• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Natives and Others

Mr. Anaya’s narrator in this fiction is a precocious child in elementary school who is having some familiar problems with divine providence and some less easily defined problems in choosing between the models provided by his father’s people (nomadic) and his mother’s (agricultural). With the aid of some too tangible help from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, young Antonio Márez gropes his way toward a meditative distancing, if not a resolution, of his problems. “Sometime in the future I would have to build my own dream out of those things that were so much a part of my childhood.” The book is in effect a Bildungsroman with most of the Bildung presented as a promissory note. John Nichols’s Milagro Beanfield War (currently being reduced to a movie) is a novel about Hispanic life with problems of its own; talky and episodic, it’s too melodramatic. But it’s tough and funny in a here-and-now way, and it is worth setting against Anaya’s nostalgic and credulous vision of the Hispanic outback.

Tourists, as well as natives, sometimes contribute to the New Mexico scene, and none more strikingly than Georgia O’Keeffe. New Mexico did not become part of her personal history till 1929, and only in 1946 (three years after the death of her husband Alfred Stieglitz) did she settle here permanently. It was 1966, and she was seventy-eight years old, before she first exhibited her paintings in the state. Still, New Mexico, as a landscape if not as a social milieu, contributed immensely to a renaissance both of her intense imaginative vision and of her artistic reputation. Not only the minor recession of 1929 was behind her, but the really precarious and dramatic days of her artistic self-discovery. It was toward the end of 1915 when, alone and almost without direction, an art instructor at provincial Canyon College in the Texas Panhandle, she created a series of charcoal drawings and sent them off to a friend in New York. The friend, disobeying instructions not to show them to anyone else, loyally brought them to Stieglitz, who was enthralled—and from then on the story unfolds more directly. But all this was years before she came to Taos at Mabel Dodge’s imperious behest, and another two decades before she settled into the house at Abiquiu.

The full story is told by Laurie Lisle in a 1985 updating of her 1968 biography, Portrait of an Artist; it is a literate and workmanlike biography of O’Keeffe, inevitably less eventful in its later than in its earlier sections and (perhaps inevitably also) better with dates, places, prices, and other tangible data than with the artist’s inner life, where the real interest of the career lies. For O’Keeffe lived in effect in two spheres. There was the artist of powerful erotic symbols and slashing colors who attracted crowds of deeply agitated female viewers to her shows; and on the other hand, the austere, gaunt, nunlike figure who was fascinated by bare bones, arid landscapes, and almost hermetic solitude. One certainly wouldn’t want a biographer to float off into blue-sky speculation about these matters; but it would add depth to the portrait if there were more discussion, and especially more illustrations, of the artist’s work at different stages of her career. (What were those charcoal drawings that first astounded Stieglitz? Do any of them survive?) For such information one could sacrifice a few snapshots of her residences and college acquaintances.

In New Mexico she was always an outsider. The Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, pursuing a tradition of imaginative mediocrity that continues to the present day, rejected her work; and, with advancing years, her sharp tongue, imperious manner, and a couple of savage dogs kept everyone but old friends at a distance. (With her servants and helpers, so the biography reports, she was more often surly and stingy than gracious.) Even with old allies she eventually quarreled; and after 1971 failing eyesight deprived her gradually of her last resource. When she died in 1986, at the age of ninety-eight, few could think of it except as a release. Numerous lawsuits remain to be resolved; most center on the figure of her young companion since 1973, Juan Hamilton. Between gossips and lawyers, the possibilities of their relations have been the subject of much speculation, none of it having anything to do with the high quality of her achievement.

Mabel Dodge was responsible for bringing to New Mexico not only Georgia O’Keeffe but dozens of other trophies culminating in D.H. Lawrence and a gaggle of his acolytes—responsible, in the end (by glamorizing and eroticizing a plain country village) for making Taos the close approximation of an oriental bazaar that it is today. After a career as a hostess in upper-Bohemian strata of New York, Mabel Dodge moved to New Mexico in 1916, dragging her third husband, Maurice Sterne, reluctantly with her. The story of her life, or at least as much of it as she thought convenient to reveal, was told in a four-volume autobiography (Intimate Memories) that appeared during the 1930s and is now being reprinted by the University of New Mexico Press. The first volume of the series, and the last in the period described, was Lorenzo in Taos; the fourth volume, Edge of Taos Desert (subtitled “An Escape to Reality”), has just been reissued.

