Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 26, 2017
Thomas Brent Smith, ed. A Place in the Sun: The Southwest Paintings of Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings Exh. cat. The Charles M. Russell Center Series on Art and Photography of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016. 208 pp.; 125 color ills.; 27 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780806151984)
Exhibition schedule: Denver Art Museum, Denver, December 13, 2015–April 24, 2016; Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, May 22–August 28, 2016

Scholarship on the art of the American West has greatly expanded in the last decade, with the northern New Mexico art colonies of Taos and Santa Fe receiving particular attention.1 A Place in the Sun, a multi-authored volume that accompanied a traveling exhibition, considers two of the leading artists of Taos, Walter Ufer (1876–1936) and E. Martin Hennings (1886–1956).

Their many parallels make it logical to consider their careers together. As German-Americans, they shared a significant cultural background that led them to pursue art study in Munich in the second decade of the twentieth century, in contrast to many of their contemporaries who favored the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Paris. Strongly rooted in Chicago where they began their professional lives, they also studied at the Art Institute there. The city was home to important patrons of art of the American West, and a group of leading politicians and businessmen formed a syndicate to support promising artists early in their careers. Ufer and Hennings benefited from the consortium’s sponsorship, which enabled them to visit New Mexico for the first time: Ufer in 1914 and Hennings in 1917. Both would eventually settle in Taos, and as members of the Taos Society of Artists (TSA; 1915–27), they collectively marketed a particular artistic image of the Southwest that was a recognizable cultural brand for tourists and collectors, boosting their sales and reputations nationally. The organization remained all male until 1924 when Catharine Critcher became the only woman admitted to the TSA. She gained membership the same year as Hennings.

Like their contemporaries, they had been attracted to Taos because of its “Native American and Hispanic communities and scenic landscapes bathed in brilliant sunlight” (ix). Ufer and Hennings painted their most important works in Taos, seeking to create a distinctly American art grounded in a strong sense of place, a goal that aligned them with intense period discussions regarding cultural nationalism that occurred among artists of both conservative and progressive styles. Ufer was a brilliant figure painter, known for his vigorous brushwork and bold color, while Hennings’s more introspective vision favored poetic and lyrical compositions.

In the first of seven chapters Susanne Boeller analyzes their student years in Munich—Ufer arrived in 1911 and Hennings in 1912—making effective use of period archival material and photographs to create a vivid picture of their study abroad. She conveys the rich cultural context of a city popular with German-American students, who were numerous enough to support an American Artists Club. Boeller reproduces paintings by their Munich teachers—Walter Thor, Franz von Stuck, and Angelo Jank—and their own student work to convey the strength of their academic art training.

In “A Biography of Walter Ufer,” Dean A. Porter traces the personal and professional arc of an artist who experienced an early professional success that he was able to sustain only for the decade between 1914 and 1923. He grew up poor, and his marriage to Mary Monrad Frederikson, a cultured Danish woman who took classes from him in Chicago, stoked his self-destructive insecurities, resentments exacerbated by the alcoholism that eventually derailed his career. His prickly personality, emotional instability, difficulty in dealing with patrons, and poor financial management meant that after 1923 his work was uneven, and only occasionally did he equal the early canvases that had made his reputation.

Thomas Brent Smith, in “Walter Ufer’s Years of Critical Success: A Painter Characterized by His Time and Place,” focuses on a brilliant artist who became known for his complicated multi-figure compositions set in the strong midday sun featuring boldly brushed and vivid color. Distancing himself from the older generation of Taos artists, his canvases portrayed contemporary Native Americans whose lives, intertwined with the Hispanic and Anglo communities, revealed the anxieties of a contemporary world in flux. Ufer ambitiously wanted to measure himself against national artists, balancing “modern thought and execution and his traditional training” (56). His was a tragic, if not uncommon, story.

In “The Country He Loved Best: A Biography of E. Martin Hennings,” Karen Brooks McWhorter reveals the great contrast between Ufer and Hennings, the latter of whom steadily advanced his professional interests. A talented figure painter, he also produced handsome landscapes, infusing both genres with the rich yellows of autumn, declaring in 1942 that his favorite subject was “aspen in their full glory” (120).

