This is Part 1 of a two part story.
A very old "wrong" is about to be set "right" - that is, the first museum recognition of Rory Wagner as a master of "serious" art, which opens with a reception Friday (Aug. 3) from 5-7 p.m. at the Blumenschein Home and Museum, 222 Ledoux St. The public reception is free of charge.
"There's such snobbery in the art world sometimes," said Wagner's former wife Máye Torres, referring to the artist's relatively lackluster position in the "serious" artists hall of fame during his lifetime.
The gallerist of Studio 107-B on Taos Plaza and an iconic Taos artist in her own right, Torres and Wagner were close friends since she was 16 years old (10 years his junior), and considers him her art maestro, encouraging her to pursue more figurative work just when she was starting to lean toward a more abstract aesthetic. Ultimately, she and Wagner tied the knot in 2008, later divorcing in 2010, the year he died.
"As a hyperrealist artist, Rory Wagner was maybe one of the first to do this in Western art," said Taos Historic Museum Director Margo Beutler-Gins, talking about how impressed she is by Wagner's talent. "I don't think that term was around when he started, but that's what he was doing."
Titled "Traditional to the Obscure," a selection of Wagner's large works will be featured in the Taos Historic Museums' venue on Ledoux. This museum benefit exhibit and sale will continue through Sept. 4.
Hyperrealism is a contemporary school of painting credited with being inspired by "photorealism," a genre emerging in the 1960s that sometimes evokes the illusion of photography, and which is so detailed it sometimes "makes you do a double take." (mymodernmet.com/21-mindblowing-hyperreal)
This has often been the experience of many people upon viewing a Wagner opus. Standing open-mouthed and taking in every detail possible is typical of viewers trying to wrap their senses around Wagner's incredible expositions of art history, cultural relevance and purely exquisite draftsmanship.
The very large "traditional" portrait done of R.C. Gorman's father, titled simply "Carl Gorman," Torres said was rejected by a museum in town. "They saw him more as a commercial artist. But he just loved to paint!"
Raised in Florida, he made Taos his home over 30 years ago. With Gorman's encouragement and lifelong friendship, Wagner's popularity went stratospheric. Torres said he worked night and day to keep up with the demand.
"I always told him, 'You are a world-class artistic talent, and few people like you ever come around,'" said Taos Municipal Judge Ernie Ortega, a close friend who married Torres and Wagner.
"A lot of women really loved him, too," Ortega added. "When they heard he was getting married, they were so jealous."
Wagner was awarded the New Mexico Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2006, quite a feat considering he was basically self-taught. Originally focused on cowboy Western art, his subsequent work since first engaging with Native America in Taos consisted almost entirely of large-scale, highly detailed, historically faithful portraits of American Indian figures.
"He was always on the edge of danger," Ortega said about Wagner's rather arch reputation. "Museums would approach him very carefully. He was an outlaw. But he had a very beautiful spirit and I loved it. "
Artist and gallerist Rob Nightingale describes in press materials a favorite and frequent occurrence about Wagner and visitors to WilderNightingale Fine Art, the gallery where Wagner showed for more than 15 years.
"He would come in the gallery, always smoking and he would drink wine out of a coffee cup. People would look at him and say, 'Who is that guy and what is he doing here?' while they were looking at his paintings. Then, I would say, 'Hey Rory, can you come here?' and then they'd ask him for his card. You can't judge a book by its cover."
While the exhibit and sale is a benefit for the museum, more importantly "it's a tribute to Rory Wagner," Beutler-Gins said, adding that if Máye Torres and Rob Nightingale weren't behind the exhibit, "it would not be possible. This isn't about promoting one particular gallery. This is to honor Rory and the people who loved him - and to bring Western art collectors back to Taos."
"Rory Wagner was and is a new master of Western fine art in Taos," Beutler-Gins said. "He pretty much encompasses everything I would put up to the model of the Taos Society of Artists.
"Had Rory Wagner lived, I believe his market value, while it's pretty high now, I think it would have gone through the roof," Beutler-Gins concluded. "He just would have continued to rise because he was so remarkably talented."
The exhibition and sale will feature works "from his classical subject matter, to the more obscure and dark, and paintings combining both subject matter and thought," according to museum press. "Rory painted rich, realistically rendered figures mostly of Native American heritage. His style mirrored that of master painter Jan Vermeer."
How he managed to teach himself this hyperrealistic technique before anyone was doing it in Western art is something Máye Torres says is a typical Rory-style story.
NEXT WEEK IN PART 2: "I'm pedantic and insufferable, ask anyone."