Tony Abeyta | Looking Forward


Remembrance [1999], mixed media, 40 x 30, private collection. southwest art.
Remembrance [1999], mixed media, 40 x 30, private collection.

By Norman Kolpas

A 10-year retrospective exhibition of works by Tony Abeyta was held early last year at the respected Southwest Museum’s new outpost within the ever-expanding Los Angeles County Museum of Art complex. On the surface, the critically acclaimed exhibit seemed no different from other shows that celebrate long-term accomplishments by mature artists. The difference in this case, however, was that its subject was barely 34 years old at the time. The retrospective traced back to works Abeyta began early in his career after finishing his bachelor of fine arts degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art, his masters studies at the Santa Fe Institute of Fine Arts, and his post baccalaureate program at the Art Institute of Chicago.

“That Tony Abeyta, in his relative youth, is the subject of a 10-year retrospective at one of the nation’s most distinguished museums of American Indian art and culture speaks volumes about the talents and accomplishments of this gifted artist,” wrote W. Richard West, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, in his introduction to the exhibition catalog. Such a tribute from a leading figure in the museum world further underscored the remarkable nature of the artist and his creations.

What engenders such ardent respect for a man still in his relative youth? Survey some of Tony Abeyta’s recent paintings, including those on view in August at Blue Rain Gallery in Taos, NM, and you immediately begin to sense a dynamic combination of primitive power, traditional sensibility, and modern attitude. Night Waters,  for example, from a large and growing body of paintings Abeyta calls his Deity Series, conjures the presence of Navajo religious healers and spiritual icons in large canvases richly textured by the artist’s signature blend of oil paint and sand.

Tony Abeyta. photo, southwest art.
Tony Abeyta

The nearly 50 paintings in his Remembrance Series capture more meditative moments, combining oil, sand, and three-dimensional objects such as sticks and beadwork in mesmerizing symmetrical patterns. “These are very immediate, direct creations,” the artist says. “They function like mandalas and are meant to pull the viewer into them.” The paintings accomplish that goal most effectively, with an impact at once modern and traditional. Indeed, the images seem to owe as much to the pulsing energy of paintings by abstract expressionist master Mark Rothko as to the time-honored Navajo sand paintings and weavings from which they more obviously descend.

“I’m somewhat of an alchemist,” Abeyta modestly says, referring not only to the way he melds such disparate materials as oil, sand, copper, and wax but also to his seemingly effortless blending of artistic styles from different cultures, times, and places. Master of transmutation that he undoubtedly is, he came by his powers both by birthright and through intensive study.

Abeyta was born in 1965 in Gallup, NM, a cultural crossroads of the Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi reservations. His late father Narciso Abeyta was a disciple of Dorothy Dunn, who championed Native American easel painting in the 1930s, and his canvases won renown under his Indian name, Ha-So-De. His mother, Sylvia, an Anglo and a devout Quaker born and raised in Philadelphia, still works in ceramics and textiles and is an expert in weaving at the traditional Navajo loom.

Fertility Altar [2001], oil, 76 x 55, courtesy Blue Rain Gallery, Taos, NM.  southwest art.
Fertility Altar [2001], oil, 76 x 55, courtesy Blue Rain Gallery, Taos, NM.

Growing up the youngest of six siblings with two such creative parents, Abeyta remembers his calling to art as being “fairly gradual, something that was just a part of our lives. Everybody in our family created things, and they were a great support system,” he says. At the age of 16, his talent led him to study at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, where, he says, he came to feel “that it was a worthy pursuit to be an American Indian artist and that it was possible.”

Living in Santa Fe broadened Abeyta’s artistic horizons to such an extent that he felt the need to move beyond the confines of his home state after graduating from the IAIA. His studies in the following years took him not just to Chicago and Baltimore but also as far afield as France and Italy. “I think it’s difficult for an artist to exist in a small environment without cultural input and exterior influences,” he says of those early travels and their impact upon him. “I really needed to experience the East Coast, for example, to understand American art. And studying in Chicago helped me understand American modernism.”

Back in Taos, NM, in 1995, Abeyta added gallery owner to his expanding list of achievements. “I wanted to take full responsibility for my own career, to learn the business side of the art world,” he says. He remained in the gallery business for five successful years, representing the works of other Native American artists as well as his own.

Red Mesa Revisited [1997], oil and sand, 60 x 70, private collection. southwest art.
Red Mesa Revisited [1997], oil and sand, 60 x 70, private collection.

Then along came the year 2000, which will stand as an early turning point in Abeyta’s career. One month before the retrospective opened at the Southwest Museum, the artist began work on his largest and most ambitious commission to date: a 250-foot-long frescolike mural inside the main entryway of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. Inspired in part by the style of the great social-realist murals done under the Works Projects Administration in the 1930s, it presents a majestic survey of Native American artists and artisans—from painters to sculptors, weavers to potters, architects to cooks.

Partly in light of that mammoth undertaking, the retrospective at the Southwest Museum led Abeyta “to reevaluate who I was as a painter, what role  I play as a contemporary Native American artist,” he says. He took serious stock of his artistic career and faced his conclusions with unswerving honesty. “I felt my strongest point was in experimenting with ideas and concepts,” he says. “But I felt that my weakness was in my curiosity, which needed more focus and inspiration.”

Night Waters [1997], oil and sand, 60 x 50, Alex Drago collection. southwest art.
Night Waters [1997], oil and sand, 60 x 50, Alex Drago collection.

As he had in the past, Abeyta sought focus and inspiration through travel. Last year, he and his wife, fashion designer Patricia Michaels, and their children Gabriel and Margeaux, moved to Italy, where they’ve taken up residence in Venice. “But I’m not living here to see gondolas and drink Chianti and shave truffles over my pasta,” Abeyta says. “I’m here to develop my response to an environment without cars or motorcycles, an ancient environment with faded colors and textures and light. I’m interested in the feeling of being near the water and in experiencing the difference between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Alps. I want to learn how da Vinci’s career fit into the world of Renaissance Italy. I want to experience first-hand the spiritual grace of Piero della Francesca.” He’s also devoting time to studying contemporary mainstream European art as well as visiting conceptual installations and performances.

That is not to say Abeyta has given up on his homeland entirely. He returns to New Mexico regularly. There are openings to attend to—this month not only the Blue Rain show but also a selection of miniature paintings on view at Cline Fine Art in Santa Fe. Then there are the few small finishing touches he still wants to add to the mural project. More important to these stateside visits, however, is Abeyta’s opportunity to view the landscapes of his childhood through eyes renewed by northern Italian light. His refreshed vision is evident in such simple, striking works as Patience, which depicts a Native American potter standing against a backdrop of stormy skies and mesas split by railroad tracks.

Patience [1999], acrylic, 32 x 24, private collection. southwest art.
Patience [1999], acrylic, 32 x 24, private collection.

Indeed, that painting serves as an excellent metaphor for Abeyta himself. The common tempests of the art world seem not to faze this young man who has already achieved far beyond his years. He stands serenely poised between ancient and modern worlds in a setting undeniably his own. And he is possessed of a large degree of patience. “Right now, we’re in Italy,” he says, “Maybe it will be Paris or South America next. For any artist, it’s an important responsibility to acknowledge the rest of the world, to have a very broad perspective. What I’m searching for is that inspired moment. And there’s no hurry.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Blue Rain Gallery, Taos, NM; Cline Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; and Turquoise Tortoise, Sedona, AZ.

Featured in August 2001