Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Trip To Denver: Trouble With Indians

After perusing the Wyeth Exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, (my review here)we headed downstairs to partake of A Place In The Sun, featuring the painting of Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings, two artist of Germany decent that made their way from the East Coast to Taos, New Mexico both around 1915 and were funded by the mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison and Oscar Mayer, yup the hot dog tycoon.

E. Martin Hennings, often painted his subject, nestled amongst the idyllic scenery in Northern New Mexico....

Walter Ufer was a different matter and through his painting he had something to say. Unfortunately, it didn't seem the curators and docents at the Denver Art Museum did much research on why he painted what he painted, focusing more on how he painted it.

Ufer's painting are rough and full of symbolism. The smartly dressed docent, who was leading a gaggle of stylish Denverite ladies around the show near us got that right.... 

Past that, she got about everything else wrong. Yes, I live in the Four Corners, very near Taos and  next to the Navajo and Ute reservations, have taught Native American children for about a decade, am an artist which can make me annoying on "the facts", but when I hear an official volunteer with the mini microphone and touch pad declare not slight errors but grievous misinformation on a culture she and the museum, according to the plaques beside the painting have no interesting in "getting right", it makes me cringe.

"Are these from Guatemala," asked one of the ladies, pointing out the brightly colored blankets Ufer depicted on several of his subjects. No response from the Docent.

Standing in front of Ufer's painting "Me and Him,"another of the ladies in the group asked why they looked so mad. The Docent's response, was..."Well, they are just a mad people."

Pause,,,,yes, she declared that the indegnious people who saw their land, culture and lives being taken over by the Western expansion of Anglo Europeans were just "cranky".

Then, pondering "The Solemn Pledge", borrowed by the DAM from the Chicago Institute of Art...

The Docent declared the painting depicted several generations of father and son, as they sent the boy off to Indian School where he would learn "how to be an Indian."


I know the Denver Art Museum is well, an art museum, not a history museum. But to be frank, they aren't that good at getting the art part right either. As I mentioned at the top of the post, we also viewed the Wyatt show, featuring father and son Andrew and James. The reality is this, there is a wide, wide gap between being an artist and being a docent or a volunteer that works at an art museum, reading off the important bullet points listed for them....

Ease dropping in the Wyeth show, there were times I think the docents didn't really understand what they were reading off. I've been to enough museums and observed enough patrons to conclude they mostly want a short, ordered description to what they are looking at or sometimes just to be told what they should think about the painting in front of them. That is bad enough when the painting depicts something somewhat familiar to them.

But when the subject, the indigenous people surrounding Taos New Mexico already has  volumes and volumes of bad information, I can't stand anymore grievous misconceptions being added to people's perception.

The US Government did not set up Indian School to teach the native population how to be better Indians. They pulled children from their mother's arms, sometimes at gunpoint to literally "breed out the Red Man" by distancing the younger generations from their cultures, their language and their families. Cutting their hair, dressing them in White Man's clothing, beating them if they spoke their native tongues, teaching them a trade and often farming them out to be servants and laborers...

Thus many of Ufer's subjects were of the Pueblos Indians gardening and working for their White employers...

Bob Abbott and His Assistant (1935)

The plaque next to the painting talks more about Ufer's last great work being a self portrait, connecting the spent artist to the old car, instead of the dejected assistant, sitting on the bumper, obviously more important to Ufer, for his placement in the painting, then the old car.

Reality was and still is, that places like Taos and Santa Fe are attractive to rich Easterners like Henning, Ufer and even Georgia O'Keeffe for holidays, artists retreats, second homes where labor is cheap, real cheap.
 In New Mexico, though Anglos are in the minority, they hold the power, politically and have the say in most matters, like land. President Teddy Roosevelt took 48,000 acres of the Taos Pueblos land, land they have had claim to since the 13th century and made it part of the Carson National Forest. The land, including the Blue Lake which the Taos People consider sacred. The holdings were finally  returned to them 1970 and 1996.

Sadly. such facts were not very highlighted by the Denver Art Museum in their A Place In The Sun show.   


  1. Interesting...thanks,and fascinating colour and compositions!

  2. Mike Fairchild8:15 PM

    This painting was owned by my grandparents until the mid eighties. I enjoyed it for so many years and was hoping it would one day i would gather around it with my children has well. However, the story behind it wass the artist who studied in Chicago was a dear friend of my grandmother Helen Sawyer. this was given as a gift to her . She later married my grandfather John Gurney. She was also giving a few other canvases. And it was done during his travels in the southwest. The Gurney family later relocated to California, around the forties.My mother Virginia grew up in Glendale CA. where she enjoyed it.I would also fall in love with this piece. I would be in awe at the fact, that wherever you stood in the room, it was as if they were both staring right at you. It is very haunting, yet beautiful .I have those wonderful memories of listening to Grampa John play the piano as I hid underneath it hiding from "Me and Him" who were always staring at me. A true masterpiece. And a few of my fondest memories come front the room my mother and I shared with " Me and Him", for all those years.