Peter H. Hassrick demonstrates that geography was certainly destiny for the artist in “Taos and the Art of E. Martin Hennings.” Enchanted by the fall colors of New Mexico, the picturesque town to which he moved permanently in 1921 was “his home, his studio, and his muse” (100). More adept than Ufer at dealing with the syndicate, their support provided the foundation for a successful career. Hennings broadened the archetypes pictured by his contemporaries, painting distinctive regional types, such as the prospector, that reference the region’s pioneer past. Hassrick argues that by celebrating the “mythic, pastoral, romantic” (105) character of the Southwest, Hennings synthesized his vision through a “personal temperament, formalist constraint, and fertile imagination” (106). Hennings married in 1926 when he was forty, and unlike Ufer, his union appears to have been a happy one.

“Glimpsing Modernity: Images of Labor, Passage, and Change” is Catherine Whitney’s imaginative thematic essay. While the work of Ufer and Hennings is more traditional than their modernist contemporaries, Whitney demonstrates that the changing definitions of modernism were broad enough to include Ufer’s “gritty realist subjects painted from life” (125) and Hennings’s graceful compositions, grounded in the elegant, strong Jugendstil he had seen in Germany. Further, the artists were engaged with broad discussions of the era in which they worked. Hennings’s more contemplative approach contrasted with Ufer’s “stark and penetrating realism” (130). The vigorous brushwork, bold color, and unromantic subjects Ufer favored and the melancholy moodiness and brilliant color seen in Hennings’s work reference the uneasy cultural clash of modernity with traditional pueblo lifestyles. The success of both artists can be linked to the “Indian craze” (128). The Native American ceramics, rugs, and Katsinas that are common objects in the work of the Taos-school artists may also be seen in modernist paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley.

The last essay in the volume, “That Man Out There in the Mountains: Ufer, Hennings, and the Conflicted Allure of Taos,” is by James C. Moore. For many, Taos was “a comfortable and inviting place to paint or write” (143). But it changed with the passing of former members of the Taos Society of Artists: William Herbert “Buck” Dunton, E. Irving Couse, and Ufer all died in 1936. The Native Americans they painted were no vanishing race, but rather were a modern people uneasily integrated into a political environment that put them at odds with prejudicial federal policies, including proposals permitting the seizure of pueblo lands by non-Indians, the suppression of traditional ceremonial practices, and the forcing of their children to attend boarding schools. In avoiding stereotypical portrayals, the paintings of Ufer and Hennings “addressed contemporary issues of concern to the people at the pueblo” (157).

While this volume is focused on two significant male artists, it is worth noting that there were many talented women artists in Taos who significantly shaped its cultural landscape. Several of the leading Taos painters were themselves married to artists, and these women did not find it easy to negotiate the fraught gender politics of maintaining dual careers in a small town. We learn how Ufer’s wife was a great support to her difficult husband in the thirty years they were married, but there is little about her as an artist. Seven years older than her husband, she was thirty-seven when they married in 1906. Just what kind of “promising painting career” (29) did she sacrifice to financially and emotionally support Walter? Was he her only teacher? Do any works by her survive?

Handsomely produced, with excellent illustrations (including stunning full-page details of key paintings), the volume definitively reveals the talents of these two temperamentally divergent artists. The essayists’ overlapping discussions of works by Ufer and Hennings from different angles reveal the artists’ interconnectedness and strengthen an understanding of their contributions. Detailed notes at the end of each essay provide both documentation and additional sources, as does the well-selected bibliography.

The meticulous research that has gone into this volume accomplishes the authors’ intentions to restore these figures as artists of exceptional talent who were engaged with the significant art and historical issues of their day, including the turmoil of World War I, which was painful for Americans of Germanic descent or who, like Ufer, were born there, a situation compounded by the considerable anti-German sentiment throughout the nation. The conflict was followed by the flu pandemic of 1918, and the deadly scourge did not spare Taos. Finally, the Great Depression seriously affected Taos residents; for the artists, sales were greatly diminished. Hennings’s painting Depression, Slaughtering Cattle, Ranchos de Taos (ca. 1934) is a harrowing image of starving families amid economic devastation.

A Place in the Sun is a stellar contribution to the history of American art, whose strength derives not only from major urban metropolises, but equally from the vibrant art heritage of significant regional centers like Taos.

Betsy Fahlman
Professor of Art History, School of Art, Arizona State University

1 Two other substantial monographs were published in 2016: Marian Wardle and Sarah E. Boehme, eds., Branding the American West: Paintings and Films, 1900–1950 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016) (click here for review) and Lois P. Rudnick and MaLin Wilson-Powell, eds., Mabel Dodge Luhan and Company: American Moderns and the West (Santa Fe and Taos: Museum of New Mexico Press and Harwood Museum of Art, 2016). See also Sascha T. Scott, A Strange Mixture: The Art and Politics of Painting Pueblo Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015).