taos art history
Since 1300 AD, Taos Pueblo residents have created art from the dirt (literally) found in this valley. Micaceous pottery is made of clay found in the Sangre de Cristo mountains that surround Taos and Picuris Pueblos. The sparkling flecks of mica embedded in the pottery are rumored to be the source of the Spanish conquistador’s belief that the Rio Grande Valley was home to “Cibola” – one of the cities of gold. Micaceous pottery continues to be used for cooking by Pueblo Indians and local chefs alike. The clay is also used to create fine art pieces available in Taos galleries and museum shops. Millicent Rogers Museum displays a collection of rare historic micaceous pottery from Taos as well as pottery from other northern New Mexico pueblos – the San Ildefonso Maria Martinez family black-on-black collection is the prize of the museum’s collection.
The need to produce wearable apparel in this rugged and isolated location spawned another traditional art form: weaving. Nomadic Navajo Indians migrated into northern New Mexico shortly before the Spanish arrived in 1540. They learned spinning and weaving skills from the Pueblo Indians, using portable vertical looms, and later adopted the use of wool from the Spanish. Like Navajo weavers, Spanish colonists living along the Rio Grande basin made beautiful and functional weavings. They wove striking blankets on a fixed treadle loom. This loom, of European heritage, produced long, narrow, lengths of cloth. Weavers commonly created two matching pieces of cloth which they sewed together to achieve the width they desired. Millicent Rogers Museum has an extensive display of historic Navajo and Rio Grande blankets from the mid-1800s through the present day. Several Taos galleries exhibit work by contemporary weavers. There are villages surrounding Taos that still raise sheep, spin wool, and weave textiles in much the same way their ancestors did.
The Spaniards brought their religious traditions to Taos valley and over the years these symbols and artistic techniques merged and melded with those of the Pueblo residents. One can experience the early Spanish Colonial times of Taos by a visit to the Martinez Hacienda, a uniquely preserved fortress occupied by Padre Martinez’s family in the 1800s. There are today strong traditional artistic movements within both the Spanish and Pueblo communities that continue to create retablos (santos painted on flat pieces of wood), bultos (santos carved out of wood and sometimes painted), as well as tin work, jewelry, and basketry. All these art forms are on view at Taos museums and available to purchase at galleries and at annual art fairs.
A pivotal moment in Taos art history happened on a sunny fall day in 1898. It happened with a broken wagon wheel. That wheel was on a horse-drawn carriage transporting two European-trained east coast artists to Mexico. Bert G. Phillips and Ernest L. Blumenschein stayed in the Taos area to have the wheel repaired, became enchanted with the light and the rich culture and stayed. Word spread in Paris, New York, and St Louis; associates of the two artists began visiting Taos. In 1915, the first formal meeting of the Taos Society of Artists was held with six members present. Over the next few years the membership grew to twelve. Prime examples of the work created by these artists are on display at Harwood Museum of Art, Taos Art Museum at the Fechin House, and Blumenschein Home and Museum.
Sometimes a few influential individuals can change the nature of a community. Two of these people, Mabel Dodge and Millicent Rogers, independently discovered Taos in the early 1900s, settled, and began inviting their circles of creative friends to visit. The likes of DH Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Ansel Adams came and created and invited more friends to visit. Many stayed and are part of the art history of Taos.
After World War II, yet another group of artists began relocating to Taos from New York and San Francisco. Many of this group became know as “Taos Moderns,” appreciating the magical light and the majestic landscape but translating these influences into abstraction. Harwood Museum of Art has a permanent display of works by Taos Moderns.
The summer of love in the late 1960s turned Taos life upside down and started yet another influx of creative beings, many from southern California. The hippie era of communes and free love was immortalized in Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider” film. Hopper moved to Taos as did many of his artist friends. These artists were sculptors, photographers, installation artists as well as painters and many are still working in Taos today.
A stroll through the museums and galleries of Taos will expose the perceptive visitor to influences from all these eras of Taos art. One can find hints of the past in contemporary landscape paintings, sacred art objects, political commentary, the functional arts, photography, jewelry … a myriad of art forms. In Taos creativity is a tradition and a way of life. Print a copy of Historic Taos, a walking tour of 22 Taos landmarks (1.2MB PDF file).