Made in New Mexico

Modern Art and the Movies

by Katherine E. Manthorne

Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt, Antelope, 1919, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware

At its founding in 1917, the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, adopted an “open door” unjuried exhibition policy which helped attract many artists to the region. The strategy had been promoted by Ashcan painter Robert Henri, who had visited there in 1916 and 1917, and probably inspired his friend John Sloan to go there, too. Georgia  O’Keeffe  became  one  of  its most famous long-term residents. Other New Yorkers made short but significant stays, including Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Jan Matulka, Paul Burlin, John Marin and Marsden Hartley.1 Many of these artists were encouraged to travel there by Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy author and patron of the arts who decamped from Greenwich Village to Taos. There she married Antonio Luhan, a Taos Pueblo Indian, and together they helped establish the region as a hotbed of visual modernism between the World Wars.2

The advance guard of these pictorial pilgrims from the East consisted of moviemakers. New Mexico had been  a haven  not only for painters but also for film producers since Thomas Edison’s invention of the Vitascope in 1896. New research  points to a  rich and largely  untold account of filmmaking on location  in  the  American  Southwest  when  this  region—like  film  itself—was a new frontier. Already in the 1890s, Edison recognized the pictorial potential of the area. In 1912, legendary director D.W. Griffith took the railroad to Albuquerque, where he shot the first two-reeler made in New Mexico. Actress Mabel Normand and director Mack Sennett, later famous for  his  Keystone Kops, were also there that year. At a time when most westerns were filmed in northern New Jersey, the Delaware Valley and upstate New York, the Philadelphia-based Lubin Film Company sent a crew on a sustained tour of the Southwest to film at authentic locales. The popular actor-turned-director Romaine Fielding headed the crew and made Las Vegas, New Mexico, his base of operations. When the bulk of his production was destroyed by fire, Fielding’s contribution was forgotten, but recently discovered footage in New Mexico archives has begun to restore his place in film history. In 1917, a number of promotional movies coincided with the opening of Santa Fe’s museum, including Adventures in Kit Carson Land, which featured touring the state in an automobile. Tom Mix famously made scores of popular cowboy and Indian movies from his base in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Together, these films and others yet to be discovered provide further New Mexican imagery and imaginings.3

Painters and filmmakers flocked to the state, curious to see for themselves its richly colored mountains and desert landscape peopled by Indians, Spanish descendants and the more recent Euro-American arrivals. Their travel to the Southwest was facilitated by the construction of the Atchison, Topeka  and Santa Fe Railroad, and its partnership with the Fred Harvey’s chain of hotels and restaurants located along the railroad line. By offering comfortable lodging and good food served promptly—in contrast to the majority of western eateries—his establishments became the gold standard for travelers. The famous “Harvey Girls”—carefully trained and well-groomed young women—were hired as waitresses, further enhancing business, as commemorated in the 1946 Judy Garland musical, The Harvey Girls. Fine Native American crafts became a staple of his retail shops, many of which employed regional artists to demonstrate their artistic processes. Boarding a train in New York or California, travelers could be comfortably transported to the “Land of Enchantment,” the phrase New Mexico adopted for its state motto.4

The Southwestern dimension of modernist painting and movies of the silent era (1896–1927) moved beyond the realm of fine art and entertainment. As artists and filmmakers struggled to fashion a distinctly American art from the cultural mix they found inhabiting this landscape, they inevitably participated to some degree in a centuries-old tradition of stereotypes. They constructed identities of the “progressive” Anglo-tourist, attempting to navigate a place that is both American and foreign; the “noble savage,” Native Americans who had become the object of government policies of assimilation and naturalization; and the “black legend villains,” Mexicans who had lived there long before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) declared their lands part of the United States and not Mexico. This essay examines a significant movie from each of those three categories against related fine art painting, arguing that, while they were narratively engaging and visually arresting, they also directed audience attention to important socio-political issues of the day.

By the time New Mexico achieved statehood in 1912, images of the region were flickering on movie screens across the nation. A comedy entitled The Tourist was shot on location in Albuquerque in late May–early June 1912,5 and afterward described in the Albuquerque Journal:

Mary Pickford as a Hopi maden in D.W. Griffith’s A Pueblo Legend (1912)

A party of tourists, on their way East across the continent take advantage of a short stop at Albuquerque to purchase wares of the Indians assembled around the Indian Exhibits Building near the station. A young tourist named Trixie, played by Mabel Normand, becomes absorbed with buying Indian merchandise and her friends try to get her to return to the station but they too become so engrossed in the Indians and their wares that they miss their train. Trixie decides to take off on her own to do a bit of sightseeing until the next train comes along. She entices a local chief to show her the points of interest ….

