It wasn't the most inviting place on earth. It was a hot, dusty, tired, thirsty little pueblo community in the lap of a 13,000-foot mountain. Two painters from the East, Ernest Blumenschein and Bert G. Phillips, were traveling together through the desert Southwest when their wagon broke down. The year was 1898. Blumenschein rode twenty miles on horseback carrying a broken wheel into town for repair. It was the most inauspicious start imaginable for what is often considered the art capital of the Southwest--Taos, New Mexico.
The summers were miserable. The winters merely uncomfortable, but between times, the landscape bloomed with a Spanish-American/Native-American beauty so attuned with nature and it's luscious, yet arid splendor that Blumenschein and Phillips were hooked. Today, over one hundred years later, some of their paintings can be seen in the Albuquerque Museum's newest show, "Taos Artists and their Patrons" which runs through August 6, before moving to San Antonio through September 12.
Phillips stayed for thirty years (the rest of his life). Blumenschein left. In his place came J. Ward Lockwood, Barbara Latham, Walter Ufer, Oscar Berninghaus, John Marin, Victor Higgins, Robert Henri, Howard Cook, and Eanger Irving Couse, all represented in the show. They formed the Taos Society of Artists. There was no native art market so they and the Santa Fe Railway created one. And both were responsible for bringing the big Eastern money (and those possessing) it to the a warm, dry desert art resort which competed splendidly with the "unhealthy" dampness of wintertime Florida. The society disbanded in 1927, about the time the reigning queen (for many years) of the Taos art community, Georgia O'Keeffe, descended upon the place. A relative latecomer, her work is NOT included in the show.
These early artists knew the real Taos before it became overrun with motels, golf courses, glitzy Tex-Mex restaurants, and most of all ART GALLERIES---count'em, over a hundred of'em, over 1,000 working artists, and more than ten times that many canvases being painted up each year purporting to capture the native culture and landscape, what's left of it anyway, in something approaching it's original incarnation. Many of the landmarks painted by the original Taos artists are, in fact, still there. Lockwood's (1931) "Plaza Emporium" is still open for business, though it now specializes in T-shirts, toy Indian drums, and other souvenirs. But the old cemetery painted by Barbara Latham in 1944 is still adorned with flowers while the adobe structures of the original Taos Pueblo, painted by Ufer in 1917 are still as solemnly beautiful as ever...when you can see them through the tens of thousands of tourists who come annually.
Today, in the wake of the Pueblo Indians, their Spanish conquerors, the American ranchers, the enamored artists, and finally the filthy-rich Easterners who originally built the place; the tourist arrive, hike, ski, fish, sight see, spend money, buy art, and fortunately, leave the small, northern New Mexico town of 6,000. Tourism makes up close to 75% of the area's economy. Art alone accounts for 25%. Despite the fact that the valley has been continuously inhabited for over a thousand years, one could easily say that Taos is the town that ART built...along with the railroad...and the automobile...oh, and the air-conditioner.