Bigger is Sometimes Better
Common Ground: Art in New Mexico at the Albuquerque Museum
By Steven Robert Allen
Pity the permanent collection. Locked away for most of its sad life in a dark, lonely temperature- and humidity-controlled vault, it only rarely gets to feel the warmth of artificial light on its fragile skin.
Thankfully, living conditions for the Albuquerque Museum's permanent collection recently got a whole lot better. Previously, the museum only had the space to exhibit selections from its extensive art collection a few times per year. The museum's recent $8.6 million expansion, however, is well on its way to completion, and it's already given administrators a lot more room to maneuver.
One of the things the museum has already done is transform its old rotating exhibit space into a permanent exhibit made up entirely of work from the its permanent art collection. The show, called Common Ground, charts the development of art in New Mexico from the Territorial Period through the present. Some of these pieces have never been viewed by the public.
The exhibit is meant to correspond with the museum's other major permanent exhibit—Four Centuries: The History of Albuquerque. Like that exhibit, Common Ground doesn't necessarily delve into its subject in any great depth, but it's still a worthwhile survey of recent New Mexican art history.
You can see, for example, how the landscape realism of the Territorial Period (1846-1912) gave way to the more lush, romanticized renderings epitomized by the Taos Society of Artists (1915-27). During this period, Anglo artists became less interested in merely recording the strange, exotic surroundings they found in New Mexico, and more interested in celebrating and exploring this exoticism.
One of their biggest obsessions, of course, was the Pueblo Indians. Oscar Berninghaus' "Pueblo Woman of Taos," the now infamous painting that was stolen back in 1989 from the museum and recovered just a couple years ago, is a prime example. Berninghaus, one of the founders of the Taos Society, captures a young Taos Pueblo woman in the most idyllic romantic setting imaginable.
The late teens brought the first inklings of modernism to New Mexico as revolutionary hot shots like John Marin, Raymond Jonson and Georgia O'Keeffe began making their way to New Mexico seeking an environment far outside the mainstream art world to develop new ideas about what contemporary art can and should accomplish. That transfusion of creativity from outside the region eventually blossomed into the vibrant experimental contemporary art scene we enjoy today.
The contemporary section of the show exhibits several of the current big names: Patrick Nagatani, Thomas Barrow, Frederick Hammersley and the like. This modern portion will rotate every year or so to bring in different pieces by other contemporary artists in the museum's collection.
I wish the show were longer and deeper. More Hispanic and Native American artists would certainly be nice. The exhibit never attempts to show how native artistic traditions became integrated into the overall story of artistic development in New Mexico. That's a shame.
For what it is, though, Common Ground is well worth experiencing. Also, don't leave the museum before you check out the giant new space for rotating exhibits. Currently, there's an amazing show of large-scale work by Albuquerque artists that's in some ways even more enjoyable than Common Ground. Don't miss it. The new wing's first official show will be El Alma de España, the first of three planned exhibits of Spanish art. It opens in April.
Common Ground: Art in New Mexico is a permanent exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum (2000 Mountain Road NW). 243-7255.
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