Enchanted: Taos Art from Texas Collections | Panhandle-Plains Museum

By Michael Grauer

Enchanted: Taos Art from Texas Collections, is on view at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, TX, September 5-November 15.

Catharine Critcher, Taos Farmers [1929], oil, 40 x 36., painting, southwest art.
Catharine Critcher, Taos Farmers [1929], oil, 40 x 36.

When Taos founder W. Herbert Dunton exhibited 25 works at the Herring Hotel in Amarillo, TX, in February 1930, the Amarillo Daily News hailed the exhibition as more successful “than any other art project brought to Amarillo.” Dunton’s popularity in Amarillo underscored an overwhelming interest in and support of Taos art that was prevalent in Texas during the first half of the 20th century and continues to this day. The proliferation of historic Taos art in both public and private collections across Texas is an interesting chapter in American art patronage.

In terms of breadth, depth, and quality, H.J. Lutcher Stark of Orange, TX, amassed the most important Taos art collection anywhere, now housed at the Stark Museum of Art in Orange. The collection is so significant that it easily deserves its own article, so our discussion here focuses on other collections across the state.

The blend of Anglo, Hispanic, and Native American cultures that drew artists to New Mexico also struck a chord with Texas collectors in the first half of this century. Vacationing or maintaining second homes in places such as Ruidoso, Santa Fe, and Taos, Texans often returned to the Lone Star State with artworks to remind them of the Land of Enchantment just to the west. In addition, a number of Texas artists studied with Taos artists and collected their works during this period, and arts leaders in Texas encouraged exhibitions and collecting of Taos art.

J.W. Lockwood, Magic of the Snow [date unknown], watercolor, 16 x 22, painting, southwest art.
J.W. Lockwood, Magic of the Snow [date unknown], watercolor, 16 x 22

Dunton was among the Taos artists with strong Texas connections. He had solo exhibitions in the 1920s and ’30s in most of the major cities in Texas including Amarillo, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Galveston, Houston, and San Antonio. Dunton may have seen his own interests in cowboy life as particularly appealing to Texans and geared works such as The Texan, Old Texas, and Texas of Old accordingly.

Joseph Fleck, too, exhibited frequently in Texas. When the Great Depression decreased tourist traffic to Taos, Fleck resolved to “go to the clients,” beginning in 1934. According to his son, Joseph Fleck Jr., going to the clients “usually meant Oklahoma and Texas, where oil was still putting money in people’s pockets.” Fleck’s wife had family connections in Fort Worth, which helped the artist make contacts. Says his son: “He would load paintings into the back seat and trunk of his unheated ‘blue baby,’ head down the narrow, deeply furrowed dirt road through the Rio Grande canyon to Santa Fe, and from there travel over frozen unpaved roads to Tucumcari and across the Texas Panhandle.”

Doel Reed, Sangre de Cristo Range [date unknown], oil, 293⁄8 x 443⁄8., painting, southwest art.
Doel Reed, Sangre de Cristo Range [date unknown], oil, 293⁄8 x 443⁄8.

Another Taos artist touring Texas in the 1930s was E. Martin Hennings. Hennings first brought his paintings to the state in 1938 and for the next few years spent three months each year painting portraits in Houston.

The history of Texans’ patronage of Taos artists spans the state from the Panhandle to San Antonio and from Orange to El Paso. West Texas turned its aesthetic eye toward Taos early in this century. Typically, West Texans acquired directly from the artists’ studios or from exhibitions of Taos art in their home state rather than from Taos dealers.

Ernest Blumenschein, The Gift  [date unknown], oil, 401⁄2 x 401⁄2., painting, southwest art.
Ernest Blumenschein, The Gift  [date unknown], oil, 401⁄2 x 401⁄2.

Victor Higgins’ solo exhibition in Amarillo in 1922 under the newly founded Amarillo Art Association was the first exhibition by a Taos artist in the Texas Panhandle. The association purchased Higgins’ major painting The White Gateway from the exhibition. In addition, Amarillo civic leaders commissioned Higgins’ Palo Duro Can-yon, which Higgins authority Dean A. Porter calls one of the artist’s finest pure landscapes. Unfortunately for Texas, Palo Duro Canyon now hangs in the Eiteljorg Museum of Amer-ican Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, IN.

Later the Amarillo Art Association sponsored Dun-ton’s 1930 exhibition in Amarillo. The artist praised the association for “doing much to make West Texas ‘art minded.’” The following year, the association borrowed paintings from Taos artists Dunton, Hen-nings, Joseph Imhof, brothers Carl and Wood Woolsey, and Mary Grey for an exhibition at Amarillo’s Tri-State Fair.

W. Herbert Dunton, Old Texas [c1929], oil, 281⁄8 x 391⁄8., painting, southwest art.
W. Herbert Dunton, Old Texas [c1929], oil, 281⁄8 x 391⁄8.