Mabel’s lifelong efforts to “discover herself,” which notoriously rode rough-shod over the efforts of other people to maintain their selves, are much in evidence here. A reader with just a touch of ironic distance will be fascinated by the way in which, having laid her hands on Tony Luhan, she discarded his previous wife and children as if down a Dispose-all. Whether it was “reality” she discovered with Tony or just another way of attracting attention to herself is hardly worth considering at this late date. Her memoirs, redolent of innocent self-deception and self-satisfaction, are a document from the vanishing past that with lapse of time can only appear curiouser and curiouser.

Transients who drifted into New Mexico some time ago and then wandered away after a few centuries were the people who settled the Mimbres Valley in the southwestern part of the state. They appeared about 550 and vanished about AD 1150; at the height of their prosperity they may have numbered as many as 1,500 people, living in pit houses along the banks of their little creek not far from modern Silver City. They farmed, they hunted, they fished; they may have traded in a small way with nearby tribes not very different from themselves. About the same time as the great city in Chaco Canyon was abandoned (and perhaps as a result of the same drought or epidemic), the Mimbres people disappeared. They had never learned to write, and we do not even know what they called themselves—“mimbres,” meaning “osiers,” is a Spanish word, and describes the stream, not the people who departed the premises 400 years before the Spanish arrived.

For a century or so, at the height of their stay in the Mimbres Valley, this obscure little tribe developed the craft of pottery and the art of decorating pots to an extraordinary level. These were not cooking, but funerary vessels; as a rule the Mimbres buried their dead under the trampled dirt floor of their houses, and the pots were placed over the corpses’ heads. Many of the designs on the pots are geometrical, others are figurative, but none strictly representational. They represent in stylized form mountain goats, deer, birds, fish, bugs, and men, plus combinations and permutations of the above. Most of the images have about them a touch of witty caricature; many are also complexly and deliberately ambiguous. They can be seen (like the drawings of M.C. Escher) as either black forms on a white background or white forms against a black background; a human shape may be found curled up inside a bat; there are rabbit-men, deer-men, bug-men; eels and fish are woven into a pattern that ensnares the eye. Some scenes appear to bear symbolic weight, but since no Mimbres survive to explain them, interpretation is uncertain. (Hopi informants have been consulted, but even they must often resort to guesswork.)

Many Mimbres figures have been adapted by modern Indian craftsmen to make intriguing—if occasionally cute—designs. But the real Mimbres, though largely comic, were never cute. They represented on their bowls war gods, hunting scenes, even ritual decapitations. One bowl inverts what onlookers see when looking down into the grave by showing two heads along the rim of the pot looking down at the deceased while a trail of bugs crawls across the sky, represented by the inverted bottom of the bowl. They lived, it would seem, remarkably close not only to the creaturely life of their little valley, but to one or several spirit worlds beyond this one. Their time was brief, their theater remote and unknown; fiatfuit, as has been concisely said. But their work was well done, and it stands, miraculous and apart.

In passing, I mention as a problem of modern New Mexico the flood of robbery, looting, and desecration that has overtaken the old sites, almost without exception. The state has been treated, in effect, as part of the third world—as if what was created here long ago was fair plunder for connoisseurs in more cultured climates. Mimbres pots, as exceptionally valuable, have been raided with particular avidity. Everything that could be said on the subject of this cultural piracy has already been said; it is a disgrace in which respectable curators, scientific explorers, smart dealers, and rich collectors share guilt with the poor, greedy wretches who do most of the actual digging. But in the Mimbres Valley by now the question is decisively dead; there are no more tombs to be looted.

Under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts, Hudson Hills Press recently issued a handsome and informative catalog of a traveling exhibition of Mimbres pottery. Some of the original pots can be seen in the Maxwell Museum, Albuquerque; the Arizona State Museum, Tucson; the University of Colorado Museum, Boulder; and the Laboratory of Anthropology, Santa Fe. But the biggest collections are in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology, at Harvard, and in the Museum of the American Indian, which (as of this writing) is still in New York. If the story weren’t so predictable, it would be interesting to have a frank account of how they got where they are now.

