Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Introducing Rebecca Salsbury Strand James: Part One, the New York Years

In spring 2010, to augment the Harwood Museum of Art’s exhibition Rebecca Salsbury James: Paintings and Colchas, curator Jina Brenneman asked me to lecture on Rebecca’s contemporaries. I decided to feature 6 male and 6 female artists from New York and New Mexico—places where Rebecca lived and which provided her creative inspiration. Representative of New York were modernists from Alfred Stieglitz’s circle: Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Paul Strand and Georgia O’Keeffe (who all stayed with Mabel in Taos) and from New Mexico: Mabel, Frieda Lawrence, Dorothy Brett, Barbara Latham and Dorothy Benrimo, who were part of the Taos art scene.

While perusing the Rebecca James scrapbooks, I met two documentarian/film producers Debra M. Simon and Judy Sokolow who were delving into Taos museums, libraries and archives for material on Rebecca James. Their interest grew out of Judy’s discovery of a photo in her family album. Looking at the woman standing next to Georgia O’Keeffe, she thought “My God…she looks a lot like my grandmother in her youth."

Courtesy of the Taos Historic Museums
The woman turned out to be Rebecca Salsbury, Judy's second cousin. After years of research Judy thought the story might be film worthy. She contacted her friend and fellow documentarian Debra Simon for her opinion. Filmmaker Debra replied "This story goes beyond the paint!"

Since our meeting in April 2010, Debra and Judy have been researching the archives on Rebecca Salsbury Strand James as well as those of Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz. They have amassed enough material for a ten-minute promotional video on Beck which they hope to use to raise funds for a 90 minute documentary feature titled “Beck -an intimate portrait of the passionate life and extraordinary art of an American Original.”

Ever since I posted on Georgia O’Keeffe, I’ve been longing to relate Rebecca James’ story. She’s not so well known, so the piece grew too long. What follows is Part One: Rebecca’s New York years.

Rebecca Salsbury James broke the barriers between High Art and Popular Culture and in doing so she created a modernist vision that was literally decades ahead of where the rest of American Modernist Art really was in its thinking.
           -- Joe Traugott, Curator of 20th Century Art, New Mexico Museum of Art*
You could say that Rebecca Salsbury cut her baby teeth on show business. Her impresario father Nate Salsbury worked as principal owner and manager of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. The extravaganza happened to be in London in 1891 when Rebecca was born. Young Rebecca had a real-life connection to mythic figures like sharpshooter Annie Oakley, Lakota chief and holy man Sitting Bull, and Buffalo Bill.

Like her father, Rebecca had an adventurous spirit. It was nearly quelled by her proper Victorian mother. Following Nate Salsbury's untimely death in 1902, Rebecca endured the "dreary existance" of Rachel Salsbury's home. Summers spent in the family's oceanfront villa on the Jersey Shore afforded Rebecca some freedom. An athletic young woman, she enjoyed swimming in the ocean and being outdoors.

School provided a similar respite. Rebecca attended New York's Ethical Cultural School (ECS). Highly innovative for its time, the broad-based curriculum integrated academics with "manual arts" including creative writing, arts and crafts, and drama as well as nature study and field trips. Evidently this education suited Rebecca. She decided on the teaching career at the new ECS Normal School. Grounded in psychology, art design and modeling, and the history of education, Rebecca graduated as Valedictorian in 1915. She taught kindergarten at ECS for one year, then at its experimental Open Air School. Held on the building's roof, the bad air quality made her sick. She quit teaching and offered private classes. When these didn't pan out, Rebecca trained as a secretary. Using her typing and shorthand skills, she launched a new career transcribing medical records.

In 1919 Rebecca met Paul Strand at an exhibition of his photographs. He had studied photography in high school at ECS under the famed Lewis Hine. On a field trip in 1907, the school's camera club visited an exhibition of Photo-Secessionist photographers including Edward Steichen and Gertrude Käsebier at Alfred Stieglitz's 291 gallery. That day Paul Strand decided to become a photographer. Stieglitz later became his mentor and champion. With Stieglitz, Edward Weston and Paul helped define early American modernist photography, elevating it to a fine art.

When Rebecca met Paul, he was already gaining recognition for his signature direct, sharp, and emotional style of "straight" photography. Rebecca part probably saw Paul's realistic cityscapes and portraits of New York types– red-nosed Irish washerwomen, aging Europeans –photographs that identified the city's impoverished population. He had just begun to explore nature as the subject, so Rebecca would've enjoyed his imagery of leaves and grasses. What impressed or more, however, was the man himself. The feeling was mutual. The two fell in love.

Paul Strand, New York, published in Camera Work 1917, no. 49/50 photogravure

Paul took Beck (as she was called in New York) to meet Stieglitz in 1921. The encounter with the art dealer and photographer changed her life. Beck left her mother's "gold and brocade parlor," married Paul Strand in 1922, and met Stieglitz's wife Georgia O'Keeffe. Beck and Paul grew close to the couple. The friendship sustained Beck during Paul's long absences while he pursued his new interest in film. She vacationed with the couple, sometimes without Paul, at this Stieglitz compound at Lake George, New York.

The Stieglitz circle of artists stimulated Beck. Photography tempted her, but drawing and painting spoke to her. Self-taught, she worked at home on still lifes. Her models were vegetables. While at Lake George she made art with Stieglitz and Georgia. Equipped with an Eastman Graflex that Paul had given her, Beck explored photography and poetry. Stieglitz remarked on her talent as an "embarrassment of riches." Yet painting remained her preferred medium.

