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The Dazzling Abstractions of a Neglected Taos Artist

An exclusive look inside the archive of the American Museum of Western Art, which contains remarkable artworks and writings by Emil Bisttram.

Emil Bisttram, “Suspension” oil on canvas, (1940, all photos taken by William J. O’Connor, courtesy
American Museum of Western Art — The Anschutz Collection, unless otherwise noted)

Many visitors come to The American Museum of Western Art (AMWA) in Denver to see its remarkable paintings by Georgia O’Keefe, Ernest L. Blumenschein, Fritz Scholder, and Thomas Hart Benton. But one of the most impressive parts of the collection is not on view in the museum’s galleries. Deep in the archive are lesser-known gems, including a large body of work by a neglected artist, Emil Bisttram.

In 1975, when the collection was private and shortly before his death, Bisttram sold 235 artworks, ranging from drawings to large oil paintings, and over 200 archival documents. His journal-like notations yield new insight into the painter, who is often unfairly perceived as a mere disciple of Wassily Kandinsky and a second-generation Taos artist. An examination of over 40 years of Bisttram’s art and writings suggests that he was a bridge between the early Taos art colony and American modernism.

Taos first drew a community of artists in the early years of the 20th century, and Bisttram became an important teacher and organizer in the town’s cultural infrastructure. In 1930, Bisttram spent a summer there, a common practice for East coast artists seeking the pueblo’s unique landscape and isolation. In 1931 Bisttram was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study with Diego Rivera in Mexico, after which he returned and settled in Taos. He established the Taos School of Art and its first commercial art gallery, Heptagon. Bisttram’s abstractions were not radical, but they were outside the mainstream and challenging for American audiences.

A photograph by Ansel Adams of a church in Taos Pueblo, an community of Pueblo Native Americans not far from the artist colony (c.1941, via Wikimedia)

In 1938, Bisttram established the Transcendental Painting Group with Raymond Jonson, Florence Miller, Horace Towner Pierce, and several other New Mexico artists and a Californian. The unifying goal of the group was to make art based on spiritual principles:

…art which releases from its creators the deepest springs of vitality and consciousness and which aims to stimulate in others, through deep and spontaneous emotional experiences of form and color, a more intense participation in the life of the spirit.

The group sought to educate a skeptical American public, and to assert abstraction as a national tradition by organizing traveling exhibitions. In many ways it paralleled its predecessor, the Taos Society of Artists. 

The story of Taos as an art colony began in 1898, when a broken wagon wheel forced artists Bert Phillips and Ernest Blumenschein to make an unexpected stop in the high desert town. Immediately, they were captivated by the extraordinary landscape. Agnes Laut would describe its natural beauty to Santa Fe Magazine 15 years later, writing how the land changed as the sun moved:

There is something in this high, rare air that splits white light into its seven prismatic hues. It is never clear, white light. It is lavender, or lilac, or primrose, or gold, or as red as blood, according to the hours and their mood; and if you want to carry the metaphor still farther, you may truthfully add that the hours on these high uplands are dancing hours.

In the early years of the Taos art colony, illustrations — produced for publications like Harper’s Weekly and Collier’s — sustained artists, rather than paintings. Illustration became less lucrative with the rise of image reproduction technology, but the expansion of railroads helped to fill the void in demand. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad wanted to increase tourism in places like the Grand Canyon. They began offering artists free passage to paint the West, with the option to sell their work to galleries, magazines, or the rail company. The railroad company used the images in advertising pamphlets or exhibited them in rail stations.

Wassily Kandinsky, “Circles in a Circle” (1923, via Wikimedia)

Eventually, the arrangement ended, and artists had to submit paintings for an acquisition review by the railroads. The establishment of the Taos Art Society, which included six artists at its founding, declared in its by-laws an educational function through public exhibitions, but its formation also sought financial sustainability, negotiating on behalf of its members.

One of the pivot points between the Taos of Ernest Blumenschein and the Taos of Emil Bisttram was the 1913 Armory Show in New York. There, the work of Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, and Wassily Kandinsky astounded the American public. Blumenschein told Century Magazine that modernism and post-Impressionism presented “a creation, not a mirror.” Alfred Stieglitz published in Camera Work translated extracts of Kandinsky’s Über das Geistige in der Kunst, highlighting the passage, “These are the seekers of the inner spirit in outer things.” For Bisttram, Kandinsky would be an enormous presence in his visual vocabulary going forward.

