Artists from New Mexico

Listing artists from New Mexico is akin to listing artists from New York. There are thousands. Artists who were born in New York. Artists who studied in New York. Artists who worked in New York. Major artists. Artists with books written about them and museum exhibitions.

Same goes for New Mexico which, outside of New York, has birthed, trained and homed more artists influential to what is considered American art than any other place in the country. That history of creativity goes back centuries, long before there was a United States, long before there was a New Mexico.

This introduction to artists from New Mexico starts there.

New Mexico Indigenous artists

Acoma pottery at Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery in Santa Fe
Acoma pottery at Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery in Santa Fe

Human habitation in New Mexico dates back thousands of years. Chaco Canyon is just one of many examples of how what is now called New Mexico has long been a center of civilization and culture.

These people created weavings, baskets, musical instruments, pots and tools, all of which should be considered art. These are the original artists from New Mexico.

Of these artforms, pottery, particularly Pueblo pottery, has experienced the greatest prominence within and outside of New Mexico. Historic and contemporary Pueblo pots are staples of the best art museums in the US and fine art collections worldwide. Pueblo pottery has become synonymous with New Mexico and vice versa. It’s like wine in France.

Since no article could possibly be comprehensive of art from New Mexico, let’s begin our introduction to artists from New Mexico with Maria Martinez (San Ildefonso Pueblo; 1887-1980). Martinez remains the most famous, influential and lauded of all the pueblo potters, recognized worldwide for her black pots.

“She’s really the one who made all the rest of this possible and that’s because she was, first of all extremely talented,” Andrea Fisher, owner of Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery in Santa Fe which since the early 1990s has been selling top New Mexico pottery. “She had collaborators along the way. First, her husband (Julian) and then her daughter-in-law, then her son, she had four sisters who were also potter’s. In those early days the sisters were getting 25 cents for their pots and Maria was getting $1 and so those sisters, because pottery makings always been a family affair, the sisters would help her out, make sandwiches for the kids and do the laundry. That way Maria can be incredibly prolific.”

Martinez also had a knack for business.

“She was sort of the first Indian marketer,” Fisher explains. “She could talk to the white guys who came out and bought it. There were a lot of people in those early days in the 1920s and 30s in Santa Fe, who recognized her talent and so all of those things combined, really, made her the founder of contemporary American Indian potters.”

While she is best known for her striking black pots, she didn’t invent the style. Black pottery dates back ages. She and her husband Julian Martinez, a fine artist in his own right, re-popularized it.

Black pottery results from an alteration of the firing process. Red and black pots come from the exact same clay. When the pots have been formed and it’s time to fire them, they’re fired in the ground. Every family has its own special secret about how they fire pots, but for the most part, they’re put in the ground and protected in some way. They are mounded over with wood and torched.

When pots come up to temperature, which is a visual sense from the artist, not something measured by a thermometer – low heat, relatively, 1000 degrees or so – the fire is cooled down and the pots come out the reddish color. If when the pots come up to temperature potters take dried manure and shovel it on top of the fire creating a large mound, what happens is it’s still hot inside and that manure on the inside catches fire. It needs oxygen to burn, but since the outside oxygen isn’t available to it, the place it gets the oxygen from is the clay body. The burning manure sucks the oxygen out of the clay and because of the chemical content of the clay, it turns black.

In whatever way anyone chooses to look at it, Maria Martinez – to this day – is the most prominent artist from New Mexico.

She wasn’t the only matriarch however.

Margaret Tofoya (1904-2001) at Santa Clara.

Rose Chino Garcia (1928-2000) and Lucy Lewis (1895-1992) from Acoma.

Nampeyo of Hano (1860-1942) at Hopi.

“(Nampeyo) did the same thing that Maria did, took (pottery) from utilitarian to an art form, away from a curio into a piece of art,” Fisher said.

Also, like Martinez, Nampeyo paired business acumen with brilliant artistry, venturing to the Grand Canyon not far from the Hopi villages to sell her work to the throngs of tourists there

“All those matriarchs, they raised the bar for everybody,” Fisher said.

Pottery traditions are passed through families and each of New Mexico’s now 19 Pueblos has a unique style.

Beyond pottery, Indigenous artists from New Mexico produce Zuni fetishes, Navajo weavings and baskets in addition to paintings, drawings, sculpture, photography – you name it.

Jewelry is one of the most popular and well recognized styles of artwork from New Mexico. I’ve detailed Native American jewelry in a separate post.

IN PERSON: The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque offers a fantastic introduction to New Mexico’s pueblos and their culture, artwork and people. Authentic Indigenous artwork can be bought there as well. The on-site Indian Pueblo Kitchen serves Indigenous cuisine.

Institute of American Indian Arts

T.C. Cannon, Waiting for the Bus (Anadarko Princess), 1977. Lithograph, 30 x 22 inches. Collection of Nancy and Richard Block. Photograph by Addison Doty. From the book “Of God and Mortal Men.”

