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Clay Spohn, Mystery of Symbols - or Secrets of Isis

abstraction; grayish browns and reds

Clay Spohn
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)
Mystery of Symbols - or Secrets of Isis, 1952
Oil on canvas
Overall: 26 3/16 x 31 7/8 in. (66.5 x 81 cm)
M.A. Healy Family Foundation Purchase Fund