‘Show us how it feels instead of rolling out the details of what it looks like.”
This was the command answered by artists in the early and mid-20th century after a millennia of trying to capture how something looked. Artists were drawing from inside rather than outside.
It was called expressionism and it was a modernist movement, initially in poetry and painting, which originated in Germany. Its goal was to present the world solely from a subjective perspective. This allowed for distortion of color and form. Everything was made from a desire to create an emotional effect.
Expressionism came with the idea of new standards for making and judging art. The creative process was now meant to come from within the artist, rather than from a depiction of the external world. The standard for assessing the quality of a work of art became something other than the analysis of the composition.
An exhibition titled “Legends of Taos - Robert Ray,” consisting of paintings from the artist’s estate as well as private collections, will be on view Friday (March 17) through April 2 at 203 Fine Art, 1335 Gusdorf Road, Suite I. An opening reception is planned Saturday (March 18), 5-7 p.m., at the venue.
Robert D. Ray (1924-2002) moved to Taos after being invited in the 1950s by Eulalia Emetaz to exhibit at La Galeria Escondida, which was the place to exhibit as a modern artist in the area at the time. In Taos, Earl Stroh introduced him to Helene Wurlitzer, who encouraged him to remain. She provided him with a studio-residence, and he became one of the first beneficiaries of The Wurlitzer Foundation’s generosity.
She later commissioned several Taos artists to paint portraits of her for family members and included Ray in the commissions.
The Wurlitzer Foundation’s studios were built by Arturo Martínez y Salázar, a builder and designer of many Taos homes and businesses. He was the father of Cecilia Torres, who owned and operated one of the few contemporary art galleries here, New Directions Gallery on Taos Plaza. Maye Torres, Cecilia’s daughter, shared a memory of Ray.
“Robert showed with New Directions Gallery for some time. He was as interesting as his work. His process was very experimental. He played with colors and line and contour in the most sensitive and technically masterful way. He was a beaming light of creative energy, and to have a dialogue with him was a unique experience. He was a great listener [as well as having] a wicked sense of humor,” she said.
Before moving to Taos, Ray had served in the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II. He earned art degrees in California and Mexico and lived in Europe for a year. He showed his work in regional and national exhibitions and sold some.
During the quiet winters of the 1950s, he would return to Denver, Colorado, for a few months to earn money because Taos tourism business nearly ground to a halt in the wintertime.
The most frequent subjects of his early Taos oil paintings and woodcut prints were still lifes and semiabstract landscapes.
The works reflect an emersion into color and form. He often said he was fascinated by the light of the Taos Valley. He said it was not just the light itself, but the way in which the quality of light defines the place.
Pieces like “Reflections on Lake Powell No. 28,” which was painted in 1973, show form created by flat color that seems to glow with their own agitated light as color opposites of the same weight interact and work their subtle magic of disappearing and leaping forward at the same time. All of it is pinned to the canvas by a horizon line and recognizable landforms.
Later pieces, like “Cut Out Autumn (No. 198),” which was executed in 1995, is a watercolor that shimmers with golden light. There is just the barest suggestion of landscape. The place or orientation is indicated only by a series of dark rectangles connected in the bottom of the field.
Ray experimented with all sorts of media – from tissue paper collage, acrylics and mono printing to conventional media like oil and watercolor. What was important in the work was how light and its quality suggested place more than specifics of form and outline.
In his work, intense concentrations of light contrast abruptly with darkness and fragmented forms. That was his signature style. He worked closely with what was known as the Harwood Foundation and upon his death in 2002 left his Taos home to the Harwood Museum of Art.
The exhibition is on view through April 2 by appointment only. Call (575) 751-1262 to arrange for one.