YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Western Travel

Santa Fe, with nary a cow's skull in sight

Diverse contemporary works find a welcome home in the second-largest art market in the nation.

September 03, 2006|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

Santa Fe, N.M. — MANY a roadside sign boasts of a locale's special quality: the best river walk in the country, the most scenic village in the Berkshires. So if those unfamiliar with the abundance of art in Santa Fe heard that it is the second-largest art market in the U.S. (after New York), they might dismiss the description as the hyperbole of local boosters. They would be wrong.

There isn't just a lot of art in Santa Fe; there is important art. Who would think a trove of museum-quality, 20th century Abstract Expressionist paintings would be displayed behind the adobe facade of a former supermarket? Such discoveries were the reward for leaving my patio, home of the most bountiful bougainvillea in Santa Monica, to spend a three-day weekend in July tracking the art scene in New Mexico's capital, a city that has been a cultural center for more than a century.

For anyone easily overwhelmed, the quantity of art in Santa Fe could be a problem. "You feel you must go into every gallery because you might miss something," said Jane Egan, director of the Chiaroscuro gallery. "You can't, or you'll get glazed-eye disease."

I knew there would be no way to get to the more than 200 galleries and dozen museums. And I hadn't anticipated how energy-sapped I would feel my first day. Flatlanders often need time to adjust to the 7,000-foot altitude.

Focus was my salvation. Here's what barely crept into my peripheral vision: Native American art, crafts, folk art, photography and textiles. I concentrated on contemporary art, which in the last 10 years has exploded here, taking its place beside or even eclipsing the regional and Western paintings and sculpture commonly associated with Santa Fe. With some research and help from knowledgeable locals, I culled a list of a dozen galleries and a few exhibitions that the serious collector and the discerning tourist would not want to miss.

For a long time, Santa Fe's galleries were concentrated around the Plaza at the center of town or along Canyon Road, a winding street of adobe homes originally built by starving artists. The new, adventurous arts district is the Railyard, a mile south of the Plaza. Several galleries have sprung up there, some opening as recently as July.


International art show

THEIR anchor is SITE Santa Fe, a cutting-edge exhibit space in a former beer warehouse. Host of the only international biennial in the U.S., SITE Santa Fe is so highly regarded in the art world that three of the five curators who have overseen it have gone on to curate the Venice Biennale. SITE's Sixth International Biennial, which runs through January, attracts collectors and the sort of art-loving nomads who travel the world to survey the latest in conceptual works.

One room contains 2 tons' worth of lacquered-wood, stairway-like sculptures by Wolfgang Laib. A 7 1/2 -minute video of demolition derbies by Stephen Dean and Jennifer Bartlett's large-scale paintings of words punched into steel plates are among the other offerings.

After visiting SITE, the art for sale at the cream of Santa Fe's contemporary galleries looked almost safe. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Artists from the East and Midwest first began visiting New Mexico in the late 19th century, drawn by its dramatic landscape, rich multicultural heritage and a social climate tolerant of artistic types. The six founders of the Taos Society of Artists, individuals with established reputations in other cities, banded together in 1915 in a mountain village 70 miles north of Santa Fe. The Santa Fe Art Colony came together shortly thereafter and blossomed after the Museum of Fine Arts was founded in 1917. The museum, which still borders the lively Plaza, welcomed newcomers with free studio space and organized group shows of their work.

In the 1920s, some of the tuberculosis patients in residence at Santa Fe's well-known sanatoriums were artists, and many others were affluent and intellectual. With the addition of wealthy people from Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kansas who came to town to escape the summer heat, before air-conditioning, the elements of a patronage society were in place.

Although the art colony members maintained friendships for decades, their styles were so diverse that no single Santa Fe school developed. Most of the painters in the group produced representational works with varying degrees of Cubist, Impressionist, Modernist or Abstract influences. Were they regional artists? Southwestern? Western? Parsing genres can be risky business in Santa Fe.

After all, how to categorize Georgia O'Keeffe? At one time, she was a contemporary artist. Now she is considered one of the greatest American painters of the last century.

Los Angeles Times Articles