In the history of American modernism, few figures wielded more influence while collecting less credit than Mabel Dodge Luhan.
A woman of eclectic tastes and eccentric habits, the Buffalo-born patron, tastemaker and bon vivant did for early American modernism what Gertrude Stein did for its European counterpart.
Like many women who played major roles in American history only to be marginalized later by male scholars, Luhan's memory faded over the decades. But now, thanks to a sterling exhibition organized by the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos and smartly expanded by Burchfield Penney Art Center curator Nancy Weekly, Luhan is getting the credit she is due. "Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West" runs through May 28 in the Burchfield Penney's east gallery.
Born Mabel Ganson in Buffalo in 1879 to affluent parents who took little interest in her, we learn at the outset of the exhibition that young Mabel invented her own interior world of beauty and splendor.
"A neglected only child left to her own devices, Mabel rode her pony through the dappled light of parkways and parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in a prosperous, culturally sophisticated, fin de siècle Buffalo," Malin Wilson-Powell wrote in a catalog essay.
In later years, she created several real-life versions of that imagined world, culminating in the establishment of an influential artist colony in Taos, New Mexico that shaped the careers of Georgia O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams and dozens of others.
The exhibition takes us on a chronological tour of Luhan's extraordinary life. After a short time in Buffalo, we travel along with Luhan as she absconds to Florence with her second husband Edwin Dodge. There, she establishes her own version of a Renaissance salon, inviting a who's who of art world elites -- among them Gertrude and Leo Stein, Andre Gidé and Arthur Rubenstein.
A vivid portrait from this time by Jacques-Emile Blanche from the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, restored to its original splendor for this exhibition, shows Luhan and her son looking bored in an opulent setting the way only wildly affluent people can.
Luhan's lifelong goal was to create cross-cultural conversation among cultural "movers and shakers," one ideal collection of whom she described in a 1935 book: "socialists, trade-unionists, anarchists, suffragists, poets, lawyers, murders, old friends,' psychoanalysts, I.W.W.'s, single taxers, birth controlists, newspapermen, artists, modern-artists, clubwomen, woman's-place-is-in-the-home women, clergymen, and just plain men."
The boredom on display in the Blanche portrait prompted Luhan to return to New York City, where she established another series of salons in her Fifth Avenue apartment, and later to move to Croton-on-Hudson in Westchester County. But it was in Taos where Luhan fulfilled her dream to create and foster an artistic community.
We see the fruits of that effort on a wall featuring the work of O'Keeffe, who visited Taos in 1929 and fell in love with the landscape there. Her vibrant painting "Grey Cross with Blue" from that year is a view of a penitente cross as seen from Luhan's property, which marked the beginning of the artist's career-defining interaction with the New Mexico landscape.
Luhan's obsession with the Native American culture of Taos is on full display in the exhibition. It features work by native Pueblo artists and many permutations on that work and the culture and landscape of the area by the likes of John Marin, Dorothy Brett, Victor Higgins, Maynard Dixon and Agnes Pelton.
An excellent Pelton oil, "The Voice," from 1930, is a fine example of the strange and spiritual hold Taos had over its many visitors. It features a glowing, white tangle of weeds emerging from an abstract background, evoking some other worldly plant or a mushroom cloud. John Marin's swirling watercolor "Taos Landscape" captures some of that spiritual feeling as well.
Marsden Hartley's "Blessing the Melon: Indians Bring the Harvest to Christian Mary for Her Blessing, created shortly after Luhan moved to Taos in 1918, is directly inspired by the local santo style of Spanish-influenced religious iconography.
Read through a contemporary lens, Luhan's fascination with the "unspoiled" Native American and Hispano culture of Taos is problematic. But it's a credit to the exhibition that the exploitative aspects of her relationship to that culture are not swept aside -- in fact a wall label bluntly describes her statements about some local residents as racist.
A highlight of the show for local art lovers is a section dedicated to Buffalo painter Martha Hamlin Visser't Hooft, who visited Taos in 1928 and was deeply inspired by the landscape and Luhan's community of artists. She brought that influence back to Buffalo, helping to form the influential Patteran Society and shaping Buffalo's visual culture for decades.
In many ways, the influence Luhan exerted on the American art is still reverberating almost a century later. This exhibition, shines a bright light on that influence and reclaims one of Buffalo's most important cultural figures for our own.