Georgia O'Keeffe

Inside the Art Market: Along the Santa Fe Trail

When I first saw the Abiquiu house it was a ruin with an adobe wall around the garden broken in a couple of places by falling trees. I found a patio with a very pretty well house and bucket to draw up water. It was a good-sized patio with a long wall with a door on one side. That wall with a door was something I had to have.

–Georgia O’Keeffe

The drive from the airport in Albuquerque to Santa Fe on Interstate 25 is filled with jarring, colorful sights. The landscape before you on the wide open road is sweeping and stark: hilly, bursting with sagebrush, piñon and juniper trees, the big sky dense with color and piercing light. Storm clouds gather and disperse in ominous formations. One feels enraptured and awed by the sweeping drama of the Southwest.

But nature seems overshadowed along Interstate 25. For you can’t help noticing all those tacky billboard ads lining the road, especially for personal injury lawyers; scruffy buildings appear, like the derelict Santa Fe Downs, once a local race track for quarter horses but now just a flea market; crumbling shanties and junked cars are littered about on rutted, dusty roads that run alongside the highway and vanish into the brush. Here is a realm vast and wild, beautiful and bleak, but also impoverished. It’s Indian territory.

Hence along the way you pass through one tribal pueblo after another, encountering their principal source of revenue: gambling casinos. These have the appearance of glorified truck stops, with huge signs promoting this or that coming attraction. Curiously you feel pulled back to the 1970s, for the casinos all seem to feature rock bands from that era once prominent but long faded in memory. The band members, you imagine, by now must be old and gray, with few recent recordings to speak of, traveling by bus and not by private jet. But here they are, out on the road, still touring. Thus as a familiar name leaps out from a flashing neon sign looming over the highway you gasp in wonder: “So that’s what happened to Fog Hat!”

If you continue driving north, well past Santa Fe, you’ll eventually come to Taos, that romantic old artist colony where in the early 20th century painters like Joseph Henry Sharp and E.I. Couse captured heroic images of tribal chiefs, of medicine ceremonies in sweat lodges and cattle rustlers out on the range. Ansel Adams took photographs here, Georgia O’Keeffe spent her summers nearby at Ghost Ranch, the Russian-American portrait painter Nicolai Fetchin is associated with the area, and the great minimalist painter Agnes Martin lived and worked nearby.

Martin is the subject of a biography by Nancy Princenthal published in 2015 entitled Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art. It’s a fascinating story, but an eerie one as well. After many years working in a studio on Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan and being part of the roiling abstract painting scene there during the 50s and 60s, Martin abandoned New York in 1967 and sought refuge in New Mexico. Extremely self-reliant, she built her own adobe studio and painted away in monk-like simplicity for decades, never reading a newspaper, rarely seeing anyone and remaining all but invisible to the outside world. She died in 2004 at age 92.

Throughout her long and dreary seclusion, though, her career was carefully managed back in New York by Pace Gallery. Today Agnes Martin is thus hailed as one of the greatest of Post-War painters, with prices for her work rising steadily amidst retrospectives here and abroad.

Taos still exists as an artist colony and gallery town, but its heyday is perhaps a thing of the past. Santa Fe, on the other hand, bursting with affluence, more polished and cosmopolitan, is truly a hotbed of the contemporary art scene.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Site Santa Fe, the pioneering non-profit organization started in 1995 that seeks to bring, in its own words, “the global contemporary art dialogue to the art-rich Southwest.” In this lofty goal it has succeeded beyond all expectations, not least through the nine biennials it has hosted through the years but through countless exhibitions and cultural productions. The biennials, fashioned after the more famous ones in Venice and at the Whitney, have brought to Santa Fe work by renowned artists such as William Kentridge, Ellsworth Kelly, Peter Doig, Ed Ruscha and Jasper Johns.

In so doing Site Santa Fe has become a veritable breeding ground for curators, like an intensive on-the-job-training laboratory for the newest, most cutting-edge exhibitions, sending these curators off as emissaries to the great museums and galleries and art fairs of the world. Thus as the contemporary art market has literally exploded in the past decades and become a global colossus, Site Santa Fe has only grown in art market stature and influence.

All this from a converted warehouse hard by the railroad tracks!

However prominent the contemporary art scene has become in Santa Fe—and one has only to drive up Canyon Road and peruse the densely-packed art galleries there to see the clamor of contemporary art commerce—one still thinks of the city more than anything in terms of the native American Indian market. On any given day a stroll through the long arcade of the Palace of the Governors across from the main plaza will be a tutorial in tribal jewelry of all sorts, as men and women from various pueblos hover in this clammy space with their wares spread out on blankets, mainly for the tourists.