The Amarillo public school system recognized the importance of exposing students to art and organized several exhibitions in the late 1920s focusing on both the fine and decorative arts. Panhandle residents flocked to the 1929 E. Irving Couse exhibition, the school system’s crowning achievement.

Beginning in the 1940s, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, which opened in 1933 in Canyon, became the center for New Mexico art appreciation in the Panhandle through two gifts of New Mexico art and a series of exhibitions that followed. The first gift came from James D. Hamlin, an eclectic collector from Farwell on the Texas-New Mexico border. Hamlin began donating his entire art collection to the museum in 1942, including some 170 pieces of New Mexico art.

Victor Higgins, Palo Duro Canyon [1923], oil, 40 x 50., painting, southwest art.
Victor Higgins, Palo Duro Canyon [1923], oil, 40 x 50.

Hamlin had started visiting Taos and Santa Fe around 1917 and summered at both spots during the 1930s. He focused on collecting paintings by Frank Paul Sauerwein, whom he learned about from Taos’ Thomas P. “Doc” Martin, a close friend. Hamlin accumulated 90 of his works.

In spite of his modest means, Hamlin acquired an impressive New Mexico art collection encompassing works by the founders of the Taos Society of Artists (except Couse and Sharp), later TSA members Walter Ufer and Kenneth Adams, and Taos artists Dorothy Brett, Leon Gaspard, Imhof, Gisella Loeffler, and Nicolai Fechin, to name a few. In fact, Hamlin’s Fechin collection numbered six pieces, including an important portrait of Fechin’s daughter Eya, The Green Necklace.

Gene Kloss, Spring Lights-Valdez Valley [1944], watercolor, 215⁄8 x 293⁄8., painting, southwest art.
Gene Kloss, Spring Lights-Valdez Valley [1944], watercolor, 215⁄8 x 293⁄8.

To share his collection with Texans, Hamlin gave it to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society in 1948, establishing the museum as the major public venue for New Mexico art in the Panhandle.

Johnie Griffin of Wichita Falls followed the Hamlin gift by donating several pieces of Taos art to the museum beginning in the mid-1950s. Born in Kansas, Griffin married into a ranching family near Wichita Falls and then purchased a home at Ranchos de Taos in the 1940s. She renovated the house with architectural elements purchased from crumbling buildings in northern New Mexico, then filled it with furniture and paintings from Europe as well as from the American Southwest and Mexico.

Barbara Latham, Juanito [c1948], watercolor, 22 x 141⁄2., painting, southwest art.
Barbara Latham, Juanito [c1948], watercolor, 22 x 141⁄2.

Griffin knew most of the Taos artists and was a regular visitor to their studios. She held dinner parties where frequent guests were Andrew Dasburg, Joseph and Mable Fleck, Ward and Clyde Lockwood, and “Tinka” Fechin (the artist’s ex-wife). Other occasional visitors included Dorothy Brett, Frieda Lawrence, Gisella Loeffler, and patron Mabel Dodge Luhan. Consequently, Griffin amassed an impressive collection of works by many Taos artists.

With the Griffin and Hamlin collections, the museum launched an ambitious Taos art exhibition program in the 1950s and ’60s, continuing the tradition begun by the Amarillo Art Association in the 1920s. The museum’s Taos exhibitions encouraged Panhan-dle collectors to acquire works by Taos artists. E.I. Couse was the most widely collected New Mexico artist, followed by Joseph Sharp, who welcomed many a Panhandle collector to his Taos studio. Today, many of these works purchased by Panhandle patrons in the 1920s and ’30s remain in their respective families.

Further down the Panhandle, Lubbock also enjoyed a strong relationship with the Taos art colony. In 1931 the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs held its 34th annual meeting in Lubbock, which included an art exhibition with a $500 purchase award. Among the 280 entrants were Taos artists Sharp, Ufer, and Fleck. While Fleck may have entered his Texas Cow Puncher to cater to Texan tastes, neither he nor the other Taos artists won prizes.

The now-defunct Texas Tech Art Institute in Lubbock hosted a major exhibition in 1938 that influenced much of West Texas. The Artists of Taos included works by Taos founders as well as newcomers to the colony such as Gene Kloss, Ward Lockwood, and Duane Van Vechten. Interest ran so high that the exhibition traveled to San Angelo, Wichita Falls, Sulphur Springs, Amarillo, and Canyon.

Texas Tech College (now Texas Tech University) began acquiring Taos art for its museum in the 1950s and today boasts a 125-piece Taos art collection. In 1960 the West Texas Museum Association started buying Taos art for the Tech museum, and it continues the practice today. In 1994 the association purchased a Dasburg pastel for the collection.

