The Edmond Sun

February 15, 2014

Taos painter brings West to life in OKC exhibit

Elaine Warner
Special to The Sun

OKLA. CITY — How do you like to get your information? If you’re someone who just wants the bottom line — the Readers’ Digest version — or an up-to-date-140-characters Twitter tweet, here’s the scoop.  “Amazing exhibit featuring Walter Ufer at the Natl. Cowboy & West. Heritage museum. One of a kind. Do not miss! Now until May 11.” If abbreviated sound bites leave you cold then read on.

Walter Ufer? I have to admit it wasn’t a name I recognized but it turns out that he was one of the 12 members of the Taos Society of Artists and widely acclaimed in his prime but relegated to relative obscurity following his premature death.

Ufer was born in Germany in 1876, immigrating to the United States when he was 4. He dreamed of being an artist and in 1893 returned to Germany to study there. In 1906 he married Mary Fredericksen, herself an artist, from a distinguished Danish family. In 1911, he went back to Europe to study more and concentrate on his art.

Disappointment was in store when he returned to the United States. His strongly Teutonic style — the somber palette, wet-on-wet technique and rigidity — was out of favor with American trends. Finally, in 1914, he was given a solo exhibition at the prestigious Palette and Chisel Club, Chicago’s oldest academy of fine arts.

Mary, as she did throughout their marriage, made every effort to support his career. As a result of her suggestions — and, probably, social connections — Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison became Walter’s first sponsor.

Carter, a talented photographer, had made a number of trips through Taos and it was at his and Mary’s urging, that Ufer made his first trip to Taos. According to Dean Porter, director emeritus of the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame and curator of this exhibition, “Munich taught him a method of dynamic paint application. New Mexico introduced him to color.”  Under New Mexico’s brilliant blue skies and surrounded by color, his palette changed completely.  By 1917, the Ufers were living in New Mexico.

Taos at that time was a sleepy little village whose population was primarily Hispanic and Indian.  There were only about two dozen Anglos in residence, but several of these were artists. Since the first visit to Taos by artist Joseph Henry Sharp in 1893, other artists had come to the area to paint. By 1915, six of them — Sharp, Ernest Blumenschein, Bert Phillips, Oscar Berninghaus, Irving Couse and Herbert Dunton — formed the Taos Society of Artists. It was basically a marketing co-op with the goals of encouraging one another, creating general interest in art and in promoting their works through traveling exhibitions.

Walter Ufer was elected to membership in July of 1917. Other members of the organization included Victor Higgins, Julius Rolshoven, Catharine Critcher (the only woman), Martin Hennings and Kenneth Adams plus several associate and honorary members.      

Harrison continued as Walter’s patron and adviser. He encouraged the painter to depict the Pueblo Indians realistically commenting, “Bows and arrows have been done to death.”    

The late teens and early ’20s were good years. Ufer’s works were winning major awards and selling well. Unfortunately, he was so passionate about his art that he forgot about practical finances. As one of the panels in the NCWHM exhibit states, “His lifestyle outstripped his earning capacity.” Mary, however, must have constantly worried about the family’s financial situation.  There are two portraits of her in the exhibition. One, painted in 1913, shows a vibrant woman, beautifully dressed. The second, painted only six years later, shows a prematurely-aging woman with graying hair and posture reflecting the burdens she was carrying.  

Walter Ufer was also a chronic alcoholic. It may have been the Prohibition Era, but there was never a shortage of alcohol available to the wealthy art buyers with whom Ufer associated. His art career was faltering and following the 1929 Crash and ensuing Depression, his family was facing penury. He was a physical and financial wreck. In 1934, he committed himself to rehab and became sober.

He never drank again. He continued to paint and to mentor younger artists. He produced some of his finest paintings during this period — works that received acclaim from the art world but were less enthusiastically received by collectors. An attack of appendicitis and subsequent peritonitis ended his life in August 1936. It is only in the last four decades that interest in his work has resurfaced and placed him in the pantheon of American painters.      

That’s his biography; his paintings speak for themselves. His evocative pictures of life and landscapes of New Mexico are richly sensual. You can practically feel the dust under your feet and smell the sage. Even with solemnly clad subjects, brilliant flashes of color bring scenes to life. Porter and the museum have done a masterful job assembling not only 50 of Ufer’s paintings but complementing them with examples of works of all the Taos Society 12. This exhibition is the first Walter Ufer retrospective with a critical catalogue. How many ways can I say it? This is a major coup for Oklahoma City. You don’t want to miss it.

The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, 1700 N.E. 63rd St., is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission: Adults, $12.50; Seniors (62+) and students with valid ID, $9.75; Children 4-12, $5.75. The exhibition “Walter Ufer: Rise, Fall, Resurrection” runs through May 11.

ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond-based travel writer.