Emil Bisttram, “Symphonic Composition [B-030]” (1942), pencil on paper (all photos courtesy American Museum of Western Art – The Anschutz Collection and William J. O’Connor)

It is true that Kandinsky and his followers influenced Bisttram. His 1942 drawings “Contrapuntal Composition [B-001]” and “Symphonic Composition [B-030]” share similarities in linearity, composition, and color with Dwinell Grant’s watercolors from the late 1930s. Bisttram’s “Suspension,” a 1940 painting, and “Ascension of the Virgins [B-035],” a 1941 drawing, leverage Marsden Hartley’s approach to mysticism through religious figures.

But the AMWA archive of Bisttram’s unpublished drawings and words demonstrate a dedicated approach to capturing and abstracting the concept of movement. His practice did not limit itself to the measured confines of dynamic symmetry, or the art of mysticism. His unconventional approach to regional content through modernist expressions were profound. Many Taos artists attempted to interpret indigenous rituals. But rather than produce a painting that documents the ritual or emphasizes its strangeness to an outsider, Bisttram locates the driving force of the ritual: movement.

Emil Bisttram, “Eagle Dance” (1934), oil on canvas

Bisttram wrote that “The Eagle Dance” (1934) was one of 25 paintings of American Indian dances he documented in Taos.

I was intrigued with these dancers, however I felt that I did not want to portray them in the usual manner of a static group (for they are static when they are painted.) I wanted to actually portray the motion of the wings and the motion of the individuals…

Bisttram captured energy and movement in his paintings more convincingly than his peers. In Blumenschien’s “Dance at Taos” (1923), the figures appear frozen in long lines. The blurred bodies and crowded composition of John Marin’s “Dance of the Santo Domingo Indians” (1929) captured a frenetic event — but Marin’s manipulations remained traditional. Bisttram’s dramatic translation of the dance has no equal. Even within Bisttram’s more figural “Koshares” (1933) the limbs of individual K’osha Clowns seem to multiply, becoming almost autonomous from their owners.

Emil Bisttram, “Dancing Forms [B-113]” (1965), oil on board

“I thought to experiment with abstracting the idea of motion of the elements moving through space,” Bisttram wrote of the small painting “Dancing Forms [B-113]” (1965). “You will notice that the dark forms as well as the light forms have their own kinds of shapes and movements.” He indicated that specific colors and shapes communicate a pace. In conversation with earlier work, the angular forms of “Dancing Forms” echo the compositional center of “The Eagle Dance,” or the sharp edges of “Penitentes” (1932).

Emil Bisttram, “Penitentes” (1932), oil on canvas

The breadth of the archive at AMWA also enables connections between seemingly unrelated works. On the 8 inch x 11 inch ink drawing “Birds A-Flutter [B-235]” (1956), Bisttram discussed drawing a startled group of pigeons lifting from a roof top, and said their commotion had the power to “create beautiful rhythms.” The musical metaphor links the painting to others, like “Musical Theme #7 [B-016]” (1942). He wrote of the 8 inch x 5 inch colored pencil drawing: “notice the weight at the bottom, going from dark to light, but returning upon itself to create unity.” Even when considering very different subjects, Bisttram remained attuned to time and movement.

The incomparable body of work by Emil Bisttram in the AMWA archive suggests that his diverse talents were not at the whim of other artists, and were not the result of an unfocused pursuit. His creations are the result of his relentless exploration of specific concepts. Capturing the spirit or feeling of an event, rather than a visual duplication, occupied the philosophical heart of the Trancedental Painting Group. Through the paradigm of movement, Bisttram stepped beyond his peers to express an idea known and felt by everyone. His works and writings also suggest that Taos Art Colony is far from an exhausted subject of research. Bisttram and his contemporaries deserve another look.

Emil Bisttram, “Birds A-flutter [B-235]” (1956), blue ink on paper
On June 22, The American Museum of Western Art – The Anschutz Collection (1727 Tremont Place, Denver) will show selections from the Emil Bisttram archive. Museum archivist Claire Mosier will present a lecture titled “Bisttram: Experimental Sky” at 3pm.

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