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The 1940s was an important transition period for the Taos art community. A group of modernist artists arrived who would set a new artistic course for a generation. Following World War II, Taos became an important crossroads in contemporary American art, a place where the influences of European and American modernism came together. Artists from New York and San Francisco, the cradles of post-war abstract painting, found in Taos a conducive place to work devoid of the distractions of the big cities. Many of the modernist artists arrived in Taos with little if any knowledge of the earlier artists, as if inexplicably drawn to the Town's inherently creative atmosphere. Many came to study under the G.I. bill.

Joining Andrew Dasburg as mentor to these new artists in 1939 was Thomas Benrimo, another early American modernist. New York artist Louis Ribak arrived in Taos in 1944 with his wife, painter Beatrice Mandelman, and emerged as a leader of the younger generation. Agnes Martin, now an internationally acclaimed artist came to Taos a few years later as a student with the University of New Mexico's summer Field School of Art. In the early 1950s, Clay Spohn, an abstract expressionist, and Edward Corbett, an artist with a growing reputation as a modernist, arrived from San Francisco. Their colleague, Richard Diebenkorn, although not a Taos resident, showed at the Town's premier art gallery, Galeria Escondida, as well as the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque where he received a Masters Degree in Art in 1951. In the same way that the Taos Art Colony in earlier decades attracted other artists to the area, these new artists were visited by their friends and associates, including such major figures as Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Clyfford Still and Morris Graves.

The influx of dozens of artists by the 1950s had established Taos as one of the centers of modernist artistic activity in the United States. In the middle part of the decade, a number of them began showing together in art galleries and museums and were collectively known as the Taos Moderns. Although they never created a formal group such as the Taos Society of Artists had done, they changed the artistic direction of the community.

Their paintings were either abstract, using subject matter, or non-objective compositions of pure form. The stark New Mexico landscape brightened their palettes just as it had that of earlier artists. Cultural influences continued to be important as well. The timelessness they perceived in Pueblo Indian culture and the deep connection to the land they noted in the everyday life of both Indians and Hispanics influence experimentation and innovation in their own art.

If there was any one guiding philosophy during this period, it was a commitment by artists to seek 'the new' in their visual imagery. Many of them were not content with depicting the surface beauty of the landscape or the figurative portraits done by earlier artists. Instead, they wanted to capture the underlying structure of a subject to reveal its true meaning.

Artist: Clay Spohn
Title: Vertical Modulations in Light and Dark
Date: 1961
Medium: Oil painting on linen
Dimensions: Overall: 64 3/16 x 50 in. (163 x 127 cm)
Clay Spohn (1898-1977)
CLAY SPOHN (1898-1977), moved to Taos in 1951.

I do not believe in anything which restrains, limits or suppresses the spirit of man, or the spirit of his works, nor which binds his art to any conventionality of idea, theory, or method, or to conscientious and self-conscious description, or to that which would otherwise jeopardize the discovery of new experiences and awarenesses.

—Clay Spohn, 1953

Clay Spohn attended art schools in the Bay Area, New York City, and Paris, and exhibited regularly on the West Coast from the late 1920s. As a teacher at the progressive California School of Fine Arts, he promoted no particular “brand” of art but stressed the use of imagination. By the time he moved to Taos in the spring of 1951, Spohn’s work could be seen as a part of the broad category of abstract expressionism, although he repudiated the label. Spohn rejected the notion that the avant-garde painting of the New York School was radical enough to be absolutely unique and unrelated to preceding styles—a view held by some in Taos as well as in New York. He was a serious dissenter but also erratic; no doubt part of his charm derived from a certain contrariness—doing the unexpected and defying convention, sometimes merely to amuse his friends.

Spohn was clear about his work. In 1961, he explained his intentions to Taos Stables Gallery director Leone Kahl:

The whole statement lies purely in the physical aspect of the painting itself. The only subject matter intended is made up of the color involvements and interrelationships, together with paint texture and manner of brush strokes and other qualities, so arranged—it is hoped—to create a dramatic situation of these elements as an honest response to the artist’s experience of living. No literal meaning is intended or implied, but rather only feeling—meaning as a subjective and objective response. Any literal meaning the observer might interject or read into it is of the observer's own invention and choosing and not consciously or deliberately intended by the artist.

Spohn always spoke of his paintings in the present tense, as if they were underway at that very moment. He often worked on paintings for extended periods; he may have had trouble completing them to his satisfaction. (As late as 1971 he expressed his desire to rework a small group of his 1926 Paris abstractions.) His continuing concern was to create deep spatial relationships. He avoided single focal points and created fields of activity with open boundaries. In his paintings, no area is trapped or prevented from interacting with others. Vortices of forms pull the eye into places which seem far off. Spohn lived for the excitement of the artistic chase, as if for the sensation of constant movement. For him, there was not enough time to form lingering relationships with fixed styles.

Edited excerpt from David L. Witt, Taos Moderns: Art of the New (1992)
Clay Spohn
Artist: Edward Corbett
Title: White Painting
Date: 1957
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: Overall: 36 1/4 x 43 in. (92.1 x 109.2 cm) Framed: 37 1/4 x 44 1/8 x 1 7/16 in. (94.6 x 112.1 x 3.6 cm)
Edward Corbett United States (1919-1971)
EDWARD CORBETT (1919-1971), moved to Taos in 1951.