Only steps away lies the elegant James Reid boutique, with chic Indian-themed bracelets, belt buckles and other expensive items for a more upscale clientele. Indeed, shops large and small throughout Santa Fe offer the most diverse array of Indian pottery, paintings, blankets and sculpture of varying artistic appeal and value. Vitrines in the major hotels offer additional buying opportunities, mainly of jewelry. One is thus reminded again and again: you’re in Indian territory.

The fullest and most dramatic expression of Santa Fe as the hub of the American Indian art trade is the massive, colorful, noisy and street-clogging event that takes place there annually in August. This is the Santa Fe Indian Market, a juried show drawing upwards of 150,000 visitors from around the world. Some 1200 artists participate, representing such diverse Indian art forms as beadwork, basketry, textile weavings, jewelry, pottery and painting, with strict standards imposed as to authenticity and quality. Each artist has to prove membership in a tribe recognized by the federal government; and like any other major art fair in the world, serious collectors arrive early and buy quickly.

I remember how jarring this event can be to a first-time visitor. I recall how startled I was not only by the sheer crush of visitors in the downtown area, but also by the sight of Indian artisans in hotel lobbies and corridors. They could not afford one of the coveted booths on the Santa Fe Plaza, so here they were sitting in chairs hither and yon in the Eldorado, where I was staying, their wares spread before them as people passed by, lingered and haggled over price. Whether these artists were officially part of Indian Market or some satellite activity, I couldn’t determine; but their presence added greatly to the sweep and spectacle of this clamorous weekend fair.

Out in Tesuque, near the gated splendor of a private residential neighborhood with majestic views of the hills, is the Santa Fe Opera, its season overlapping with Indian Market. And what a world away it seems, so genteel and dressed up in contrast to the jeans-and-turquoise informality of the downtown! One summer I found myself having drinks outside La Casa Sena in the downtown with a group of friends, all of them from Chicago. They had been coming to the opera for years, and one of them sat on the opera’s board. Their appreciation of Santa Fe was very much a cultural one, deeply rooted in music and performance. They attended all the opera productions each season, and they knew the singers and orchestra directors personally. It was delightful hearing their reminiscences, as my own extended to but one performance here back in the late 90s, when I sat way up high in the outdoor hall listening to “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” while the cars and trucks far below disappeared into the desert night.

Over the years I’ve wandered far and wide in Santa Fe, discovering its various archaeologies. One of the most compelling places I once visited is the School for Advanced Research. Founded in the early part of the 20th century, the center has been committed to studying and preserving the heritage of the American Indian through far-flung excavations, archaeological training and artist training programs.

Some years ago I drove up to the School’s campus to meet its director and have a look around. An enchanting aspect of the center is an old adobe estate, El Delirio, that it owns. Built in the 1920s, El Delirio was the home of Martha Root White and her sister Amelia Elizabeth, who turned it into a salon for Santa Fe artists, writers and scholars. The White sisters were women of drama and enterprise, opening the first Native American Art gallery in New York and starting something called the Indian Arts Fund, which built up a huge collection of Indian artifacts, now owned by the School. Alas, I could not see the collection on the day of my visit, and so it remains a priority for my next trip to Santa Fe. Interestingly, one of the School’s early directors, Kenneth Chapman, founded the Santa Fe Indian Market in 1922 in furtherance of promoting American Indian art and culture.

No artist is more associated with Santa Fe and the Southwest than Georgia O’Keeffe, who died there in 1986 at age 98. For many years she divided her time between an adobe house and studio in the little town of Abiquiu, just north of Santa Fe, which she acquired in 1945, and a studio at nearby Ghost Ranch. Her paintings of that rugged landscape, including its cliffs and dazzling flora, are among her most important and highly prized. Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 of 1932, for example, achieved the surreal price of $44.4 million at Sotheby’s in November 2014, tripling the previous record for any work by a woman artist (the previous record was for Joan Mitchell’s Untitled of 1960, which made $11.9 million). Recent exhibitions, like the one at the Brooklyn Museum in 2016 that included many period photographs and hand-made clothes as well as a wide range of her paintings, have only enhanced the legend of Georgia O’Keeffe as one of the greatest painters of the 20th century. She thus remains an exalted, shimmering presence in this part of the world.

The seller of her record painting was none other than the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, by custom sold to benefit its acquisitions fund. In walking about the cool, stark, sandy-colored galleries of the museum one is startled by how sympathetically this classic adobe-style building has captured the sense of place that so enraptured O’Keeffe. In skylighted rooms of intimacy and simple elegance, the museum has summoned up in a most vivid and evocative manner the spirit of the desert country—the sun-bleached skulls, cottonwood trees and blood-red mesas—that O’Keeffe painted. It is no wonder that visitors linger in the serene rooms and sun-washed courtyard soaking up the atmosphere. To a remarkable degree, the museum has managed to bring the aura of Abiquiu to Santa Fe.

