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*
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.
|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.
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."
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.
* 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.