity from New York in the 1940s because of their further distance from Europe, and the natural tendency to look towards the Orient for inspiration.”

Andrew Dasburg and Emil Bisttram, both with New York origins, were established in Taos before World War II; the Cubist-Surrealist Thomas Benrimo came in 1939; Louis Ribak, a Social Realist painter, in 1944. Their work embraced abstraction during the 1940s. The years soon after the war brought Agnes Martin and Earl Stroh. But not all the Eastern emigres stayed in New Mexico. Leo Garel, Haynes Ownby and Oli Sihvonen, the latter noted for his large canvases that dominated the Geometric Abstraction era, eventually returned to New York. Those who remained in Taos included Cady Wells, Robert Ray, Louis Catusco, Burton Phillips, and Hyde Solomon.

These artists brought with them the latest ideas and ideologies of the Modernist mainstream, American and European. Assessing the philosophical base of the Taos Moderns, Witt cites the observation of the influential artist-teacher Hans Hofmann: “Whether the artist works directly from nature, from memory or from fantasy, nature is always the source of his creative impulses.”