Joe Traugott, Always on Display
WITH LAURA ADDISON
Curator Laura Addison’s many contributions to El Palacio include “That Was Then, This Is It,” a history of the magazine, which is online at elpalacio.org. We asked her to interview another of our regular contributors, Joseph Traugott, to mark the occasion of El Palacio’s birthday and Traugott’s retirement from the New Mexico Museum of Art.
Addison: Joe, I just wanted to start with the fact you retired in July.
Traugott: Yes, I was at the New Mexico Museum of Art for seventeen and a half years. Before that, I held curatorial positions at the University of New Mexico at the Art Museum, the Jonson Gallery, and the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology.
Addison: You’ve been in New Mexico for how many years?
Traugott: Just thirty-four years. I came in 1979 as a graduate student in studio art—printmaking—at the University of New Mexico and stayed long enough to finish a doctorate in American studies while working as a curator at the U.
Addison: Why don’t you share a little of your background before you came to New Mexico. What was your first curatorial position?
Traugott: I worked in the printing trades first as a linotype mechanic, and then an offset press mechanic, before taking my first museum position at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City. I was the curator of the Model Ship Gallery and left after a year to work for I. M. Pei as a model maker.
Addison: What does a curator of model-making do?
Traugott: We organized exhibitions of model ships, displaying them in their historic context. I taught model building at night and installed a workbench in the front of the gallery with an old-salt volunteer—a retired vice president from Union Carbide—who built models as a demonstration and answered questions. It was surprisingly popular.
Addison: You were on display.
Traugott: Always on display.
Addison: Did you actually put ships in bottles?
Traugott: Sure. There is a collection of empty bottles awaiting ships in my study.
Addison: As your colleague at the Museum of Art, I saw that you have very clear objectives in how you want to retell the history of New Mexico art. Did you have those in ’96?
Traugott: I came to the Museum of Art to present Native American, Hispanic, and European American art in a holistic manner. My perspective on New Mexico art really was forged in Albuquerque while working as a freelance art writer for the Albuquerque Journal in the 1980s. It bothered me that “art” usually meant European American. Native American and Hispanic art weren’t on the radar and always seemed subordinated to mainstream traditions.
Addison: It seems to me that one of your goals was to be more representative of all the state’s artists.
Traugott: That was always the goal from the beginning, back to 1990 at Jonson Gallery. It was very important to me to bring a diverse mix of artists and aesthetic perspectives to the public. Most exhibitions were group projects—Art Lives/Art Lives: Art in Response to an Encounter with Cancer, Aesthetically Correct/Aesthetically Incorrect, and of course Thanks for the Mimbres—that covered everything from ancient vessels to real estate signs. But then Rick Dillingham, Elizabeth Kay, Florence Pierce, and Charles Ross each had one-person shows. Vincent Craig’s project Muttonman Discovers Columbus traveled from the Jonson to the Experimental Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.
These projects allowed me to present artists along with bits of material culture—like an atomic depth charge—in Appropriation/Transformation. The National Atomic Museum lent the nuclear casing, and gallery display transformed it into a work of art. We didn’t appreciate the power of this idea until a Chinese printmaker and government official came by the gallery and was stunned to see a nuclear weapon sitting there on display—and in an art museum no less. It was such a charged political object, and one he had only heard about, but never seen. When we picked it up the rules were strict. You couldn’t show it while driving it across town because it would create a panic. We winched the bomb in its wheeled carrier onto the back of a tow truck and tied it down. Then we had to completely tarp the thing so that no one would know we were transporting a bomb to the Jonson.
Addison: This last show that you did at the Museum of Art included one of Robert Goddard’s experimental rocket motors from 1931–32. You have a history of recontextualizing objects, and posing the question: what is art?
Traugott: Always pose the question of what is art. People bring their own biases to the museum and it is important for us, as curators, to challenge people to rethink their ideas. Viewers become the artists and recontextualize nonart into art. I have a history of showing motorcycles as art, beginning with a 1989 show called Motorcycling in New Mexico—a small exhibit in the teaching gallery at UNM.
Addison: It’s been your curatorial philosophy to basically make interventions into other fields of study by way of art history. For example in It’s About Time: 14,000 Years of Art in New Mexico, you had design, technology, and archaeology; you also reconsidered stone tools.
Traugott: It’s very important for us to think in an interdisciplinary manner, and understand that objects have multiple meanings. A stone tool is a functional object, but it can also be a work of art. An atomic bomb can also be a conceptual object—a conceptual work of art.
Addison: This interdisciplinary strategy has allowed you to make inroads into other audiences and to bring up social issues.