Continuing south, Mid-land holds at least four major collections of Taos art, only one of which is public. The Fred T. and Novadean Hogan Collection at the Museum of the Southwest includes works by all the founders of the Taos Society of Artists plus later members Adams, E.M. Hennings, Higgins, and Ufer. Dallas probably promoted Taos art more consistently than any other city. From as early as 1901, when Joseph Sharp exhibited four paintings at the State Fair of Texas, through the mid-20th century, Taos artists were represented in group and solo exhibitions in Dallas.

As the center of the Region-alist movement in Texas in the late 1920s and early ’30s, Dallas and many of its artists had ties to Taos, especially Alexandre Hogue and Jerry Bywaters. As a close friend of both Dunton and Ernest Blumenschein, Hogue wrote articles on the former for the Regionalist journal The Southwest Review as well as for the Dallas Morning News.

Regionalist artist Bywaters, the art critic for The Dallas Morning News, was also a strong supporter of the Taos artists. When he became director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now the Dallas Museum of Art) in 1943, he continued actively promoting southwestern art in the museum’s exhibition program.

Even before Bywaters’ tenure, the Dallas museum had exhibited artists from the Taos colony. In 1936, in conjunction with the Texas Centennial Exposition, the museum held an inaugural exhibition including some 600 works by European and American artists. The exhibit received national attention, including coverage in the The Art Digest, which devoted its entire June 1936 issue to the Dallas show, calling it one of the most important art exhibitions of the century. Taos artists were featured in a section titled Southwest Painting.

Under Bywaters, the Dallas museum continued to exhibit Taos artists. For example, in a 1947 group exhibition titled Six Southwestern States, Bywaters included works by Taos artists Adams, Emil Bisttram, Dasburg, and Higgins. Also in the 1940s, Bisttram, Imhof, Dasburg, and Georgia O’Keeffe had solo exhibitions at the museum. Unfor-tunately, only a handful of Taos works became part of the permanent collection before 1950, although an anonymous donor gave the museum Higgins’ im-portant A Mountain Ceremony [c1930] in 1934.

Dallas also holds a cache of major Bert Phillips paintings. When Phillips was stricken with appendicitis in the early 1900s, he was taken to the hospital at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in Pueblo, CO. Following a successful operation, the surgeon and Phillips became close friends and they and their families visited each other in Pueblo and Taos. The surgeon eventually acquired 12 paintings from Phillips, and the artist gave two to the doctor’s daughter. Today, eight of these 12 works by Phillips are in the daughter’s home in Dallas.

The San Antonio Art League, founded in 1910, collected works by Taos artists more actively than any other group in Texas. Beginning with its 1926 purchase of Dunton’s The Cowpunchers, the league eventually added paintings by Oscar E. Ber-ninghaus, Howard Cook, Catharine Critcher, Das-burg, Fleck, and Loren Mozley to its collection.

Taos artists began exhibiting in San Antonio through the art league as early as 1926, when Dunton showed there. The following year the league began holding the San Antonio Competitive Exhi-bition sponsored by oil man Edgar B. Davis. The exhibition offered significant prize money: By 1928 the total amount was $15,500. When the Taos artists learned of the large prizes, they sent entries for the 1928 exhibition. Dunton and Berninghaus entered paintings in the Texas Ranch Life division, and each received honorable mention. The art league purchased the prize-winning works, which toured the United States later that fall.

The 1929 and final competitive exhibition included five Taos artists: Berninghaus, Critcher, Dunton, Fleck, and Hen-nings. Hennings received the $3,000 grand prize for his painting Thistle Blossoms, which the art league purchased. The league later deaccessioned the painting, and its current owner placed it on long-term loan to the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. Over the next decade, the San Antonio Art League sponsored exhibitions by Blumen-schein, Fleck, Barbara Latham, Dasburg, Hig-gins, and Howard Cook.

Marion Koogler Mc-Nay, who was married to Victor Higgins from 1937 to 1940, not only supported Higgins during their marriage but also acquired some of his watercolors. Following their divorce, however, McNay purged all of Higgins’ works from her collection. Still, she had a significant collection of works by other Taos artists. Her 1950 bequest to the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum included pieces by Adams, Bisttram, Cook, Dunton, Imhof, and Lockwood as well as a watercolor of Taos by John Marin. In Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts began exhibiting Taos artworks with a Dunton show in 1925. Other exhibitions soon followed of Blumenschein, Fleck, Bisttram, Kloss, Lockwood, Fechin, and Cook.

The Houston museum also began collecting Taos art in the 1920s, acquiring paintings by Berninghaus, Couse, Hennings, and Ufer. In 1934 it attempted to create an “Endowment Collection” and asked artists of national standing to donate paintings. Of at least six Taos artists who were asked, only Bisttram and Sharp responded with gifts. Over the next couple of decades, the museum also acquired a few more Ufer paintings, which remain in its collection.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Taos art colony. Thanks to the interest of Texas institutions and patrons, a wealth of artistic gems from these early Taos artists resides in public and private collections in the Lone Star State.

Featured in September 1998

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