New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe
November 25, 2017 – April 29, 2018
Less than six years past the State of New Mexico’s centennial, the New Mexico Museum of Art marked its first 100 years in December. It’s an anniversary made all the more notable by the institution’s enduring commitment to the contemporary. The Canyon Road clique of modern artists known as Los Cinco Pintores held their first group exhibition there in 1921, and curators such as Dorothy Morang bolstered local, avant-garde art movements by giving them ample wall space and the freedom to experiment. The modernists weirded out more than a few early 20th century Santa Feans: in 1920, the Santa Fe New Mexican called the museum a vehicle for “propaganda for art extremism of the most absurd kind” in the midst of the nation’s first “Red Scare.”
Now modern art represents the front end of the museum’s historic collection, a veritable treasure trove that the museum’s new curator of 20th century art Christian Waguespack has been dutifully rifling through and rearranging to spine-tingling effect. Before you visit contemporary curator Merry Scully’s Contact exhibition, explore Waguespack’s concurrent show Horizons: People and Place in New Mexican Art and reflect on our state’s recent artistic roots. For me, the modernist display called to mind a quote from Guillermo Del Toro’s new film The Shape of Water: “time is a river that flows from the past.” In this place, the last few bends of the river swell with bright, disruptive oil paints.
Back to Scully, who faced the difficult task of recognizing the museum’s sprawling history and marking some new trailheads for the coming century. This centennial statement inevitably bears more tension than your typical contemporary art show, because legacy is a central player rather than a loosely tethered plaything. Contact: Local to Global is Scully’s multifaceted but lithe solution. The exhibition dips back by looking outwards. With the help of several historic artworks, it ties major New Mexico artists and visitors to national movements that continue to influence how we conceive of culture and ourselves.
The show’s most visible threads are neatly arranged, fitting a thematic “throw” and “catch” into every corner of the first two galleries. There’s a subtle Sol LeWitt wall drawing, gifted to the museum by New Mexico–based scholar Lucy Lippard and executed by Roland Lusk and Santa Fe sculptor Susan York, next to a delightfully hairy conceptual sculpture by Brazilian-born, Brooklyn-based artist and early SITE Santa Fe biennial contributor Valeska Soares. Here is the arc of conceptualism strung between two artworks, from its East Coast origins in the writings of LeWitt and Lippard to its more established expression by an artist who helped lay the foundations of Santa Fe’s current avant-garde milieu. Nearby there’s similar interplay between an Agnes Martin canvas and a Stuart Arends wall sculpture, encapsulating New Mexico’s contributions to the minimalist movement.
With deftness, Scully traces the paths of several artists who made their names elsewhere but settled in New Mexico. A monumental acrylic-on-linen from 1977 by New Mexico painter Paul Sarkisian is a powerful example of his early trompe-l’œil style. It evokes his origins as a Los Angeles art star of the mid-century, while a bejeweled toy VW Bus and trailer by his wife Carol Sarkisian suggests a visual allegory of the family’s move to Cerrillos, New Mexico in 1971. A new media sculpture by their son Peter Sarkisian, who was six when they arrived, is a nod to the next generation. Bruce Nauman’s journey from California to New Mexico is also abridged here, through the presentation of a late-1970s text-based lithograph and a 1999 video of the artist setting a fencepost at his ranch near Santa Fe.
The University of New Mexico’s tremendous influence on the state’s art community is represented by four artworks from legendary faculty members, and the legacy of our innovative ceramics scene finds its avatars in Diego Romero, Virgil Ortiz, Jami Porter Lara, and the late Rick Dillingham. A host of other artists and institutions make cameos on the exhibition’s placards—from UNM’s Tamarind Institute to aesthetic pioneers such as Stuart Davis and Florence Pierce—giving a clear impression of New Mexico’s tightly woven art history.
The true brilliance of the show comes at its halfway point, heralded by a deceptively awkward bit of wall text. “This section of the exhibition looks beyond literal contact with New Mexico and presents artworks that use contact and lack of connection as metaphors,” it reads in part. “[The artists] have all worked and exhibited in New Mexico and a few make their home here.” What sounds like a shaky curatorial conceit makes for yet another strong thematic dialogue—this time between the first half of the exhibition and the contemporary explorations at its far end.
A towering pillar of solid graphite by Susan York, who counted Agnes Martin as a mentor before the latter’s death in 2004, engages minimalist and post-minimalist ideas with vigor. Photographs from the U.S.-Mexico border by David Taylor and video works by Ati Maier and Yorgo Alexopoulos advance conversations about landscape art and its contemporary relevance. Then there is Contact’s pièce de résistance, a 2015 installation work by the Indigenous art collective Postcommodity titled Pollination. Visitors must ask for a coin from a docent to activate the piece, and the experience is at once gaudy, sensual, wondrous, and devastatingly fleeting. I won’t spoil it further except to say that it’s a little oasis in the high desert. You could say the same for the remarkable cultural institution that houses it.