Following Trixie and the Chief, the audience enjoys views of  the  Alvarado Hotel, Harvey House and the Barelas neighborhood near the train station in Albuquerque. We see some of the renowned pottery on display near the station platform and “the Little Weaver” (identified in an inter-title) fashioning a textile on her loom. Directed by Mack Sennett, the movie culminates in a chase scene with the Chief ’s wife and her friends after Trixie. But as the newspaper explains: “never fear she escapes her pursuers by hopping on the train and waving farewell to Albuquerque. It is all very exciting and fun.” The journalist also praised Percy Higginson’s camera work, which “provides a real look at 1912 New Mexico.”6 While entertaining, the film points  to  the  superficial  experience of the growing number of tourists who spent a brief time there, and got their taste of Pueblo culture in and around the railroad platform.

The clash between tourists and locals was a frequent theme in fine art, such as John Sloan’s Indian Detour (1927). In 1919, John and Dolly Sloan, along with painter Randall Davey and his wife, Florence, packed a 1912 Simplex touring car and motored west. Six weeks later, they arrived in Santa Fe. Davey built a home and painted there for the next forty-four years. Sloan returned the next summer and bought an adobe house at 314 Garcia Street, where he spent four months of every year until 1950. During those years, he had witnessed legions of tourists take the Harvey Indian Tour, which he satirized in this etching.7

By the mid-1880s, the United States government had codified the Assimilation Policy, premised on the idea that, as more Euro-Americans moved westward, the best way to deal with the “Indian problem” was to transform them. Their cultural and religious practices were to be eradicated, replaced by Anglo-Protestant ways. Edison’s film company made the first movie ever produced in the New Mexican territory in October 1897, titled Indian Day School. Lasting only fifteen seconds, it shows the doorway of a building with a crude painted sign identifying it as Isleta Indian School in Isleta, New Mexico. Children exit the door of the school, pass in front of the camera, and re-enter the building: a repetitious movement common in early film.8 Deceptively simple, the short movie zeroes in on the institution responsible for “Americanizing” the young by educating them in the customs and manners of the white man. Children entered Indian Day Schools all over the Southwest in their traditional dress and long straight hair and departed in Western attire and shorn hair: visual symbols of assimilation.

By the second decade of the twentieth century, moving pictures were becoming so popular that it was estimated that one out of every three Americans went to the movies at least once a week. From 1907 to 1912, when D.W. Griffith worked for the Biograph Company, the pioneering movie director made over 500 short movies and reached hundreds of thousands of viewers. In 1912, Griffith and his stock company of forty cast and crew were traveling to New York from Los Angeles on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad when they stopped in Albuquerque and stayed for a week at  the  Alvarado Hotel. To make what film historian Tom Gunning calls “his masterpiece  of Indian civilization,” he shot on location at Isleta Pueblo, where he found the “finest scenic opportunities ever put into a motion picture.”9 Silent movies depended on title frames to elaborate details, and in this case  the  opening frame read:

Before the coming of the Spanish, at the Spring Dance of the Green Boughs at Isleta Pueblo a young stranger girl from Hopi falls in love with a handsome war captain (Great Brother). The Sky Priest emerges from his Kiva and orders him to go in Quest of the “Turquoise Sky Stone,” mystic symbol of happiness….

With “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford cast as the Hopi maiden, Griffith insured that audiences nationwide would flock to theaters to view a classic tale of rival lovers that ends with Pickford and her suitor wrapped in an actual wedding blanket, borrowed along with other artifacts from the Fred Harvey Curio Museum and Indian Building.10 But Griffith and his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, were so struck by the location that they sacrificed dramatic tension for static views of the pueblo’s architectural backdrop and lingering shots of its dance. These ceremonials were conveyed as magical, suffused with the same romantic light as the landscape and the inevitably reunited couple. Due to Biograph’s preference for short films, it did not release the two-reel A Pueblo Legend until the autumn of 1916, when its appearance possibly reinforced the decision of artists to travel there.