One can think of New Mexico as a giant, not very comfortable bed, in which successive civilizations lie down and dream restlessly a while, before moving out or on. The latest occupants, the Americans, struck those whom they shoved aside as rough, ruthless people, monomaniacal in their pursuit of the dollar. So, no doubt, many of them were; some still are. But there’s a soft side to the American takeover, which shows itself in a willingness to accept as well as impose direction in matters of taste. There’s nothing especially novel about this. Since the early nineteenth century, Anglo-Saxon taste has been hunting restlessly among the various public faces available to it, starting with pseudo-Gothic and pseudoclassicism and over the generations adding seasonings from various exotic climes or subtracting them as effects novel or striking seemed likely to be had. Wherever in our country an indigenous tradition lies to hand, it’s sure to be adopted, sophisticated, cosmopolitanized, and absorbed. So it has been in the Southwest, where incoming Americans during the early days thought they could see nothing but mud huts and squalid interiors.

But some of the “gentrification” has been good for both newcomers and oldtimers, as is evidenced by a new book by Christine Mather and Sharon Woods, Santa Fe Style. It illustrates handsomely and discusses intelligently examples of buildings and decoration in the Pueblo, Territorial, and eclectic styles; the result is a vivid and various image of the effects that can be achieved with the simplest of materials. Massive adobe walls, boldly patterned ceilings, uncluttered lines, and plain furnishings are the broad aspects of the practice. They give to much Santa Fe building a sculptured look, against which the bold zigzags of a Pueblo pot or a Navajo rug can stand out like a streak of fire. Like the desert builder in general, a Santa Fe builder has to be skilled in the art of admitting just enough light; and the practice of building around courtyards makes it possible to interweave close and long perspectives through doorways or gates. The new book is particularly copious in illustrating details like doors, fireplaces, windows, and the big cupboards known as trasteros; designers will find here a rich array of structural and decorative possibilities.

Except for a brief historical retrospective, the body of the book consists of pictures with captions; the color photographs are particularly vivid and opulent. (As much can’t be said for the black-and-white photographs, which suffer from lack of contrast, as if they had been printed from color negatives.) Most striking of all is the impression of variety within a general uniformity of style that the book conveys; to a degree, this must have been the work of the authors as much as of the town itself; it makes a smashing impression, however, which the casual visitor to the town would be unlikely to get for himself in a two- or three-day visit.

With its opulent color photography and slightly tony taste, Santa Fe Style is quite different from the austere New Mexico Style by Nancy Hunter Warren. This is a book not about architecture, but about architectural details; its photographs are black and white, and ostensibly devoted to providing a vernacular vocabulary for the designer. In six sections the book deals with corbels and portal posts, doors, windows, canales, a miscellaneous grouping to include coverings, railings, and mailboxes, and, climactically, gates. The text is crisp, lucid, and brief; the pictures are clean and hard-edged. Wood is the principal material with which the details of adobe structures are finished; though they worked in a tradition, the builders who created these designs were almost all self-taught. Their shapes are simple, linear, and at their best very beautiful. Wood in our climate doesn’t stay glossy long, and paint doesn’t stick to it. The grain often erodes out, and splits develop like dry arroyos in the landscape. Ms. Warren’s gates and doorways were finely proportioned and cleanly built to start with; time and the climate have given them the look of sand-scoured bones. A lot of New Mexico’s most impressive building has about it this look of distinction in disintegration. Ms. Warren subtitles her volume “a source book of traditional architectural details,” but it is a distinct aesthetic experience, and may imply, for some, a social preference as well. Not just by contrast with the accepted level of garish pretension in America, tattered austerity can have a kind of intimate authority.

Here, at the end of my New Mexico survey, I list a few of the subjects that I might have written about: Heishi, sopaipillas, Los Alamos, Sandia crest, piñon the Montezuma Hotel, Gran Quivira (the White City), the water war with El Paso, low riders, Emilio (the Boss of Rio Arriba), Bruce King (our Governor As Was), amateur night at the penitentiary, cactus, road runners, Pojoaque and its demon chess players, flat roofs and those who repair them, posole, the Spanish lilt, the Easter pilgrimage to Chimayo, grasshoppers, chili in its many aspects, Spanglish, trading posts and pawn, ceremonial dances, prairie dogs, Indian Market, turquoise factories (true!), Indian ware from Korea, sand-cast silver, Reyes Tixerina, Mora raspberries, bultos and santos, ristras, White Sands Proving Ground, skin cancer, wetbacks, the Mama Lucy gang, tin lacework, faith healers, the Santa Fe Ring and its modern imitators, winos, Frito pies, the cave dwellings of Pu Ye, life and death of the uranium industry, Tommy Macaione, the saga of Doctor Pijoan, thunderstorms at the opera—to begin with. One would still be far from penetrating an often impenetrable and wildly various place.

This is the second of two articles.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print