Back In The Saddle

The Horse as Icon


Horses have always served as potent symbols of the West for easterners as well as locals. Back in the Saddle builds on this reality by presenting twenty-five works from the New Mexico Museum of Art collection. These works by Native American, Hispanic, and European American artists reveal some of the fusions that have occurred in New Mexico art.The exhibition is also a collaboration between two curators: John Torres-Nez, the chief operating officer of the Southwestern Association of Indian Arts (SWAIA); and me, curator of twentieth-century art at the museum. Jointly we selected works that underscore the richness of the museum’s collections. Many of them are recent acquisitions being shown for the first time, such as Bill Schenk’s Coming Down from the Mountain (see cover).

The extended labels we wrote contrast Torres-Nez’s Diné (Navajo) interpretations and my own art-historical perspective. The collaboration was rewarding for us, and we hope it is for the visitor, as well.

Torres-Nez wrote a poem with echoes of Robert Frost to accompany E. Martin Hennings’s painting Winter Snow Scene with Horse and Wagon, which captures the difficulty of horse-drawn transportation in deep snow.

Whose piñon/juniper woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the Pueblo though;
He will not hear me stopping here
To watch my piñon baskets fill up with snow.

Eugenie Fish Glaman’s Restless Model presents a handsome workhorse, so revered that its portrait was painted as if it were a champion quarter horse. This view exudes strength and power, but it also depicts a gentle giant at peace with its role in society.

Of Eliot Porter’s Dead Horse, Arizona, Torres-Nez commented, “The horse is often used as a symbol for American Indians. An animal that was purely a North American creation that was later domesticated on the Siberian Steppes and then reunited with the New World, the horse seemed at home with its people. Images of sick, dying, and decaying horses become a powerful metaphor.”

W. Herbert “Buck” Dunton mastered painting horses in motion, and his monochromatic sketches were transformed into low-resolution halftone engravings for dime novels and magazines. Dunton’s Illustration—Scene of Cowboy Life captures his impression of bucking broncos through a loose application of paint and careful modulation of the tones.

Many visitors squirm at Joseph Sharp’s The Stoic, his depiction of a Plains Indian whose son died at an Indian boarding school. To prove that he could overcome this tremendous loss, the subject killed four of his favorite ponies and then lashed their heads to the muscles in his back. Then he dragged his burden until his back muscles pulled free or he collapsed from exhaustion. Sharp claimed to have observed this act during the first decade of the twentieth century. Torres-Nez notes unemotionally, “Ritual self-modification, scarification, and mutilation are common to nearly all societies.” He places this Crow Indian event in a broad social context: “For North American Indians, the most famous of these is the Sun Dance ritual of tribes of the Great Plains. During this ritual the skin of the chest is pierced, and the individual is suspended by ropes. Since images of the Plains Indian people have come to represent all Natives, people assume Sharp set this scene in New Mexico.”

In contrast to the angst of The Stoic, Gerald Cassidy’s beautifully rendered lithograph Sand Storm depicts a pair of horses pulling a covered wagon headlong into a gale. Cassidy revels in the sooty tones that can only be achieved in stone lithography. The canvas cover acts almost like a parachute, pulling the team backward across New Mexico.

Oscar Berninghaus’s harmonious watercolor Making Camp is the most sensitive image in the exhibition. Awide panorama of cows and cowboys centers around a chuck wagon. This kind of image became predictable by the 1930s, and Hollywood westerns would mine it later in the decade with singing cowboys and anachronistic tales of gunfights and outlaws. But Torres-Nez condenses the scene to a political point, noting, “Where there used to be a sea of bison and a natural state of the plains now lies a sea of cattle and settlers.”

White Hat, White Horse, White Guy refers to Fred Scott, a popular singing-cowboy star in the 1930s. Betty Hahn loves a photograph of him all in white (except his boots), the epitome of perfection. She says that the “white guy” heroes in the films of the 1930s and 1940s represented women, Native people, Chinese, and Mexicans “as slightly incompetent” and in need of saving by just such a perfect white guy. Hahn, who grew up watching The Lone Ranger on TV, often wondered why Tonto solved the crisis, but the Lone Ranger got the credit. Nobody asked, “Who was that Native American man?”

Bill Schenck transforms the symbolic horse into a fusion of Pop Art and Pop Culture based on Hollywood stereotypes. Coming Down from the Mountain presents flattened planes of color in an image reminiscent of paint-by-numbers craft projects from the 1950s. Schenck is commenting on the popularization of horses and the West into clichés that lose their affective power.

Some of the works in Back in the Saddle needed to be cleaned, lightly repaired, and reframed before they could be shown. After being cleaned and getting a new, appropriate frame, Olive Rush’s oil painting Santa Fe Hillside looks totally different. Rush was one of the first European American artists working in New Mexico in the twentieth century, and her works are known for bright colors, loose applications of paint, and flattened, lightly abstracted forms.

Aclose look at the labels of these works reveals connections between artists, collectors, commerce, and the museum. Joseph Henry Sharp helped start the collection by donating The Stoic to the museum for its November 1917 opening exhibition. Rebecca Salsbury Strand James, the modernist painter and friend of Georgia O’Keeffe, donated Making Camp, by Oscar Berninghaus, while his Spring Plowing was a gift from philanthropists Dr. and Mrs. Albert Simms. In cooperation with the New Mexico Council of Photography, Gil Hitchcock donated Eliot Porter’s Dead Horse, Arizona. And well-known critic and art historian Lucy Lippard, who has promoted art outside of the European American mainstream, donated her collections to the museum, including Luis Jiménez’s print A Gaulope.

New Mexico artists have incorporated horses in their imagery since the 1880s. We believe that these paintings, photographs, prints, and drawings capture the changing spirit of southwest art, reflecting its ethnic diversity and fusions of aesthetic styles.

Joseph Traugott is curator of twentieth-century art at the New Mexico Museum of Art where his exhibition It’s About Time: 14,000 Years of Art in New Mexico is on display through the end of the year. He has written widely on New Mexico art and artists, and New Mexico Art through Time: Prehistory to the Present recently won the Ralph Emerson Twitchell Award, given by the Historical Society of New Mexico.