Sweeping red rock landscapes, immersive desert ambiances and inspiring natural palettes—visions of the American Southwest have captivated generations of artists. For those whose paths cross briefly with our region’s expansive offerings, the West has facilitated a personal and creative shift in perspective. Other indigenous artists have forged their signature style with colors, forms and compositions rooted in the area’s enchanting landscape. Fine art gallery and artistic haven Modern West has built a community centered around manifesting the spirit of the West. Presently on display in their polished downtown gallery is an exhibition featuring two late modern artists who found solace and revelation in the horizons of New Mexico.
Beatrice Mandelman (1912-1988) and Louis Ribak (1902-1979), both part of the “Taos Moderns,” came to New Mexico in the ’40s, where their artistic perspective underwent a dramatic shift. Mandelman, whose abstract paintings, prints and collages had previously been refined to a subdued color palette, became enraptured by the bold hues of the Southwest. Her multi-media abstractions began to reflect sharply defined geometric shapes and bright colors. Several of her works featured in Mandelman + Ribak feature striking yellows and circular forms, perhaps conveying the blazing sun that shines relentlessly in the arid Taos desert.
Ribak, who married Mandelman in 1942, was well known for painting in a social realism style before moving to New Mexico. After finding a new passion in abstraction, his paintings took on organic forms and lyrical brushwork. For decades the prolific artists produced massive bodies of work and opened the Taos Valley Art School, where they taught new generations of artists. Their lasting legacy has been highly influential in the creation of a group called Taos Moderns, which includes prominent artists such as Agnes Martin and Edward Corbett.
Presented side-by-side in Modern West’s Mandelman + Ribak exhibition, works from the two artists nod to the character of the West in different voices. “What is really fascinating is seeing how different Beatrice and Louis’s work is,” says gallery director and curator Shalee Cooper. “You can see how their composition, palette and form are inspired similarly, but they use their own voice in executing.” The decision to feature the pair was also rooted in historical interest, as Ribak and Mandleman are the only artists Modern West has shown that are no longer living. “There is a larger legacy here,” Shalee says. “And how that has influenced other artist of today is so important.”
Apart from showcasing the breadth of their artistic careers, Mandleman + Ribak also represents the transformative character of the West. “For Ribak, it was such a leap to go from social realism to abstract works,” Shalee says. “That shift is what we are really interested in, and seeing how the West inspired artists of the past and those of today.”
The same visions of the West that inspired metamorphosis in Ribak and Mandleman have influenced countless contemporary artists. In partnership with Modern West, The Southern Utah Museum of Art is simultaneously exhibiting pieces by Mandleman and Ribak alongside work from Cooper and the contemporary artist Arlo Namingha. “It has been really exciting to work with SUMA because they wanted to incorporate contemporary artists and modernism,” says Copper. “It’s fascinating to see how artists of the past continue to inspire artists of today.”
Namingha and Cooper’s pieces are similarly influenced by the spirit of the West, and they both play with concepts of perception. Cooper’s multi-piece installations capture the balance of light and shadow, while inviting the viewer to form their own individualized experience by physically rearranging their form. Namingha’s sculptural pieces draw on the landscape of his Santa Fe home and culture of his indegenous community. His provocative pieces are designed to engage the viewer in pulling them apart or stacking on top of one another.
Together, Mandleman + Ribak and The Space Between explore the dynamic soul of the West and its enduring influence through space and time. See Mandleman + Ribak for yourself at Modern West through Sept. 10. SUMA is presenting their exhibit until the 24th of September.