I intend my work as poetry. 56

—Edward Corbett, 1952

Edward Corbett believed, with the rest of the abstract expressionists, that the value of art is intrinsic. He reflected on his own intentions as a painter and an intellectual at grips with ideas that dominated his world at the time:

I knew that I had to find a way of painting that I could do as well as [the Europeans] did their Surrealism and Cubism … and I had to literally work towards a discovery. I didn’t know what I was working towards. It was a mystery. The end was there but it was imagined. The end. I could imagine without knowing what it looked like in the painting … 57

By the time he was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1952 “15 Americans” exhibit, Corbett had found the imaginative track he would continue to follow. The process began with his childhood in the Southwest and continued through his time as a student, and later a teacher, at the California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco. 58 He made his first visit to Taos as early as 1947 and relocated there
in 1951. 59

Corbett completed only four or five paintings during his 20 years in Taos; the balance of his works were drawings in charcoal, chalk, pastel, pencil, and occasionally, casein. He started painting by placing colors on the canvas and then gradually eliminating or lessening them by covering them with white. 60 The canvases are filled with almost imperceptible detail. These paintings provided the structural and thematic basis for his later work.

According to Corbett, “Abstract appearances are seen, the matter is felt, the experience is emotionalized, and through continual experience the symbol is formed.” 61 Abstract appearances—suggested by the land and by architectural forms that grow out of nature—led him to a symbology of the land, not landscape pictures. Corbett, however, was equivocal about the natural environment as a catalyst for art. He wrote, “I admit to being influenced by not only nature out-of-doors, but nature within,” and concluded, “If sources of nature exist, I trust they do not influence the painting.” 62 Perhaps this denial of the influence of natural forms served as a defense measure: fully abstract work could have lost some of its magic if described with words such as “this is a cliff.”

Whatever they were based on, Corbett’s images suggest the fullness of night, heavy snow, deep canyons, stark light; subtle hues fill paper and canvas with considerable life force, the understated vigor of immensely rugged land overflowing with delicacies of color and movement and light flashes. In his Taos drawings, the interplay of negative and positive creates depth; their soft-edged forms interlock in a lyric poetry of form. His work, often in grays and browns, shows that the successful use of hue is a matter of making combinations and relationships rather than the degree of pigment saturation. Corbett’s exacting drawings create the tension of anticipation, “not the experience of possessing an event, but a mystery … about what might happen.” 63 [cite source]

Edited excerpt from David Witt, Taos Moderns (1992)
Edward Corbett
Artist: Rebecca James
Title: Winter in Taos (Brown Bear's Tooth and Honey Locust Thorn)
Date: 1948
Medium: Oil painting reverse on glass
Dimensions: support: 18 x 14 in. (45.7 x 35.6 cm) frame: 24 13/16 x 20 7/8 x 1/2 in. (63 x 53 x 1.3 cm)
Rebecca James United States (1891-1968)
Rebecca James
Artist: Andrew Dasburg
Title: Woodland Fragments
Date: 1957
Medium: Sepia ink on paper
Dimensions: 30 1/4 × 25 in. (76.8 × 63.5 cm)
Andrew Dasburg United States (1887-1979)
ANDREW DASBURG (1887-1979), first visited Taos in 1918.

I really taught people to see: a sort of evangelist for modernism, because of my experience of seeing Matisse paint for most of an hour.

—Andrew Dasburg, 1975

Not only did Andrew Dasburg meet Henri Matisse, but he also discovered the work of Paul Cézanne in Paris (1909-1911) and became one of the first American artists to grasp the possibilities of modernism. Dasburg’s work was included in the famous 1913 Armory Show, and in the 1916 “Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters.” No other artist moved to Taos having already achieved a significant presence in the American art world.

During the 1920s, when Dasburg divided his time between New York and New Mexico, he painted landscapes and still lifes. He moved permanently to Taos in the 1930s but soon contracted Addison's disease, which left him too weak to produce much artwork. By 1947, he recovered sufficiently to resume his career and join the Taos Moderns. As he had done throughout his long career, Dasburg gave active encouragement to advanced art students such as Earl Stroh. He was greatly admired and respected by the Taos Moderns who, if they did not know his place in American art history before coming to Taos, soon learned of it. But Dasburg was also open to inspiration. According to Stroh, Edward Corbett’s startling white abstractions influenced both Dasburg and Thomas Benrimo to create their own essays in white.

Dasburg's gradual return to painting and drawing led to the period of his finest work, from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Dasburg studied the Taos Valley until he could convey its underlying geometry with an intimate precision. In his drawing, he looked beyond the smooth, feminine forms to reveal the skeleton beneath with supreme economy of line. He painted the Taos Valley not as a mass of geometric blocks but as a vital, living thing. In the land’s visual rhythm he found harmony coming out of contrasts, an artistic perception of nature and time and also an artistic attitude.

In an address to University of New Mexico art students in 1953, Dasburg spoke of how an artist should approach the process of creation:

What is a work of art if not elevation of spirit? Something that in its best instances has the power to instill with a heightened awareness of life—both its joy and enigma. Be the theme lyrical or tragic, a great work of art is always more profound and at the same time simpler than the verbiage with which we obscure in trying to describe it. Someone is always introducing the word “problem” to replace joy, a sense of play, and mystery which is the fertile soil of art. The only problem that confronts the artist beyond his daily bread is to rid his mind of cobwebs of confused thought and to throw away the crutches of theory. Work is the mother of craft which cannot be earned as an end itself but only as servant to a guiding vision. A purpose to be achieved.

Late in life, Dasburg was honored with museum shows in Dallas, Los Angeles, Albuquerque, and New York. When he died in 1979, he was the last surviving artist of the Armory Show, and the last direct link to the earliest days of American modernism.

Edited excerpt from David L. Witt, Taos Moderns: Art of the New (1992)
Andrew Dasburg