Major Mabel Dodge Luhan exhibit debuts in Taos

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Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879-1962) was a singular woman. Which is why it only makes sense that the Harwood Museum of Art honors her influence on the arts with the “first-of-its-kind” exhibit about her life and times.

“Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West” debuts with a free “community opening” Saturday (May 21), 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., at the Harwood Museum, 238 Ledoux St. The exhibit features 160 works of art. Some of those works came from the Harwood collection. Others came from lenders, including the venerable Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Denver Art Museum, as well as private collectors.

The exhibit – which chronicles the impact Luhan had on art and literature – is not to be missed here in our hometown. “Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company” is on display only until Sept. 11. It will then travel to the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History and then to the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, New York (the city in which Luhan was born and raised).

A preview of the exhibit reveals an astonishing “who’s who” of modern artists. Paintings include the works of Georgia O’Keeffe, Victor Higgins, Dorothy Brett and Emil Bisttram, just to name a few. There are also early 20th-century photographs of Luhan (circa 1918) and her husband, Antonio “Tony” Luhan of Taos Pueblo. The latter was photographed by Ansel Adams in gelatin silver print in 1930.

All of this attention begs the question: Who was Mabel Dodge Luhan, and why did she have such far-reaching influence?

MaLin Wilson-Powell and Dr. Lois Rudnick co-curate the exhibit. Rudnick is professor emerita of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of a biography, “Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds.” In it, Rudnick writes: “Luhan was indeed a ‘common denominator’ whose life connects important social and intellectual issues in the late 19th and early 20th century European and American life.”

She points out that Luhan attracted talented artists, writers and reformers to Taos, such as John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe and Andrew Dasburg, just to name a few.

Luhan was known for her social affairs in Buffalo; Florence, Italy; and New York City. She had a remarkable ability to meet and court influential people. But it’s her activities in Taos, comprising the second half of her life, that have attracted the most attention. She married Tony Luhan and persuaded several writers and artists to visit her, helping to establish the basis for a lively community of artists.

Claiming to have experienced a spiritual conversion in Taos, Luhan writes from the perspective of a converted prophet. She defines a romantic and mystical vision of the Southwest shared by many of her guests and friends in Taos.

Luhan’s book, “Taos and Its Artists” (1947), is valuable for its collection of plates that contain 56 black-and-white reproductions of paintings by Taos artists, many of whom are represented in the Harwood’s “American Moderns and the West” exhibit. In the brief text accompanying these plates, Luhan reminisces about the artists represented in the book, roughly grouping them into categories of who made Taos “the best-known and most significant art center of America.” Luhan notes that in Taos, everyone came searching for quietude and beauty away from the dislocated outside world.

Luhan writes that there is a benevolent spirit in the mountains and the valley. In fact, she includes an oft-quoted famous passage of the Bhagavad-Gita in the beginning of her book: “Work is holy when the heart of the worker is fixed on the Highest.” Talk about inspiration.

Luhan concludes her commentary with: “Taos is going forward, carried along by new blood and old, will and intention. So Taos grows and expands under the beneficent skies and beauty increases. The genius loci is still exerting its age-long influence.”

The idea for this exhibition has been simmering for quite a while. Wilson-Powell first received a research grant for this exhibition in 1979 from the National Endowment for Humanities, Juniper Manley, the Harwood’s director of development, relates. “And Lois [Rudnick] began her research on Mabel Dodge Luhan as her college dissertation. Now, as a retired professor emerita of UMass Boston, this is still a driving passion. So this project is the culmination of lifelong research for both of these women.”

Manley said they approached the Harwood Museum in 2012. Although the scale seemed daunting, former director Susan Longhenry “felt that the Harwood was the right starting venue for this exhibition. It is within our strategic plan to do a major exhibition every three years. ‘Agnes Martin: Before the Grid’ was the last one in 2012, and we pushed this to four years in order to meet the fundraising needs to produce this major traveling exhibition to the quality that we wanted.”

Manley added that the scope of this show is the biggest project ever undertaken by the staff. “I will say that this is tenfold anything the Harwood Museum has ever done. There are over 170 objects in the exhibition, including literary ephemera, 150 artworks and objects, loaned from nearly 60 lenders.” Also, it has “received unprecedented support — the Henry Luce Foundation grant, the first National Endowment for the Arts grant the Harwood has ever received – overall, nearly 50 supporters – grants, individual gifts and in-kind donations.”

The weekend begins on Friday with a self-guided tour of the Mabel Dodge Luhan House and docent-led tours of D.H. Lawrence Ranch and the “Mabel Dodge Luhan and Company” exhibition at the Harwood Museum.

On Friday evening, a one-woman play, “The Passions of Mabel Dodge Luhan,” will be performed by Leslie Harell Dillen using Luhan’s own words to tell her story. The performance will be held at the Harwood Museum’s Arthur Bell Auditorium. Tickets are $12, $10 for Harwood Museum members.

Saturday begins with the opportunity to have a docent-led tour of the exhibition at the Harwood Museum. From 1-4:30 p.m., the “Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company Symposium,” featuring the essayists included in the exhibition catalog, will be held at the Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. Speakers and topics include: Dr. Lois Rudnick, “‘A Real Creator of Creators’: How Mabel Dodge Luhan Catalyzed American Modernism”; MaLin Wilson-Powell, “A New Way to See and New Things to Say”; Dr. Wanda Corn, “Making Modernism Regional: A Southwestern Story”; Carmella Padilla, “Anglo Appropriation of Hispano Art and Culture in New Mexico”; and special guest, Dr. Bill Anthes, “Making an Art World in Indian Country.” Q&A and book signing will follow the presentations. Tickets available only at Taos Community Auditorium for $18, $15 Harwood Museum members. For more information on the symposium, visit mabeldodgeluhan.org.

On Sunday, visitors will have the opportunity to join a tour of Taos Pueblo in the morning and to attend an afternoon community dialogue with Sylvia Rodríguez and Carmela Quinto, facilitated by co-curator Rudnick, at the Harwood’s Arthur Bell Auditorium. Presentation topics include: “Mabel’s Bohemian Legacy in Taos” and “American Moderns and Cultural Preservation.” Symposium and community dialogue speakers include:

• MaLin Wilson-Powell, co-curator, former curator of art after 1945 at the McNay Art Museum

• Dr. Lois Rudnick, co-curator, professor emerita of American studies, UMass Boston

• Dr. Wanda M. Corn, Robert and Ruth Halperin professor emerita in art history, Stanford University

• Carmella Padilla, freelance writer and editor, who has published extensively on Hispano culture

• Dr. William Anthes, professor of art history, Pitzer College

• Dr. Sylvia Rodriguez, author, community activist, professor emerita, UNM Dept. of Anthropology

• Carmela Quinto, curator of collections for Millicent Rogers Museum

The symposium and a full schedule of summer programming “offer audiences the opportunity to deepen their understanding of Mabel Dodge Luhan and the impact she had on American Modernism,” a press release states.

For more information on the many events scheduled around the exhibition, visit mabeldodgeluhan.org/calendar and harwoodmuseum.org/calendar.

Mabel Dodge Luhan lodging and travel packages, featuring a la carte options, can be found at taos.org/visionaries.

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