Before coming to New Mexico I had never heard of the Taos Modernists. I now consider them a primary inspiration for my work. I will write later about the group and its artists but first I wanted to celebrate the work of Beatrice Mandelman, my favorite Taos Modernist. I first became aware of her work while researching the paintings of her husband, Louis Ribak, whose art I also admire (you can learn more about the two of them by going to the website for the Mandelman-Ribak Foundation, mandelman-ribak.org). Are you aware that Taos has been considered a major American artist’s colony through several generations of artists now? Mandelman and Ribak are two of the reasons for that–brilliant, internationally recognized work!
Born to a well off family in Newark, New Jersey, Beatrice exhibited an interest in modern art at a very early age. Through a fellow classmate at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts which Beatrice attended starting at the age of twelve, she became acquainted with Willem de Kooning (one of my all time favorites) who later became a friend. Through this association she was introduced to other members of the burgeoning New York vanguard including Arshile Gorky, Louis Lozowick, Mark Rothco and Jackson Pollock.
While involved with the WPA in the 30’s, Mandelman met her future husband, Louis Ribak. They were both politically involved liberals, in part due to the effects of the Great Depression, which had an impact on their work at the time.
Invited to New Mexico by an associate in 1944, they intended a short visit but ended up staying. They settled in Taos. This was a huge decision for them since they left behind a vibrant modern art scene in New York. Choosing a mud town in the middle of nowhere seemed like career suicide to their artist friends. Beatrice’s good friend Louise Nevelson warned that, “… no artist could afford to leave Manhattan, even for a day.”
However, the two artists were quickly captivated by the landscape of the high desert and the light, as well as the traditions of the Pueblo Indians, along with the vibrant artist’s community they found on their arrival. They came to Taos at a time when realism and abstraction were at odds, much like the scene in New York they’d just left, but found they were able to make friends with artists of both camps in Taos.
In addition to the rich society of artists Taos offered, Mandelman and Ribak became friends with the writer and art critic Mabel Dodge Luhan who had also left New York and settled in Taos (photos of the Dodge Luhan home where they stayed and visited are included below). Through Dodge they met and socialized with Andrew Dasburg, C.G. Jung, D.H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe and Thornton Wilder, to name a few. They did not find life in New Mexico limiting but, rather, inspiring. Coming to Taos shifted their work dramatically.
It was the influence of the vast openness of landscape that slowly brought Mandelman to abstract. She is known to have said many times that the landscape of the Southwest made it possible to become an abstractionist. She spent time contemplating the landscape rather than recording it; going within instead of without. In his excellent book on Mandelman, Beatrice Mandelman–Taos Modernist, Robert Hobbs notes, “When first confronted with the Southwest, its grandeur, its sense of monumental scale, and its radically different light, Bea’s initial reaction was to discard the past and begin again. ‘You had to forget everything you based your work on in New York and start over,’ she later admitted.” She came to paint her feelings of the place, its beat and rhythm, its sense, its soul, not to document it.
Hobbs says of Mandelman that, “In addition to being a dedicated painter who finds her long hours in the studio a constant challenge as well as an important solace, she is a remarkable individual.” I love that statement about the Taos Modernist I admire most because I feel it justifies these exact feelings I harbor about my own creative process: It is extremely challenging work, it is not fun, and it is also eminently necessary as my grounding and solace. I feel a kinship with Bea because of this admission from us both. Of herself, Mandelman says, “The miracle of me is that I did all this in the middle of cowboy and Indian art—I did the work [while] engulfed in the Southwest motif.” Indeed.
All photos of Mandelman’s work included here have been taken from Robert Hobb’s book, Beatrice Mandelman—Taos Modernist.
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