Looking Closer and Questioning

The Museum’s newest exhibition, Modernism Made in New Mexico, opened last week to highlight the influence of New Mexico on some of the most prominent American artists of the early twentieth century.  Many of these artists, such as John Marin and Marsden Hartley, were acquaintances of Georgia O’Keeffe and were fellow members of the circle of artists promoted and exhibited by O’Keeffe’s husband, gallerist and noted photographer, Alfred Steiglitz.

I hope that all of the Research Center Blog’s readers will be able to visit the exhibition while it is on view through April thirtieth.  The show includes so many fascinating works that it is difficult to fully take them all in during a single visit.  However, I encourage all who plan on visiting to take a small amount of time to examine the minute details of some of the paintings and sculptures presented in the exhibition, as these details can reveal surprisingly significant things about the innovative techniques of the Modernists whose works are displayed, as well as some things about the history of the works themselves.

The potential for finding insights in the details of the objects displayed in Modernism Made in New Mexico was demonstrated to me vividly by Dale Kronkright, the Museum’s Head of Conservation, as I observed him examining and preparing to hang Thomas Hart Benton’s Train on the Desert during the exhibition’s installation.

As Dale checked the condition of the work prior to its installtion in the galleries, he asked that I take a look at the physical texture of the canvas, which was made rough by the presence of fine, raised, linear ridges and hairline cracks.  These marks extend vertically throughout the canvas, clashing with the horizontal bands of color that distinguish the composition of Benton’s painting.  Dale informed me that these raised ridges are possibly a result of the painting having been transferred from an initially stretched canvas to a subsequent rigid, paper-board mount, much like contemporary artist’s academy board.  The mounting of the painting onto a solid support caused the vertical warp threads of the canvas to be pushed forward into the paint, resulting in generally regular, raised vertical ridges that later cracked the paint films lying above.

Equally curious is the fact that, both the bottom and the viewer right edges appear to have been cut down by the artist using a saw. This indicates that following Benton’s adhering of the painting to a rigid paperboard support, the artist then appears to have reduced the size of the painting from some larger state. Both painted canvas and board were cut away, removing unknown proportions of the original painting and giving us the composition we see today.

The idea of Benton deciding to mount the canvas onto a solid support and then crop the work to a smaller size raised many new questions in my mind.  For example, what were Benton’s motivations for remounting the work?  Was he aware that it would alter the texture of the canvas? Did he intend for the visual effects of remounting the canvas to occur?  Did he remount the painting for a wholly unrelated reason, with the emergence of the vertical lines on the canvas just being an unintended side effect? Perhaps some intensive research into Benton’s career may produce some clues to the answers of these questions, but with only the painting itself to observe, I could only speculate what the resolutions to the mentioned questions may be.

I strongly encourage anyone who is able to visit the exhibition to look closely at Train on the Desert and consider the questions I mention above, as well as try to come up with some of their own about the work.  Dale’s explanation illustrates how much can be discovered when one explores not only a work of art in itself, but also how it is constructed,  framed, displayed, and managed by the artist and those who may acquire it from the artist.  Exploration of the historical possibilities presented by such intricacies of the history and provenance of a work of art lies at the very core of the mission of all museum professionals, and Benton’s painting demonstrates just how fascinating the close examination of works that these professionals are committed to can be.  It seems quite appropriate that such a beautiful painting with such a curious and rich history is included in an exhibition that revolves around the aesthetics of New Mexico, as the state is likewise brimming with mysterious history hidden in plain sight.

Feature Photo: Thomas Hart Benton, Train on the Desert, 1926 or 1927, oil on canvas board

                Painting is a partial gift from a private collector

Patrick Gora, Curatorial Intern