It’s About Time

14,000 Years of Art in New Mexico


New Mexicans have always made art; we have always made aestheticized objects that reflect our worldviews. From beautifully made Paleo-Indian tools to contemporary art, New Mexico art has reflected changing technologies and ways of making a living, organizing our societies, and expressing our spirituality. Where else has societal technology ranged from creating stone tools to inventing the atomic bomb?It’s About Time: 14,000 Years of Art in New Mexico celebrates the centennial of statehood by presenting a social history of art in the Southwest. The region has attracted multiple ethnic groups who have exchanged aesthetic ideas and fused them into new expressions. And New Mexico art has always balanced individual responses with powerful cultural contexts.

It’s about time to investigate New Mexico art in a holistic manner that focuses on objects that best reflect these ever-changing aesthetic and cultural perspectives. This exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art begins with the earliest yet-discovered art — Clovis points — and proceeds in an unbroken continuum to the present. This is quite different from focusing on one ethnic tradition, or on one aesthetic perspective within an ethnic tradition, which can become introverted or reclusive.

This integrated view notes New Mexico’s increasing cultural complexity through time and the simultaneous aesthetic interactions across cultural divides. It’s About Time displays 120 works of art that represent prime objects of aesthetic change. They include Native American, Hispanic American, and European American works that reflect changing aesthetic paradigms that often signal shifts in ethnic traditions and cultural interactions. Some are representational; others, like Raymond Jonson’s paintings Variations on Rhythm N and Variations on Rhythm M, are abstractions that refer to all of us.

By necessity this chronology must rely on prime objects of artistic change — those works that reflect the most complex combinations of aesthetic and cultural ideas. But most importantly, these prime objects represent new syntheses of aesthetic understanding. While most of the objects in this exhibition were made to be art, others became art by metamorphosis, when objects were understood in new cultural contexts. As new peoples come to New Mexico and reinterpret the art and culture, the region builds aesthetically, layer upon layer, as if it were a landscape itself.

One way to simplify this chronology is to break it into a few metonyms — symbols or models — that stand for the whole chronology. The earliest works of art in New Mexico were made by bands of Paleoindian hunters and gatherers almost 14,000 years ago, what archaeologists call Clovis Culture. They hunted now-extinct mammoths in New Mexico and made large spear points that demonstrated incredible knapping skill and the ability to produce iconic thinning flutes on each side of their points.

But are these artifacts also works of art? From the maker’s perspective, they demonstrate uncommon craft in the “overshot” thinning flakes that produced the blanks for these tools, which could be six inches long. The thinning flutes struck at the end of the fabrication also seem to represent a flourish that transcended other simpler methods of thinning the base of a spear point. Many feel that the flutes are a mark of personal bravado, since each flake could shatter an almost finished tool.

We have no written record from Paleoindians, but the fine quality of the flaking and the distinctive, difficult-to-produce flutes, beyond what was functionally necessary, suggest that from a Clovis perspective, these points are aestheticized objects. From a contemporary, outsider’s perspective, they are examples of conceptual art that symbolize the Clovis hunters’ extensive knowledge of the ecology that fed, clothed, and sustained them. Theirs was not a superficial understanding, but a complex awareness of geology, seasons, water sources, and the relationships between herbivores and the plants that nourished them. Without such extreme resourcefulness, they would perish.

One interesting aspect of Ancestral Pueblo design after 1000 CE is the painting of a positive image that simultaneously creates an unpainted, negative form that is the mirror image of the painted area. This can be seen in a Gallup Black-on-white bowl from Chetro Ketl ruin in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (page 76). I call these design strategies isomeric designs (from the Greek, “iso” for “equal” and “mer” for “form”). Isomeric designs are also found on woven Pueblo goods, and undoubtedly they developed from the structure of weaving. When a viewer stares at an isomeric design, the elements flip back and forth. At first the image appears to be a black form on a white background, then a white design on a black background.

At the height of the great-house pueblos, isomeric designs could be found from the Mimbres region in southwest New Mexico to Mesa Verde in the southern Colorado and from west of the Rio Grande into the Colorado Plateau of Arizona. The use of isomeric designs declined after the abandonment of much of the Pueblo world at the end of the thirteenth century, but it represents an important prime form of New Mexico art.