The opening of the museum in July 1997 was heralded by enormous media coverage. Much was written about the brilliant renovation and enlargement of the building, a one-time Baptist mission house, by New York architect Richard Gluckman. Recognized internationally for his museum and gallery work, Mr. Gluckman has designed such projects as the Dia Center for the Arts and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. In addition to exhibiting and developing the permanent collection, as well as archival material related to O’Keeffe’s life, the museum is committed to educational programs, traveling exhibitions and the advancement of new scholarship that will illuminate Georgia O’Keeffe’s contribution to American culture.

In this regard, the museum echoes the conviction expressed by O’Keeffe herself, who once commented in her customary blunt fashion, “the men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.”

In reflecting on Santa Fe and the market today for American Indian art, one has to acknowledge that it has almost vanished in the elite salesrooms of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, where once it was celebrated. How did this come to be?

These auction sales encompassed a vast and diverse range of works: an Acoma polychrome jar, an Eskimo wood ceremonial mask, a Sioux buffalo-hide shield, Eastern Lakes quilled hide moccasins, a Cree beaded panel bag, a Plateau Man’s Beaded and Fringed Hide War Shirt, a Colima Face Mask, a Tlingit wood heraldic screen, a collection of Sioux pictographic drawings, a Kwakiutl wood shaman figure, a Hopi polychrome wood Kachina doll, a Tsimshian wood face mask, a Teotihuacan III stone funerary mask, an early classic Navajo man’s wearing blanket, a Seminole beaded cloth shoulder bag. What colorful, spine-tingling artifacts!

Sometimes complete collections came to market, such as one including turn-of-the century basketry, ceramics, paintings, textiles and pottery, or perhaps one of the Navajo horse blankets  The American Indian art market was vibrant and exciting, with many new collectors and active buying by museums and private foundations. It was not uncommon to see items being consigned from aristocratic and royal collections in Europe, as this field had long been esteemed by foreign collectors and connoisseurs.

But these sales soon faded and vanished. Sotheby’s and Christie’s each disbanded their departments. There were vague concerns of “heritage” issues, demonstrations by this or that tribe over items of tribal patrimony being offered for sale, clashes with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife over things like eagle feathers, bad publicity and excessive legal costs. It was perhaps easier and more cost effective to close the departments and cease selling American Indian Art. Hence it was left to other auction houses like Bonham’s and Skinner to continue the tradition of selling this art. Sotheby’s and Christie’s were done.

In 2004, which seems so very long ago in art market years, there was a sale at Christie’s in Los Angeles of American paintings. Featured in the sale was a section on Taos School works. These had come from a collection in Santa Fe, one formed by a retired lawyer from Dallas who lived in one of those swanky houses up near the Santa Fe Opera. He had acquired paintings by the most acclaimed Taos School artists, such as Joseph Henry Sharp and Oscar Berninghaus, buying often through such prominent Santa Fe dealers as Fenn Galleries, Nedra Matteucci and Gerald Peters. In his home the paintings—with titles like Pueblo Buffalo Dance, Navajo Shepherdess, Threshing Time and Russian Horses, evoked some of the mystery and romance of the old Southwest, along with the sense of loss, betrayal and fierce pride that endures for so many tribes.

But there was a problem with this collection. The family had gotten an estate tax appraisal from a local person; but he had been too clever for his own good, for in giving lowball values to the paintings, nearly all by recognized artists with auction house activity galore, he had triggered the dreaded IRS Review Panel’s displeasure. I recall seeing the report, with page upon page of revised values, and penalties. It was a devastating rebuke, and a costly one. While the family had been hoping to keep some of the paintings in remembrance of their father, in the end they were forced to sell the entire collection.

One painting struck me as especially haunting and poignant. It was a portrait by Sharp of an Indian slouching forward while smoking a cigarette and looking lost. He wore a peaked felt hat and tribal jewelry on his ears and around his neck. He was draped in a lush green blanket. It brought a price of $77,675, above its high estimate. The title of this brooding portrait was: A Bad Man Strikes his Enemy Pretty, Crow Indian, Montana.

The sale was a reminder of Taos as it once was, a colony of artists on the rise, one with a distinctive narrative vision. It remains a place of mystery, of course, as does Santa Fe. There, however, things seem on the rise artistically, with its glorious Indian market and museums, the opera, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, archaeological projects and research into the buried past of tribes and pueblos, Site Santa Fe.

How ironic that this city so deeply immersed in the culture of Indian tribes and ancient lore, always looking over its shoulder to the past, now stands smack in the forefront of the hottest, newest, trendiest market of all these days, Contemporary art.

This leaves me wondering: Does Contemporary art complement the past, enrich and enlighten it, bringing deeper meaning—or does it just devour it?

Ronald Varney

(Image: Painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 – 1986) standing against a wall at the Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, 1956. Photo by Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.)