Examining this month’s cover painting
By Kristin Hoerth
This story was featured in the February 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art February 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.
Gracing our cover this month is a truly masterful painting by Walter Ufer called INDIAN ENTERTAINER, which was painted in 1926 and sold at auction by Bonhams last April for just over a million dollars. Ufer was a prominent member of the Taos Society of Artists, which also included artists such as Oscar Berninghaus, Ernest Blumenschein, Joseph Sharp, Victor Higgins, E. Martin Hennings, and W.H. Dunton. He first traveled to Taos in 1914, settling there permanently in 1917 and remaining until his death in 1936.
Ufer is highly respected for works that convey the culture and character of the Pueblo Indians with penetrating honesty and power, and INDIAN ENTERTAINER is a perfect example. According to Dean Porter, Ph.D., historian and author of the 2014 exhibition catalog Walter Ufer: Rise, Fall, Resurrection, the painting depicts Jim Mirabel, Ufer’s longtime friend and model. In fact, it’s one of a series of paintings from the 1920s that show Jim playing various musical instruments. Unlike other European-trained artists, who romanticized their portrayals of Indians, Ufer often painted them engaged in daily activities. Porter quotes Ufer as saying, “I paint the Indian as he is. In the garden digging—in the field working—riding amongst the sage—meeting his women in the desert—angling for trout—in meditation.”
Porter further observes that Ufer created an intimate, authentic setting in this piece and portrayed his subject as both strong and modest. Indeed, there is great depth of feeling and meaning in the figure’s posture and expression. With an unwavering gaze directed squarely at the viewer, the man looks serious but not stern, intense yet approachable. With such a nuanced appearance, no wonder he was a favorite model for the artist.
Equally appealing to me are the finely rendered textures in this painting: first and foremost, the roughness of the woven blanket in the background; the glossy black of the model’s hair; the stretched hide of the drum; and the soft fabric of the billowing shirt. Then there is the carefully orchestrated contrast of shapes, from the sharp geometry of the round drum and its triangular sections to the rounded, flowing forms of the clothing, made all the more beautiful by the play of light and shadow. It all adds up to a painting that is compelling on many levels, grabbing your interest and holding your attention with its complexities as you appreciate all it has to offer.
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