Well into the 20th century, Native American art continued being produced in traditional ways. Collectors wanted “traditional” material and instructors tied their students to traditional methods.

In 1962, the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe opened, dramatically breaking from the traditional, launching a thrilling era of contemporary Native American art which continues to this day. IAIA was founded “to empower creativity and leadership in Native Arts and cultures through higher education” and become “the premier educational institution for Native arts and cultures.”

Check and check.

A staggering number of the most influential artists in Native American and American art history from New Mexico and beyond either taught or took classes at IAIA.

Fritz Scholder, Charles Loloma and Allan Hauser, arguable the most influential and respected Native American painter, jeweler and sculptor to this day were among the first instructors at the school. Their students, a who’s who of first generation “contemporary” Native American art – of course, all art is contemporary when it’s made by definition, but these artists were the first to work in a dramatically non-traditional style. Earl Biss, T.C. Cannon, Kevin Red Star, Dan Namingha, Linda Lomahaftewa, Doug Hyde.

The list of prominent artists from New Mexico restricted only to those who attended or taught at IAIA would be over 100 long itself. Tony and Elizabeth Abeyta. Diego Romero. Cara Romero. Roxanne Swentzell. Giants. Will Wilson. Anita Fields. Jody Naranjo. Marie Watt. Kathleen Wall. Rose B. Simpson. Canupa Hanska Luger.

That list continues to the present with recent graduates like Del Curfman.

Some of these artists are born and raised in New Mexico, some lived in New Mexico after graduation, others simply pass through, but all of them contribute to New Mexico and New Mexico has contributed to all of them.

IN PERSON: The IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts exhibits the work of IAIA students and faculty as well other Native American artists.

Dorothy Dunn’s Studio School

Harrison Begay, Untitled Painting of Female Feather Dancer, Watercolor, ca 1970s, 15-½” x 11.” ADOBE GALLERY SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO.
Harrison Begay, Untitled Painting of Female Feather Dancer, Watercolor, ca 1970s, 15-½” x 11.” ADOBE GALLERY SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO.

Spend any time among the visual arts in New Mexico and you’re likely to hear the name Dorothy Dunn. In 1932, Dunn, a white woman and artist, began teaching art at the Santa Fe Indian School.

What would come to be known as the “Studio Style,” or more derisively the “Bambi School” for the common motif of doe eyed deer prominently featured in her student’s work, dictated “flat,” two dimensional, colorful, narrative paintings of traditionally Native subject matter – ceremonies, mythology, animals – employing watercolors. Once you recognize the look of a Dunn Studio style painting, you’ll be able to instantly recognize it anywhere.

The downside of Dunn’s instruction was how it hamstrung her student’s creativity, pigeonholing all of them into one specific style. While she advocated for the creativity of her Native students, she only advocated for it in very limited, restrictive terms.

The great Chiricahua Apache sculptor Allan Houser, one of Dunn’s students, was particularly critical of her narrow instruction.

Dunn only taught for a handful of years, but her studio school was an important step on the way toward IAIA and contemporary Native American art. Narciso Abeyta, Harrison Begay, Pablita Velarde and Pop Chalee were among her students who would go on to successful careers as artists.

IN PERSON: Most guest rooms at Santa Fe’s magnificent La Fonda Hotel feature Dorothy Dunn studio style artworks inside.

Taos Society of Artists

Ernest L. Blumenschein, Landscape with Indian Camp, 1920. Oil on canvas. Denver Art Museum.
Ernest L. Blumenschein, Landscape with Indian Camp, 1920. Oil on canvas. Denver Art Museum.

Non-indigenous artists have been drawn to New Mexico for its extraordinary light – similar to how artists across Europe have been attracted to the French Riviera. The favorable climate, contrasting mountain and desert landscapes, solitude and attraction to Indigenous cultures all lead countless artists from “back east” to visit New Mexico. Some stayed only a few days. Others never left. The migration continues.

Joseph Henry Sharp first visited Taos, N.M. in 1893. Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips followed five years later. All were captivated by what they saw. The land. The people. The light. The air.

“In just a few weeks I had found more material and inspiration for creative work than I could use in a lifetime,” Phillips wrote.

In July of 1915, Sharp, Blumenschein and Phillips were joined by Eanger Irving Couse, Oscar E. Berninghaus and W. Herbert “Buck” Dunton in forming the Taos Society of Artists. These “Taos Founders” would later be joined by Cattharine C. Critcher, Ernest Martin Hennings, Julius Rolshoven, Kenneth Adams, Victor Higgins and Walter Ufer.

The Taos Society of Artists lasted just 12 years as a cohesive group, but the aesthetic they established – breathtaking mountainscapes, buttery fall cottonwoods and aspens, warm, serene portraits of the area’s Indigenous people – has hung on firmly ever since and continues defining what “Western Art” aspires to be in many ways.

The art colony they established in Taos lives on. Taos remains a pilgrimage site for artists and collectors. An extraordinary number of artists, galleries and museums continuing calling the small town home, all of which stems from the Taos Founders.

