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The Taos Society of Artists Turns 100, Part 2

by Stacia Lewandowski

"Theirs is painting of distinctive character, reflecting a vital and significant phase of American art."

When the Taos Society of Artists formally joined together in July of 1915, the group comprised six men: Joseph H. Sharp, Ernest L. Blumenschein, Bert G. Phillips, Oscar E. Berninghaus, Eanger I. Couse, and W. H. "Buck" Dunton.

All were established artists already working in Taos and frequent exhibitors in the state museum in Santa Fe. But they were also ambitious, with a strongly held belief in themselves and in the art they were creating. By attaching a name to the group and promoting their art nationally on exhibition circuits, they hoped to enhance their professional stature and sales. In addition, they were ardently enthusiastic about Taos as a uniquely inspirational environment for the creation of American art, and their exhibitions proved it to the nation.

Always attentive to the impression their shows were making on the critics and public, the founders decided that they should allow additional artists to participate in their exhibitions. When granted membership, each new artist would be given a specific designation. In 1917, Walter Ufer and Victor Higgins were elected as active members (full status), along with Julius Rolshoven, as an associate member. The venerable Robert Henri, the New York and occasional Santa Fe artist, was elected as an associate member in 1918.

The TSA had been operating for three years before they created a formal mission statement. In 1918, they wrote a constitution with a series of by-laws. Beyond the scope of their artistic goals, article three shows that they maintained a simultaneous desire to imprint their influence on the wider region. They wrote: "To promote, maintain and preserve high standards of artistic excellence in painting, and to encourage sculpture, architecture, applied arts, music, literature, ethnology and archaeology solely as it pertains to New Mexico and the States adjoining."

In addition to their own promotion, it is clear that the members also hoped to have a lasting and positive effect on their adopted home while they showcased the people and beauty of the region to the rest of the nation.

As their circuit of tours progressed, members of the Society discussed the ample attention their exhibits received in newspapers around the country. The venues were usually museums or galleries in larger cities, and the artists were pleased with the amount of publicity that was generated about their shows. An article, written in 1920 by Rose Henderson, a New York Times art critic, stresses both the quality of the artists' paintings and the importance of Taos as the center for their work:

CONTINUED:  The "picturesque town of Taos has long been the home of sincere and talented men whose work has found a market all over the world. . . Representative works from each member of the Society are included in a collection which goes the rounds of the large cities of this country every winter. A survey of the men in the field convinces one that theirs is painting of distinctive character, reflecting a vital and significant phase of American art."1

The TSA continually aspired to make their exhibitions of high quality and hoped to stave off the possible sense of staleness that could arise from year-to-year exhibits. This may be one of the reasons they sought to increase their membership. In 1920, they invited three artists associated with Santa Fe to exhibit with them. They were B.J.O. Nordfeldt, along with John Sloan and Randall Davey, two friends who had travelled together from New York to Santa Fe for the first time just the year before. Gustave Baumann and Birger Sandzen were voted into the group the following year. These artists were granted associate membership, which meant that they could show a limited number of works in the annual circuit exhibits, and would not have a vote or responsibilities concerning any of the organizational work.

As numbers increased, so did the workload of organizing the exhibits. As time went on, the complaints of the active members of the Taos Society steadily rose, due to personality conflicts, but also due to the administrative work that was involved in arranging exhibits and correspondence throughout a year's term. Haggling about officers' duties began to take a toll on the group. Dunton left the TSA in 1922, and, in 1923, Sharp refused to take the president's position. Due to a new by-law written that year, Blumenschein was expected to take on the secretary's role. When he refused, the language of the by-law forced his resignation from the group. He accepted.

Despite such drawbacks, the TSA continued onward and soon elected three new active members: Catharine Critcher and E. Martin Hennings, in 1923, and Kenneth Adams, in 1926. Adams never had the opportunity to exhibit with this highly recognized group of painters, for they voted to disband in 1927, before they managed to arrange their next travelling exhibit.

The nationwide exhibits of the Taos Society of Artists during their twelve years of existence never provided the artists the kind of steady sales that they hoped would come through such efforts. However, what they accomplished was, indeed, long lasting. They founded an art colony that continues to thrive; they fostered a greater awareness of the present-day Native American people inhabiting their pueblo at Taos; and they shined a light on the beauty of the Taos environment, each artist in his own distinctive manner.

Later in life, Phillips described the achievement of the Taos Society of Artists this way: "The idea was soon born to make this wonderful country known by forming an art colony where hundreds of artists could help in finding its countless messages of beauty--a wealth that will continue to exist as long as this old world shall endure."2

1. Dean Porter, Teresa Hayes Ebie, and Suzan Campbell, Taos Artists and Their Patrons, 1898-1950 (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1999), p. 42.
2. Bert Phillips, On the 50th Anniversary of the Taos Society of Artists, #297183, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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