Saturday, 13 August 2016

In Mabeltown

Nicolai Fechin, portrait of Mabel Dodge Luhan, 1927 (Harwood Museum)
Where to start? I've seen so much art in the past three weeks that it would take me a year to write about all of it. But one highlight was a visit to the Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico, where the exhibition 'Mabel Dodge Luhan and Company' is currently running.

'Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company', Harwood Museum, gallery view

Subtitled 'American Moderns and the West', the exhibition explores the role of the New York socialite in bringing artists and writers to the isolated New Mexican town of Taos. Lying on the edge of a great plain against a backdrop of mountains, a few miles from the ancient and impressive Taos Pueblo, the town was home to a handful of artists when Mabel Dodge arrived in 1918. Almost immediately she fell in love with Tony Lujan, a Taos Pueblo Indian and sent her latest husband (she had already despatched several) back east, prior to marrying Tony.

C19 painted retablo (Harwood Museum)
She then set about turning Taos into a bona fide art colony, building a vast house (today an inn and conference centre) and inviting every one of the numerous artists and writers she knew to visit. The list is impressive, from Marsden Hartley and Georgia O'Keeffe to DH Lawrence and Willa Cather, who wrote part of 'Death Comes for the Archbishop' at the Luhan house. So successful was the enterprise, in face, that Taos became known as Mabeltown.

Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, C1850 (Harwood Museum)
There are some wonderful pictures in the exhibition, notably works by John Marin, Andrew Dasburg and Emil Bisttram, but what I really enjoyed was the juxtaposition of Pueblo Indian and Spanish-American artworks and artefacts and the paintings inspired by the people and scene of northern New Mexico. A pair of home-made crosses are presented beside an O'Keeffe painting of a cross (at least one other O'Keeffe was requested for the show but was sent to London instead...), and there are works by Pueblo artists as well as paintings of Pueblo people.

Emil Bisttram, Taos Indian Woman Plasterer, c1930s
The exhibition is lively, adventurous and beautifully curated. After roaming the rooms for a while I set off into the intense dry heat of Taos to visit the Mabel Dodge Luhan house, where her convivial spirit still holds court. I wandered in and was immediately invited to have coffee and make myself at home - a welcome in distinct contrast to the one we received at the O'Keeffe house in Abiquiu the day before. We arrived on the off-chance for a quick look at the place to discover that it was closed. The man who gave us this news then refused our request to take a picture of the view from the carpark, positioning himself like a sentry between us and the view lest we try to steal one.

Storage Jar, San Ildefonso Pueblo
So it was Mabel 1: Georgia 0 in terms of welcome. But then Ms Luhan's great skill (aside from her prolific writing) lay in welcoming people to her house, whereas O'Keeffe's lay in being one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century. Of which more in due course...


Dorothy Brett, Turtle Dance, c1940s


John Marin, New Mexico nr Taos, 1929 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)


Laughing Horse magazine, c1920s


Interior, Mabel Luhan House, Taos


Under the portale, Mabel Luhan House, Taos


Exterior, Mabel Luhan House, Taos


Interior, Mabel Luhan House, Taos

'Mabel Dodge Luhan and Company' runs at the Harwood Museum, Taos, until September, then travels to Albuquerque, NM, and Buffalo, NY.

If you're planning a visit to Taos, you might want to stay at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. I certainly plan to, one day.


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