In 1926, when an anticipated trip to Europe fell through, the Strands decided to travel west. Six years earlier Beck had visited her father's ranch in Montana. The vast spaces had thrilled her and she longed for Paul to see the country. While in the Denver area, they made a pilgrimage to visit Buffalo Bill's grave and a small museum run by Johnny Baker, close friend and unofficial foster son to Buffalo Bill. In the state's national parks, Paul found new subject matter. He photographed "tangled roots and blasted tree trunks." At Mesa Verde he documented the Cliff dwellings while Beck painted watercolors.

The Strands rendezvoused with friends in Santa Fe. At the Museum of Art they saw Marsden Hartley’s El Santo, painted in 1919 during his stay with Mabel Dodge in Taos. Disenchanted with The City Different, Paul and Beck explored Frijoles Canyon at Bandelier National Monument, then motored on to Taos. They found bedbug-infested rooms at an old hotel. Two days later the couple met Mabel for lunch, and she invited them to stay with her. The landscape spoke to both Strands. Paul wrote Stieglitz “Gosh, I wish Marin could come out—and Georgia too would do extraordinary things.”

Rebecca Strand and Georgia O'Keeffe at Santo Domingo Pueblo

Paul’s prophesy came true. Georgia would do extraordinary things in New Mexico. The area would become her (and Beck’s) lifetime muse. In 1929, driven by exhaustion and difficulties in their marriages, Georgia and Beck headed west to Santa Fe. Shortly after their arrival, they went to a nearby Indian dance. There they chanced upon Dorothy Brett and Mabel Dodge Luhan. Two days later Georgia and Beck had living and studio space at Los Gallos (Mabel’s compound). Freed from New York’s social constrictions, they shed staid black dresses for more informal wear (Beck was the first to don trousers). They had many adventures. Beck gave Georgia driving lessons in Mabel’s Ford. The two accompanied Mabel’s husband Tony Lujan to Indian dances, and, escorted by him, ventured as far away as Mesa Verde National Park. They hobnobbed with John Marin and Mabel’s other guests.

The two women also found time to paint. Working alongside Georgia was daunting, but Beck relaxed when O’Keeffe said her artistic world was “a powerful one and a beautiful one.” By mid-summer Beck had completed 12 paintings. Conveying this to Paul, she added: “All that is not much for six weeks of work but I feel that every hour given to enjoyment and fun is legitimate as it results in excellent health and relaxation.”

Georgia and Beck returned to Taos the following summer with Paul, and John Marin and his family. Paul reported to Stieglitz: “The summer has been a grand one so far… a summer of much work. Beck has done some ten nice glass paintings and I, God knows how many photographs.” In 1931 the Strands returned for another summer at Mabel’s. Paul wrote Stieglitz that he had never seen Beck so concentrated before, adding that she “Just sticks to her job…and the things she has done show it.”

Song without Words (1929), oil reverse on glass. Collection the Harwood Museum of Art.**

Beck’s diligence paid off. In spring 1932 Stieglitz featured her paintings on glass with Paul’s new photographs at his An American Place gallery. Years earlier, adopting George's use of a piece of glass as a palette, Beck sought new possibilities. She began to explore the old folk art tradition of reverse oil painting on glass. This painting technique originated in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries, and spread throughout Europe to America. Albuquerque blogger Laura Bruzzese summarizes it well:

Reverse glass paintings recorded both religious and historical imagery. The technique, which involves constructing a painting in reverse (i.e., highlights that would be painted last are painted first, and words are painted backwards so they will read correctly when viewed from the front) was favored because glass provided a surface for the painting as well as protecting it after it was finished.

Wassily Kandinsky celebrated Russian folk paintings with his images on glass. the great modernist painter and art theorist, well known to the Stieglitz circle, place these paintings on par with his better-known abstracts. The challenge of this technique appealed to Beck. When herfriend Marsden Hartley heard of her attempts to paint reverse oil on glass, he cautioned her. His own endeavors with the technique had "nearly killed him."

In 1928 Georgia had recommended Beck’s pastels and drawings to Opportunity Gallery for emerging artists. This was the first public showing of her art. Wanting to be judged on her own merit (not as Paul Strand’s wife), Beck exhibited under her own name. Her work drew the attention of renowned New York art critic Henry McBride. His review was succinct: “Rebecca Salsbury’s work makes one want to see more.” On the 1932 exhibition at An American Place, a reviewer commented that her paintings were "freshly felt and painted with a refreshing naivete and precision."

The Strands spent a final New Mexico summer together in 1932, this time in Ranchos de Taos away from the "sheer discomfort" of Mabel's houses. The following year they divorced and Beck moved permanently to Taos.

With that I'll leave you hanging, but not for too long. You'll have the Taos chapter of Becky's (as she was called in Taos) life next week.
Adios for now,


* Quote from the ten-minute promotional video on Beck (link to the two-minute teaser). Courtesy of Debra Simon and Judy Sokolov.

**Rebecca's painting measures 30 x 25 inches. Courtesy of the Harwood Museum of Art.
For more information on Rebecca Salsbury James, see Paul Strand Southwest and "In the Shadow of the Sun: the Life and Art of Rebecca Salsbury James" by Suzan Campbell, Ph. D. thesis, University of New Mexico, 2002.

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