Traugott: When we did Motorcycling in New Mexico at the UNM Art Museum—and this was years before the Guggenheim Museum in New York did The Art of the Motorcycle—we organized a ride on Sunday morning for the opening of the exhibition. We had 200 Harley-Davidsons with 300 male and female riders, all in their black leathers, milling through the Fine Arts Center. Quite a scene. We served punch, and we made sure that we got the smallest teacups that we could find. These very large bikers had trouble holding the small punch cups by the handle, but they loved the tea sandwiches with the crusts cut off that Director Peter Walch made that morning at 2:00 a.m.
For many years art museums rejected the idea that politics, or political issues, or social issues are appropriate subjects for art. New Mexico art reflects our lives, our culture, our politics, our ethnic perspectives, our religious perspectives and views the world in a very broad and encompassing manner. And audiences respond to topics that are relevant to them, and these exhibitions draw new audiences to the museum.
Addison: What were some of the highlights of your career at the New Mexico Museum of Art?
Traugott: Well, I really loved the first big show that I did—O’Keeffe’s New Mexico—that coincided with the opening of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in 1997. I think much of our audience thought that they were going to see a large number of O’Keeffe paintings. But there were only two. O’Keeffe’s New Mexico was a broad look at New Mexico art from 1800 to the present and made the point that O’Keeffe was only one of many important artists who had worked here. It was the first really intercultural exhibition that I did here at the art museum.
O’Keeffe’s New Mexico included an interesting selection of Native American and Hispanic works woven into what most people thought would be a high-modern, mainstream, European American exhibition.
While working on O’Keeffe’s New Mexico it became clear that potholes existed in the museum’s modernist collection, and I worked hard to fill them. My major acquisitions include works by Stuart Davis, Rebecca Salsbury [Strand] James, Raymond Jonson, Agnes Pelton, Florence Miller Pierce, Esquipula Romero de Romero, and Stuart Walker. More contemporary acquisitions include T. C. Cannon, Barton Beneš, Frederick Hammersley, Bill Lumpkins, and Virgil Ortiz.
Addison: What else? Any other of your products you’ve been most proud of?
Traugott: Thirteen years ago Duane Anderson and I did Tourist Icons: Kitsch, Camp and Fine Art along Route 66 at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. It brought together an eclectic mix of Native American art and cultural traditions, including 500 pairs of Native American–made or Native-subject salt and pepper shakers.
Addison: Whose collection was that?
Traugott: Andrea Fisher’s collection. We also included a variety of works that went from what most people think of as “kitsch,” to the most incredible pieces of Native American art from the twentieth century. All of that was shown with 1950s road tunes and doo-wop oldies playing in the background. Visitors really got their kicks as they looked at this range of materials about western culture and Native American art.
Addison: What about writing for El Palacio? You’ve written countless articles for them over the years.
Traugott: For a century El Pal has been an important vehicle for curators. We spend a lot of time thinking about the art from the intellectual perspective. What is more important is translating those academic ideas into words and images that a broader audience can understand. Translating a 300-page book into a 1,500-word essay, and making it interesting and provocative, is really essential to producing an exhibition that really connects with the public.
There’s a humanist perspective El Pal expresses. I’m thinking specifically of Maxine McBrinn’s memorial discussion in the last issue about Southwestern archaeologist Linda Cordell, and her relationship with her, and Linda’s importance to the art and culture of New Mexico.
One of the things about Cordell that most people don’t know is that she was very interested in art, and was not just an archaeologist. She was a wonderful foil for me while working on 14,000 Years of Art in New Mexico, was always challenging, and offered great suggestions for moving forward.
The nice thing about Santa Fe is that there are so many talented people like Cordell who make New Mexico really an intellectually provocative and aesthetically exciting place to live.
Addison: I always find for myself that writing the article for El Palacio, in terms of the development of the curatorial project, is really helpful for distilling my ideas.
Addison: It helps for my own thinking in terms of what to communicate in the gallery.
Traugott: Exactly. Sole Mates was a show that benefited from the El Pal essay.
Addison: What was that?
Traugott: Sole Mates: Cowboy Boots and Art allowed us to show western art in the context of an iconic western image—cowboy boots. It was remarkably popular, even though some thought of that subject matter as being thin. I found it fascinating, and the material ranged from cowboy boots to fine art, and the most high-end cowboy boots that you can imagine. I know that a lot of people who are not boot folks were more interested in the connections that we were drawing between the art of the West and these iconic images of western-ness.
Addison: Now that you’re retired, what projects are you working on?