Small groups of Spanish colonists and Catholic friars brought Catholicism, metal tools, gunpowder, draft animals, cows, sheep, and a form of European feudalism known as the encomienda system to the Pueblo world in 1598. Toward the end of the 1600s, droughts accentuated tensions between the colonists and the Native communities until the Pueblos revolted in 1680 and drove the Spaniards back to Mexico. When the Spaniards regained control during the 1690s, relations improved with larger populations of colonists, increased trade, and intermarriage. By the end of the 1700s, many New Mexicans felt a growing sense of independence from Spain. Local santeros who made religious paintings and carvings, such as the Truchas Master, reflected this autonomy by developing regional versions of Catholic religious art imported from Mexico. The santeros created works with local materials and simplified forms that were used in Pueblo missions, Hispanic churches, and private chapels. The santero workshops flourished during the Mexican Republic, between 1821 and 1846.

The Museum of Art has displayed Gerald Cassidy’s painting Cui Bono? (“who benefits?”) since the institution opened in 1917. While the Taos man’s stare has become an icon of the museum itself, the painting is also conceptually provocative. Cassidy’s painting captured the tenor of the times and evolved into a prime object of southwestern art.

Cassidy painted Cui Bono? when it appeared that New Mexico had finally achieved the requirements for statehood. The painting depicts the past on the left, the present on the right, and the uncertain future in the hesitant step forward taken by the Pueblo man. Cui Bono? metaphorically asks, will Native cultures prosper, or soon disappear? Will eastern financial concerns dominate the economy? In short, who will benefit from statehood? Of course, it’s a rhetorical question, one that seems to be debated each legislative session.

Maria and Julian Martinez invented black-on-matte pottery at a time when anthropologists myopically rejected innovation by Native artists. Instead they placed a premium on the arts of the past that they considered to be “authentic” and culturally pure. They encouraged artists to revive styles and designs from the recent past, or that could be marketed as such.

The modernist artist community in Santa Fe understood Maria and Julian’s newly invented style as art, rather than anthropology. In 1920 the Museum of Art displayed a black-on-matte jar, along with other blackware pieces and their traditional polychrome vessels. This black-on-matte pottery was so popular that it soon was considered traditional.

New Mexico forever changed the world on the morning of July 16, 1945, when the Manhattan Project detonated the first atomic bomb at the Trinity Site near Alamogordo. The series of high-speed photographs taken by Berlyn B. Brixner and his staff at the Optics Group captured the seething plasma of energy unleashed by the bomb. The photographs document the birth of the Atomic Age and its conflicting meanings: life and death; the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War; unsafe conditions that caused cancers in miners and the use of atomic energy for medical purposes to save lives; military security based on nuclear weapons and the continuing threat of nuclear annihilation. The photograph included in the exhibition welcomes you to the contradictions and the confusion of the twentieth century, yet compared to the drama of the event itself, it is simple and unassuming. Such ironies are one of the most provocative aspects of It’s About Time.

Florence Miller Pierce explores time and the cycles of life through her resin sculptures, which exude mystical qualities. She was the youngest member of the Transcendental Painting Group, the pre–World War II artists who explored the nexus of spirituality and nonobjective art. Pierce continued an interest in spirituality throughout her life and used the visual qualities of light reflecting through veils of polyester resins to experience the cycles of life.

Pierce’s Mons 2, an allusion to the revelations one might find on a mountain peak, offers another experience. The work emits a mystical light that changes with the seasons and the passing hours of the day. Before sunrise the work is opaque and stark, but these qualities shift as light begins to stream in through a window and finally become tranquil as daylight recedes. These changes move through the seasons as well.

Conceptually, this work reflects the spiritual transformations of life: joy and pain, life and death, death and rebirth. From a broader perspective, Pierce’s sculptures are conceptual works about time and the permanence of change in our daily lives. They exemplify the quest for spirituality outside of organized religion at the end of the twentieth century.

As markers of the past and present, the works of art in It’s About Time spur aesthetic responses and a deeper understanding of the region’s diverse cultures. As a humanities project, this exhibition encourages viewers to rethink the meaning of art and aesthetics from an intercultural perspective. By doing so, we can transcend our personal biases and appreciate alternative visions.

It’s About Time: 14,000 Years of Art in New Mexico opens on May 11, 2012, at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

Joseph Traugott, Ph.D., is curator of twentieth-century art at the New Mexico Museum of Art. His books include Sole Mates; The Art of New Mexico: How the West Is One; Gustave Baumann’s Southwest; and Pueblo Architecture and Modern Design: The Residential Designs of William Lumpkins.