IN PERSON: Learn the story of the Taos Society of Artists at the Couse-Sharp Historic Site in Taos which includes the home and studio of E.I. Couse and Sharp’s adjacent property.

Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe, The Cliff Chimneys, 1938. Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum
Georgia O’Keeffe, The Cliff Chimneys, 1938. Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe may be the most famous female artist in history. It’s her or Frida Kahlo. Almost 900 results return from a search of “Georgia O’Keeffe book” on Amazon.com.

With all that information available on O’Keeffe, I’ll keep this brief.

O’Keeffe first visited New Mexico in 1917, returning for the summer of 1929 to paint. She was transfixed by the desert. The light. The visuals. Anyone who’s ever been to New Mexico understands the hold it can take on you; why it’s called the “Land of Enchantment.”

O’Keeffe was enchanted.

She returned in the summers of 1930 and ’31 and the fall of ’34. It was on this visit when she discovered Ghost Ranch 20 miles north of tiny Abiquiu. For the next 15 years, with the exception of 1939, O’Keeffe spent part of her year working in New Mexico.

Part of the year was not enough and she moved to New Mexico full time in 1949, occupying the property at Ghost Ranch she’d bought years prior and later adding another home and studio in Abiquiu.

In New Mexico, O’Keeffe created her famous paintings of skulls and cliffs and sky.

O’Keeffe died in Santa Fe in 1986, essential to art history.

IN PERSON: The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe shares the artist’s work and story.

Los Cinco Pintores

Jozef Bakos, Telaya Peak, (1921). Tia Collection
Jozef Bakos, Telaya Peak, (1921). Tia Collection

Extant for just five years in the 1920s, Fremont Ellis, Jozeph Bakos, Walter Mruk, William Schuster and Willard Nash formed Los Cinco Pintores – the five painters. The group of 20-something transplants to Santa Fe, like the Taos Founders, took as their inspiration New Mexico’s landscapes and people.

Even before Los Cinco Pintores, Santa Fe had been building a reputation as an artist colony due to its location along historic trade routes, bringing both artists and tourists to buy their work to the area. Santa Fe for centuries had been a center for Indigenous and Spanish Colonial trade, including functional objects such as pots, jewelry, baskets and blankets now considered fine art.

The reputation of New Mexico’s capital as a hotbed for the arts only increased throughout the decades and the city, despite its population of roughly 90,000, boasts nearly 300 galleries, more than a dozen art museums, IAIA and the world’s largest, longest running and most prestigious Indigenous art market, the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts Indian Market. Not to mention the thousands of artisans who live there and more who travel in from around the state, nation and globe to sell and show their work.

Per capita, Santa Fe has the liveliest, most robust and significant art scene in the world.

Transcendental Painting Group

Agnes Pelton, Awakening (Memory of Father), 1943
Agnes Pelton, Awakening (Memory of Father), 1943

Formed in Santa Fe in 1938 by a group of artists including Emil Bisttram, Raymond Jonson and later to include Agnes Pelton, the Transcendental Painting Group has come to be recognized as having an outsized influence on Modern art writ large despite its brief, six-year existence. That influence is continuing to be revealed.

The group was founded on the principles of creating and promoting a pure abstract painting style imbued with spiritual intent. Their paintings remain as intriguing and mysterious now as they did when they shook up the art world 85 years ago.

IN PERSON: The University of New Mexico Art Museum’s Raymond Jonson Collection is the largest and most significant collection of his artwork as well as that of his Transcendentalist colleagues. Johnson, a Black man, taught at UMN in Albuquerque.

Famous artists who visited and painted New Mexico

Stuart Davis, Santa Fe Landscape, (1923). Tia Collection
Stuart Davis, Santa Fe Landscape, (1923). Tia Collection

Stuart Davis

Marsden Hartley

John Marin (1870-1953)

Robert Henri

Randall Davey

Maynard Dixon

Richard Diebenkorn

MAJOR Contemporary Indigenous artists born in New Mexico

Tony Abeyta
Tony Abeyta

Tony Abeyta

Virgil Ortiz

Rose B. Simpson

Roxanne Swetzell

Dan Namingha

Susan Folwell

Helen Hardin

Nani Chacon

MAJOR historic artists who lived New Mexico

Nicolai Fechin

Gustave Baumann

Leon Gaspard

R.C. Gorman

Agnes Martin (1912-2004)

MAJOR Contemporary artists living in New Mexico

Judy Chicago - Mary Queen of Scots
Judy Chicago – Mary Queen of Scots

Judy Chicago

Walt Gonske

Billy Schenck

Mateo Romero

Nocona Burgess

Who is the most famous artist in New Mexico?

For as long as she lived, O’Keeffe held this title. Today, I’d say Judy Chicago.

Who were 3 famous painters from New Mexico?

Start with O’Keeffe, Martin and Pelton – three women. None were born in New Mexico, however. Looking for 3 famous painters from New Mexico who were born there: Tony Abeyta, Dan Namingha and Pablita Velarde.

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