Nicholai Fechin (1881-1955), Mabel Dodge Luhan, 1927; oil on canvas; Courtesy American Museum for Western Art—The Anschutz Collection, Denver, Colorado. Photograph by William J. O'Connor
Mabel Dodge Luhan show an ambitious project at Taos’ Harwood Museum
Friday, January 6, 2017
Mabel Dodge Luhan had wealth, status and influence. A widely read columnist for the Hearst papers, she also had four husbands, female lovers and an aversion to convention. She was the quintessential new woman at the turn of the last century and counted among her associates the most prominent artists, writers, intellectuals and activists of her day — Margaret Sanger, Aldous Huxley, Willa Cather, Lincoln Steffens, D.H. Lawrence, Martha Graham, Leopold Stokowski and Alfred Stieglitz among them. “I wanted to know everyone, and everyone wanted to know me,” she famously said.
Her gatherings — first at her villa in Florence, Italy, then at her quarters in Greenwich Village, N.Y. — were legendary. But it was in the remote regions of northern New Mexico where she found a true home. The landscape and the way of life among native people provided something the salons of New York and Europe never could. Within two weeks of her arrival in Taos in 1918, she sent East for a cook, then for her coterie.
How fitting that the first major exhibit on Luhan’s life will take place at the Harwood Museum of Art, just blocks from the 12-acre compound where so many luminaries gathered with this most extraordinary host and patron.
“Mabel Dodge Luhan and Company: American Moderns and the West,” opening May 22, is by far the most ambitious project the Harwood has undertaken.
The show promises to be a blockbuster, bringing together 160 objects from 40 museums around the country. Included will be major works by the artists who found their way to Luhan’s Taos table — Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, Marsden Hartley, Andrew Dashburg, Cady Wells, Dorothy Brett, Emil Bisttram, Max Weber, Francis Simpson Stevens and others.
Collectively, they established New Mexico as a center of modernism right up there with New York and Paris. Luhan’s 18-bedroom guest house was their “breathtaking retreat,” according to cultural historian Lois Rudnick, co-curator of the exhibit. “The sky, the air and the vistas were extraordinary. It seemed liked virgin territory for artists who were interested in finding an authentic, original American art that hadn’t been done before.”
The environment Luhan established inspired creativity. Indeed, Luhan herself was not an artist but “a creator of creators” as Marsden Hartley once wrote. In a period when abstraction was an emerging concept among the avant garde, modernist painters made an immediate connection with the dramatic desert landscape as well as the square doors and windows, heavy wood beams, courtyards and gently sloping roof lines of adobe architecture. Taos and pueblo life “seemed to be the antithesis of everything that urban, industrial, militaristic, imperialist America had become in the early 20th century,” Rudnick said. That was its appeal.
Despite her legacy, an exhibit on her life has been a long time coming. The National Endowment for the Humanities thought it worthy of a planning grant in 1980, but the idea went nowhere. “I couldn’t get anybody interested,” recalls co-curator MaLin Wilson-Powell. “A lot of museum directors were men who thought Mabel was a bossy and difficult person who hadn’t contributed much.”
Rudnick, who has written eight books on Luhan and her circle, says it was a hard sell because people ” don’t like women who aren’t nice role models.” Beyond that, “art museums are interested in artists, not in patrons, not in those who helped to produce cultural producers, not in those who are catalysts for creativity. It has only been recently that women like Gertrude Stein and Mabel have been considered central to the creation of cultural movements like modernism.” With doors slamming shut, the plan for a Luhan exhibit was set aside.
But in 2012, with Rudnick and Wilson-Powell living in New Mexico, they returned to the idea, and the timing was right. Major upgrades at the Harwood — including temperature and humidity controls, modern lighting and high-end security — were now in place. Over the next four years, a half-million-dollar budget was assembled.
With national support no longer in question, Wilson-Powell took charge of soliciting art, original manuscripts and ephemera while Rudnick created an ambitious program of related activities including an opera, a new play on D.H. Lawrence, a presentation on Luhan and couture and a symposium with prominent art historians. Also planned is a community dialogue on the impact of Anglo patronage on Latino and American Indian people, a topic that remains active today.
Meantime, artists, gallerists, museum directors and city officials have designated this the year of Taos visionaries and are offering scores of related cultural programs.
In all, this promises to be an especially inviting summer for the arts in a place that has long been a mecca for artists and collectors. The Luhan exhibit runs through Sept. 11 before moving to the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History. In 2017 it makes a final stop at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, birthplace of Mabel Dodge Luhan, a visionary whose day has finally come.
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