The late teens witnessed a surge of paintings on the theme of  Pueblo dance, including Matulka’s Pueblo Dancer (Matachina, 1917), Sloan’s Ancestral Spirits (1919) and B.J.O. Nordfeldt’s Antelope Dance (1919), which have become icons of Southwestern modernism. They  interpreted  dimensions  of  the ancient Pueblo traditions and beliefs through a modern pictorial idiom and demonstrated a shared aesthetic with regionally  made  moving  pictures.  In the era before sound tracks, bodies were the primary vehicles of expression in silent film. Sometimes described as exaggerated, prescribed conventions of acting demonstrated subtle differences in body language to convey nuances of meaning, which audiences learned to interpret. Cameramen were also careful in their juxtaposition of figure and ground to enhance legibility. In parallel fashion, Nordfeldt choreographed his scene of the Antelope Dance by isolating two figures, whose motions can be read against the landscape, and contrasted them with the more distant drummers, who reinforce visually the inaudible rhythm. These visual records of dance were being made at a time when attacks on native ways continued, thus acknowledging their value within this distinctive culture and making a plea for their preservation.11

John Sloan, Dance at the Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico, 1922, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware

Throughout the twenties, Sloan painted the rituals of the Pueblo Indians, one of the few surviving  vestiges  of  ancient  civilizations  in  North  America. His canvas Dance at Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico (1922) depicts the annual Corn Dance. The artist demonstrates his sensitivity to this ceremonial prayer for rain by centering the composition on the figure holding the tall pole and depicting his bow over the earth as both a gesture of fertilization and a blessing. His openness to Pueblo culture was expressed not only in his paintings but also in his advocacy for their appreciation and survival, including an exposition of Indian tribal art he organized in 1931 in New York.

Griffith’s vision of the Southwest was a reverential spectacle of the exotic architecture and mystical Indians,  punctuated  by  Pickford’s  smiles  to  bring us back to reality. Romaine Fielding,  by  contrast,  wrote,  directed,  produced and acted in what could be called a psychological western. In 1913, while the Armory Show was opening the eyes of the American public to modern art, Fielding was in New Mexico making his early movie The Rattlesnake: A Psychical Species.12 This two-reeler explored the aesthetic appeal, mystery and psychological impact the New Mexican landscape exerted on the culturally mixed population who inhabited it. He further complicated it by turning his camera on the state’s Spanish population, in contrast to the usual focus on Pueblo culture. Critics of the day strove to make sense out of its unusual plot. The film opens with Tony—a happy Mexican vaquero (cowboy), played by Fielding— and his lover, Inez, meeting in her verdant garden. A jealous suitor tries to kill Tony but is struck down by a rattlesnake. Out of gratitude, Tony carries the snake everywhere around his neck, and begins to exhibit its traits. Repulsed by the changes in Tony, Inez rejects him. The multivalent symbol of the serpent appears in its Southwestern incarnation, the rattlesnake. The movie was hailed as a masterpiece for its embodiment of the quest for mystical renewal, which he conveyed through symbolic imagery, abstract themes and modes of presentation that were unprecedented for cinema at the time.13

A New Englander who traveled the globe in search of subject and style, Marsden Hartley inevitably found his way to New Mexico, which he visited in 1918 and 1919, and continued to paint from a distance until 1924. At the outset, he created naturalistic, light-filled open vistas of the terrain surrounding Taos and then Santa Fe, but they soon evolved into more tumultuous and closed-off responses to the land that paralleled Fielding’s dark meditations on this complex border region during and after World War I.14 In Landscape, New Mexico (n.d.), Hartley composed a scene in which a white-washed adobe church and patch of green space in the middle ground are hemmed in between the black wall of mountains in the distance and the craggy tree forms on the plateau in the foreground, conveying the sense of physical and psychic confinement. This feeling is intensified by the rope-like configuration of clouds that close off the sky. In search of the national landscape, nineteenth-century artists such as Albert Bierstadt portrayed the west as a Garden of Eden, kissed by divine light. For Hartley, by contrast, the Southwestern landscape in the interwar years is a dark and forbidding place from which Adam and Eve were expelled. He and Fielding both convey a paradise lost.

With Europe in the throes of World War I, Americans were more receptive to Southwestern themes, identified as distinctly American subjects. Moving pictures also carried national associations. Silent film allowed America to sever its literary and linguistic ties to Europe, and provided an original form of expression. By the birth of talkies in 1927, the medium had helped to translate representation into dynamic visual form and had helped to “Americanize” the world.