Traugott: Retired? I’m not really retired. I’m continuing a project that began with It’s About Time: 14,000 Years of Art in New Mexico. I’m expanding work on a Native American design strategy first investigated in this exhibition. That strategy involves Ancestral Pueblo artists who created paired design motifs that present visual ambiguities. As viewers we see those ambiguities as optical illusions. I am calling them isomers and isomeric design—that’s Greek: iso for equal and mer for form—equal-form designs. Isomeric design has not been discussed in either the art-historical or the archaeological literature.
Addison: Did you coin the term? It is “isomeric,” right? Or “isometric”?
Traugott: Isomeric. Isomer is a concept that chemists use and may be the only thing I remembered from taking chemistry as a junior in high school. Isomers are two compounds that have the same chemical formula, but the atoms are arranged in a different structural order. Hence, they create two different, but related chemicals. My point with applying that idea to Native American design is that these images flip and flop back and forth. Visually they create a figure and ground instability. At one point, you’ll see a black image on white background. Then it will flip in your mind, and you’ll see a white image on a dark background. It’s wow stuff.
All of us have difficulty seeing this because we have all been taught to read and recognize black patterns on white paper. When you’ve trained your mind to see black on white words for decades, seeing the reverse is very difficult. But if you take your glasses off, stare at these images, and let your eyes unfocus, all of a sudden the transformation will appear. Really!
Addison: What about model making? Are you going back to your roots?
Traugott: I’ve never left my roots. I think one of my greatest pleasures at the museum was always flying ultralight, rubber band-powered model airplanes in St. Francis Auditorium, bouncing them off the light fixtures! The models weigh half a gram, fly very slowly, and are truly magical. If they ran into something, they would do no damage.
Addison: A lot of people know you as the guy with the suspenders and the bow tie. A lot of people don’t realize that you’re also an artist. Are you able to get in the studio?
Traugott: I’ve been thinking about that. I bought some paper. I need to make some studio equipment. I’d like to get back to drawing, but before I can really do that I need to finish playing with the isomer project. I think it’s very difficult for former artists who have become curators to make the transition back, to being just an artist. I certainly feel that I have approached curatorial activities from the perspective of an artist, not as an art historian. I think I’ve brought an artist’s sensibility to the gallery. Part of that transformation is in the writing of expanded label narratives. Over the years I have worked to make labels that answer the kind of questions a visitor might ask if they were standing next to the artist in the gallery. One of the things that I did in It’s About Time: 14,000 Years of Art in New Mexico was to reverse the order of things. Instead of revealing the name of the work of art first and then telling them something about it, I answered a question about the work before I told them who made it and what it’s called.
I worked very hard on the first sentence of those narratives to challenge the viewer to read on, and offer them something that they didn’t expect. If you write a label that starts, “Mary Smith first came to New Mexico in 1918,” you’ve already put your audience to sleep.
Addison: How has humor played into that? You clearly use humor a great deal.
Traugott: Humor is one of the essential components of good exhibitions. I try very hard to create titles with plays on words.
Addison: It’s a way of quickly relating to your viewers, capturing their attention.
Traugott: I think so. Punning is a metaphor of what I’m trying to do with the exhibition. When you make a pun, a single sound or phrase has multiple meanings. I want people to look at a rocket engine that Robert Goddard made, and think of it not just as technology, but think of it as a conceptual work of art—a conceptual work of art that tells us about the times and the context of when that object was made. And to realize that the cutting-edge technology quickly becomes antiquated.
Addison: Like a pun, that object would have multiple meanings.
Traugott: Multiple meanings? Yes. I came to the museum with three ideas about art. One was that I wanted to tell the history of art in New Mexico, in the Southwest, as a single history—not as three cultures chopped up into little pieces—but one tradition. Very complex in terms of its aesthetic ideas, and very complex in terms of the ethnic cultures who have come to New Mexico, and have borrowed ideas from each another. The second thing is that New Mexico is really the only place in the world where the history of technological invention ranges from stone tools, 14,000-year-old stone tools, to the atomic bomb. This is the only place where that kind of invention can be presented as an unbroken history. The art of New Mexico is clearly a reflection, and a by-product, of those technological and social experiences. Finally, art is a very important healing medium. We have not always treated each other kindly. Art is one of those vehicles that allows us to overcome how we have treated our fellow humans in an inhumane manner. n
Laura Addison is curator of North American and European folk art at the Museum of International Folk Art. She was previously curator of contemporary art at the New Mexico Museum of Art (2002–2013), where her basement office was next door to Joseph Traugott’s. She is a frequent contributor to El Palacio.