A show at the Denver Art Museum highlights the work of two lifelong friends and fellow painters of the Taos School.
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Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings, friends and colleagues who lived and painted in Taos, N.M., in the early decades of the 20th century, are getting a double retrospective at the Denver Art Museum. Today, their work is appreciated mainly as “Western American art,” but as practicing artists they were fully integrated into the wider American art world, and both had been formed artistically in European academies. “A Place in the Sun: The Southwest Art of Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings” (December 13–April 24), through 38 major paintings, intends to place these artists back into their full and proper context and to show them in relation to each and to national and international art trends of their era.
Both Ufer and Hennings were members of the Taos Society of Artists, a group that came into being in 1898, when painters Oscar E. Berninghaus and Bert Geer Phillips accidentally discovered the picturesque town nestled in the northern New Mexico mountains when their wagon broke down during a road trip. Eventually the ranks included Kenneth Adams, Ernest L. Blumenschein, E. Irving Couse, W. Herbert “Buck” Dunton, Victor Higgins, and Joseph H. Sharp; the group formally disbanded in 1927. While their styles and subjects differed, these artists had in common a fascination with the region’s unique landscape and Native American culture and a propensity for applying traditional European techniques and styles (with the occasional dash of modernism) to this exotic subject matter.
For Ufer and Hennings, European meant German, and one of the main themes of this exhibition is the tremendous cultural clout Germany had in this country up until World War I. Both men were of German origin; Ufer was born there but grew up in Louisville, Ky., while Hennings was born in New Jersey to German immigrant parents who soon moved the family to Chicago. Both were patronized by a syndicate of German-American businessmen, led by the mayor of Chicago, who subsidized their trips to Taos and collected and helped market their works.
Chicago where was both got their start, as commercial artists, but they yearned for fine art training abroad. Fluent in German, they felt more comfortable going to the mother country than to Paris, the usual choice for young Americans seeking Old World academic training. Ufer and Hennings chose Munich, where they met and became friends as fellow members of the American Artists Club there. The city at this period was a major center of international art study, both academic and avant-garde, and the Munich Secession actually predated the Vienna and Berlin Secessions. Hennings studied with the leader of the Secessionists, the Symbolist painter Franz von Stuck, whose other notable students included Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, and Paul Klee.
Ufer chose the more old-fashioned Walther Thor, an exacting teacher who specialized in portraiture and favored the alla prima method, in which wet paint was layered on top of wet paint, giving the result an especially rich quality but making it basically uncorrectable. The story goes that when Ufer was working on a portrait of a peasant woman, Thor stopped by, grabbed a palette knife, and scraped the whole thing right off the canvas. He explained that he thought it was very good work but wanted to see “if it was an accident.” Ufer was enraged but called the model back and redid it, and when Thor saw the result, he commented, “It’s better than the first—now I know you can paint.”
And Ufer certainly could paint. His large canvases are tours de force of brush handling, brilliant light and color, and unusual perspectives. He loved the American Southwest and especially its indigenous peoples, among whom he found the subject matter that inspired his best work. In 1916 he wrote, “Here, some day, will be written the great American epic, the great American opera. … The very cliffs cry out to be painted. The world in all of its history has never seen such models as these survivors of the cliff dwellers. These mountains are the American Parnassus.”
Nonetheless, Ufer’s work celebrates the everyday, and he always made sure to depict the Indians as they really were in the 20th century, not some romanticized archetype. One of his best works, Bob Abbott and His Assistant (1935) shows an Indian in traditional garb sitting on the bumper of a trashed Reo touring car (Ufer’s own) as the auto mechanic leans against the fender. In the background, negating all of man’s contraptions, loom the snow-capped peaks of the Sangre de Cristo range. In Me and Him (1918), two Indian laborers with braided hair glare skeptically down at the viewer. Always sensitive to color, Ufer used the Indians’ habit of wearing colorful blankets to populate his paintings with bold hues juxtaposed as often as possible in complementary fashion. His preference for odd angles was a trademark; for example, in Luncheon at Lone Locust (1923), Ufer takes a view that looks as if it had been a photograph snapped in haste and lavishes all his painterly technique on it, a striking incongruity that brings the painting as close to modernism as this artist chose to get.
While Ufer had a long career, his best period lasted just seven years, from 1916 to 1923, after which alcoholism caused him to become very erratic. His friend Hennings was a far steadier worker and a less dramatic character. He is best known for depictions of the forests around Taos, usually with Indians in and among them but basically dwarfed by nature, as in a Chinese landscape. As the curators of the exhibition point out, Hennings’ renderings of trees and other foliage were strongly influenced by Jungendstil (the German version of Art Nouveau), which he had absorbed from von Stuck and the Munich milieu. But that was about as modern as Hennings was willing to get. He called himself a conservative, insisting that there were “fundamentals to be observed, which must embody all the elements of art which I term draftsmanship, design, form, rhythm, color.” And for him, as for Ufer, all those elements came together best when brought to bear on the land and people of New Mexico.
By John Dorfman