Fine art

A master of Southwestern art

Taos Art Museum honors Walt Gonske’s 45 years in Taos


Walt Gonske’s work scintillates with loose and painterly strokes creating space for color, emotion and energy. And while impressionist landscapes are his forte, you sense you are looking more at Gonske’s inner-scape – a vibrant psychic interior of brilliant light and form.

Taos Art Museum at Fechin House honors Gonske’s 45 years in Taos with a retrospective solo exhibition of his artwork, opening Taos Fall Arts Festival with an artist reception Friday (Sept. 22), from 4-6 p.m. at the museum, located at 227 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. The show will run from Sept. 23 to Jan. 7, 2018.

In conjunction with the Fall Arts opening, the public is invited to visit the Gonske home, studio and gallery on Saturday and Sunday (Sept. 23-24) from 1-4 p.m., at 1038 La Cienega, in El Prado. Directions are at the museum or from the artist (see contacts below).

“An acknowledged master of Southwestern art,” museum press materials state, “with more than four decades of exploring every aspect of the mountain desert landscapes of Northern New Mexico, the painter Walt Gonske actually started out in life on the East Coast, and envisioned a career in illustration. He has defied expectations ever since, and flourished both in what he chose to do and where he chose to live. This exhibition is a celebration of those choices.”

The show is the next in the museum’s special annual exhibitions of the work of living Taos artists, tracing the evolution of the work of important artists like Gonske, “as well as his path through the landscapes of the Southwest,” V. Susan Fisher, museum executive director and curator, says in the press release. “Walt has been a good friend and generous supporter of the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House since before I arrived here in 2013.”

Gonske was born and raised in Irvington, New Jersey. After graduating from the Newark School of Fine Arts, he moved to New York City, where he studied with famous illustrator Frank C. Reilly, and later at the Art Students League in New York. He did a stint in the Army Enlisted Reserves before going into fashion illustration full time.

“You couldn’t give away a representational piece of art in New York in the ‘70s,” Gonske said. “It was already all nonobjective. My teacher, Frank Reilly, told us: ‘You’re never gonna make it in fine art because you need gray hairs – go into illustration.’ So I did. The last five years in New York City, I was illustrating men’s fashion out of a little hovel in the village. They would give me the clothes one day, then I’d turn an ad around 24 hours later.”

And he did well. He said his illustrations regularly appeared in the prestigious Gentleman’s Quarterly; full-page illustrations for Bloomingdale’s and Alexander’s Department Store ran daily in The New York Times and others.

“It all had to be done in 24 hours, but it was great training,” he said. “Coming out here to Taos was a piece of cake. In New York, I worked from 9 to 5 at ad agencies; and then when I was all freelance, if there was no job, there was no money. It’s not for everyone, for sure. But it was good training because I was getting used to living from one job to the next. When I got here in 1972, I painted my ass off,” he said, laughing, “because I didn’t want to go back to New York!”

He found Taos through his sister, who was working in the Taos Ski Valley. He and his parents visited her in 1971 and it was then that the brilliant light and landscape of the desert Southwest practically knocked him over. That and the representational artwork that filled Taos galleries and was selling here.

“I thought, ‘Gee, maybe I can make fine art and sell it.’” Then 29 years old, the illustrator-turned-fine artist followed his heart and moved to Taos.

“Later in 1972, I went to a party on Ledoux Street and met Ray Vinella and Ron Barsano. Then, over lots and lots of coffee, it was Ray’s idea, he thought we would get famous faster if we formed a group.”

And so “The Taos Six” was born. Besides Gonske, Vinella and Barsano, this famous group of Taos painters included Rod Goebel, Julian Robles and Robert Daughters. “It was really taking off,” Gonske said, then laughed. “We stayed together from 1973 to 1977 and then we blew ourselves apart from internal strife. Too bad it couldn’t have lasted longer.”

The first couple of years here, he said, he played it “straight” – art-school-rules straight. But he was getting pretty tired of that. He remembered a typical day in 1979, along the Río Pueblo de Taos, a painting that took five days. He would spend about two hours a day and then go back the next day. It was grueling and disappointing.

“I was just sure I couldn’t do it that way anymore.” He said it was Goebel who started “pushing the envelope with color; pushing from painting what is to what could be. At first, I was shocked,” Gonske said, “but then I liked it when I saw those rules being broken. Then I started doing it and it just opened it all up to me. Because otherwise, I would just repeat myself.”

From traditional realism in watercolors and oils, Gonske moved into painting what he sees, and not surprisingly, the public loves what he sees. “All the paintings in the book were finished in one go,” he says, explaining that he finishes everything, from small to large, in one to three hours on-site en plein air. “The reason is that there’s a lot of energy expended in this. If ever I’ve had to stop, then coming back, it changes. But not only that, I’m different, too. So it won’t be what I started. The whole process changes,” he said. “So I developed a kind of shorthand.”

He said he tries to “get the same emotional reaction I experience into the painting itself. The painting is made up of one impulse after another. Expressive paint put down and left alone, a record of all those moments during the process.”

The works on exhibit are all paintings from his own private collection, spanning 1974 to the present. The fact that he is showing for the second time in the world-renowned Russian artist Nicolai Fechin’s own home is even more special to him. Fechin’s drawings were in a New York exhibit when Gonske was a student and Reilly insisted the class take it all in.

“We were all blown away. I would never have dreamed 30 years later that I would be having a show in Fechin’s home,” Gonske recalled about the first show Taos Art Museum gave him in 2007. Having another show in Fechin’s home 10 years later is again hugely special for him.

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