In the summer of 1929 and again in 1930, John Marin painted more than 100 watercolors of the Sangre de Christo Range and canyons on site in an expressive and abbreviated manner. He had always responded to landscape, and the rich earth tones here challenged the palette he used in coastal Maine. In New Mexico, he was so taken by the Corn Dance he witnessed during his stays with Mabel Dodge Luhan, he created his first major figural works in such watercolors as Dance of the San Domingo Indians (1929). While Sloan’s figurative work was created in a  highly  individual  realist  style,  Marin’s  treatment  of the same subject brought a cutting-edge modernism to New Mexico.15 Close inspection of his vivid colors and broken brushwork demonstrates his fascination with the sacred ceremonial. Striving to convey the syncopated movements of the dancers’ limbs to the drumbeat, he infuses his pictorial form with an aural dimension.

John Marin, Dance of the San Domingo Indians, 1929, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

A few years earlier, Al Jolson appeared on screen in The Jazz Singer (1927), which marks the birth of the talking pictures. No longer silent, movies now possessed the capability to record sound as well as motion. Indian dance had always been accompanied by music, but since  it  defied  written  notation,  it had gone largely unrecorded until it was  captured  in  movies  of  the  sound age. Leopold Stokowski,  a  regular  guest  of  Tony  and  Mabel  Dodge  Luhan in the 1930s, had resigned from the Philadelphia Orchestra and headed for Hollywood to find new audiences for music. In 1935, he was making a movie integrating music from all over the world, and told the Luhans of his intention to insert Indian dances and music. At the  time,  Mabel  was  working  on  her own movie scenario “Conquest,” a personal synopsis of Spanish-American history in which she tried to portray authentically Indian material objects and practices. On his 1936 visit, she gave the script to Stokowski, who took it to Hollywood and shared it with Griffith.16 His rejection of it is not as important as the fact that Luhan, Stokowski and their cohorts saw painting and film as the dual vehicles to preserve and disseminate ancient Pueblo culture, while they advanced Southwestern modernism. Painters and moviemakers alike found a spiritual home in the Southwest, where they employed the technical and expressive means at their disposal  to  convey  a  sense  of  place.  Tracing the continuities and convergences between these  two  mediums  illuminates the environment in which a distinctive form  of  modern  art  emerged  in New   Mexico.17


1. An exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe, “It’s About Time: 14,000 Years of Art in New Mexico,” allows the viewer to trace art in the American Southwest from the earliest cultures to the present time (May, 2012–November, 2013). My thanks to the Society for the Preservation of American Modernists for a grant that facilitated research on this essay.

2. Lois P. Rudnick, Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984).

3. 100 Years Ago: New Mexico’s Early Film History (New Mexico PBS) @ com/watch?v=4oW8SVej98s  includes  clips.

4. Stephen Fried, Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire that Civilized the West (New  York:  Bantam  Books,  2010).

5. There is a good copy of the movie on youtube @

6. “The Tourists,” Albuquerque Journal (August 26, 1912).

7. Grant Holcomb, “John Sloan in Santa Fe,” American Art Journal 10 (May 1978), pp. 33–54, provides a good overview.

8. The movie can be viewed on the Library of Congress website at: http://memory.loc. gov/cgi-bin/query/h?ammem/papr:@field(NUMBER+@band(awal+1234%7D)).

9. Tom Gunning, D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991).

10. State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe, New Mexico, has copies of A Pueblo Legend and The Rattlesnake.

11. Sascha  T.  Scott,  “Paintings  of  Pueblo  Indians  and  the  Politics  of  Preservation  in  the American Southwest” (Ph.D. diss., Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, 2007).

12. The Rattlesnake is a tale of obsession in which Tony goes from being a carefree vaquero into a man obsessed with jealousy.

13. Enrique  R.  Lamadrid,  “Ig/noble  Savages  of  New  Mexico’s  Silent  Cinema”  @http://

14. Heather Hole, Marsden Hartley and the West: The Search for an American Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

15. Ellen J. Landis and Sharyn Udall, John Marin in New Mexico (Albuquerque: Albuquerque Museum, 1999).

16. Rudnick, p. 60.

17. For an analysis of how Sloan’s art was impacted by movies, see my “John Sloan’s Moving-Picture Eye,” American Art 18 (Summer 2004), pp. 80–95.