Thursday, February 3, 2011

Exhibition Reframes Works From Depression-Era WPA

By Kathaleen Roberts

Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer

The public art created with federal support during the Depression anchored the New Mexico Museum of Art's permanent collection in an innovation that would become iconic.

Opening Friday, "Conserving Public Art: The New Deal Artwork of Gene Kloss and B.J.O. Nordfeldt" presents the prints of two of the state's renowned artists, many newly re-matted and framed for protection. The conservation work was funded by the WPA Federal Art Project.

Although technically still owned by the federal government, the prints fall under the museum's responsibility for their care and conservation.

"A lot of them had never been matted," curator Joe Traugott said. "When the artist (brought) in the material, a lot of them ... came between two pieces of corrugated board."

Others had been sandwiched between high-acid materials. The acid in the wood pulp fibers can scorch the artwork.

The exhibit includes an image of the chapel at Rancho de ChimayĆ³ that is instantly recognizable as one of Kloss' signature prints.

"It's probably her best work," Traugott said. "It's just an incredibly powerful work in black and white that's so iconic of work in New Mexico that it just draws people in."

Kloss first visited New Mexico in the 1920s with her husband, Phillip. They summered here regularly until moving to Taos permanently in 1929.

Kloss became a drypoint printmaker of uniquely New Mexican compositions, particularly of religious scenes. Her prints offer dramatic contrasts of light and dark passages and rising diagonal lines, often referencing winter rituals from northern New Mexico. These prints were first displayed in post offices, libraries and schools.

The Nordfeldt prints depict vignettes of classic local New Mexico village scenes from the 1930s.

Nordfeldt "has an incredible reputation built on pieces he did here in New Mexico in the late teens through the early '20s," Traugott said. "They were heavily influenced by Paul Cezanne's work in France."

Nordfeldt's New Mexico works form some of the most pivotal woodcuts made during the 20th century, Traugott added.

"Kloss' reputation is of course more local than national," he continued. But the artist's work has risen astronomically in price.

Like Gustave Baumann and Raymond Jonson, Nordfeldt came here from Chicago during the late teens. His classic painting "Antelope Dance," from 1929, is on display in "How the West Is One" exhibition on the museum's first floor. Nordfeldt's lithographs from the 1930s are less known, reflecting the world-weariness of the Depression, when jobs were as scarce as tourists.

Conserving Public Art:The New Deal Artwork of Gene Kloss and B.J.O. Nordfeldt

Public art produced with federal support during the Great Depression represents an important component of the museum’s collection. The federal government still owns these works, but the museum is responsible for their care and conservation. Unfortunately, many were not matted, or had been improperly matted in the 1930s. Recently a grant from the NM Chapter of the National New Deal Preservation Association enabled these works by Gene Kloss and B.J.O. Nordfeldt to be matted properly for protection and preservation. These works demonstrate the museum’s commitment to conservation and best museum practices.

For more information, check the website:

Twin opening with Cloudscapes: Photographs from the Collection Friday, Feb 4, with a reception hosted by the Women’s Board of the Museum of New Mexico from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.

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