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As seen in the

November 2011 issue of


Small Works&Miniatures SantaFeArt Auctions Great AmericanWestShow
51
NOVEMBER 2011
48
Soliloquyat the
curtains fall
49
W E S T E R N A R T I N S I G H T S
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979), Victor Higgins, Taos, New Mexico,
Gelatin silver print, 1946, 7
13
/
16
x 9
11
/
16
"
1979 AMON CARTER MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, FORT WORTH, TEXAS,
BEQUEST OF THE ARTIST, P1979.130.1128
8
y the 1940s Victor Higgins, a major American artist and one
of the Taos Founders, had seen, or so it seemed, his best days.
The Depression, a bitter divorce from his second wife and
World War II distracted the artist and the public. Higginss brother was
managing his career, not a monumental task as the artist had only one
semi-serious patron, an insurance man who drove hard bargains. Of his
friends and comrades in Taos, Couse and Ufer had passed away.
As for his painting, Higginss brand of Modernism, owing a great deal
to Cezanne and the tenets of Post-Impressionism, was giving way to newer
ideas that strayed ever further from the depiction of observed reality. The
landscape and people of Taos, the sense of location and continuity
of native culture that had attracted the likes of Sharp, Berninghaus,
Phillips, Blumenschein and countless others, mattered less and less. Taos
itself was changing. Modernitythe enemy of the Founderswhose
inspiration sprang from the ancient ways of the indigenous peoples and
the unchanging nature of the land, was coming to town, brought by the
automobile and the cinema. Time was catching up with Victor Higgins.
The world, it must have seemed to him, was passing him by.
In his seminal monograph on the artist, Dean Porter briefly discusses
an unusual Higgins canvas, executed in 1945-46. Titled Nostalgia for
the Theatre, it depicts a ballet as it would be seen from the wings of the
stage. Dominating the painting is an ornate white architectural element,
a set piece at the side of the proscenium composed of scrollwork and
feathery arabesques. The dancers, by contrast, are tiny and gathered at
the extreme right of the picture plane. Porter astutely observes that the
piece suggests that Higgins an all but forgotten artist at the international
level, seemed to have yearned for one more day in the sun. (Victor
Higgins, An American Master, p. 238.)
Porter sees the work as a symbol of, a recollection, a dream world,
a world that for this artist was no longer possible, (p. 238) and perhaps
this is how Higgins himself saw it.
To extend Porters metaphor, what Higgins yearned for was one more
turn in the theater, on the big stage. But to say that Higgins had left the
theater, or that the theater had abandoned him entirely, is to miss part of
the point of the final chapter in the great artists career.
Soliloquyat the
curtains fall
Victor Higgins and the Little Gems
By James D. Balestrieri
50
W E S T E R N A R T I N S I G H T S
The truth is that Victor Higgins responded to
his diminished circumstances with grace and
heroism. He built a box to hold his paint,
brushes and panels, something he could hold
on his lap as he painted. He turned his back on
his studio, donned his three-piece suit, jumped
in his car and lit out for the vistas he had spent
his life getting to know, landscapes knew like
the hairs on the back of his handor the hairs
on his brushes.
These small works were painted for the
tourist trade (so Higgins confided to a dealer,
according to Porter). But they were also small
masterworks: swift, bold, assured. Porter quotes
Blumenscheins appraisal of a group of these
works, works we have come to know as the
Little Gems
And he put all he had into this
dozen of small canvasesAll
works of love: love of his simple
subjects and of his craftsmanship.
These pictures had the extra
something that the right artist
can put into his work when he is
on his toes
Looking at some of these works, Higgins
takes the distance, the sense of feeling removed
from the world and recasts it as perspective,
as an embrace of the totality of the landscape.
The tension between these two ways of seeing
is what makes the Little Gems much more than
tourist pictures.
In each of the works pictured here: Rio
Grande Landscape, The Red Tree, Valley
Spring, the human element is just another layer
in the landscape. The ploughed fields, the low
adobes, the fences: all belong, all are part of
the harmony of the scene. Yet they are small,
without prominence, tucked in.
To dip a toe into the dangerous waters of
psychology, in an artist, this is a double-edged
sword, this feeling of belonging to a place. In
these works Higgins has come to understand
how it all fits together, the abstractions that
emerge from the shapes of mountains, trees,
fields, homes, the composition that emerges
from these abstractions.
He understands this world so well that
depicting it is a swift matter: a cloud is a single
flourish, an aspen tree is a spray of color,
details are etched into the pigment with the
back of the brush. It must have been freeing for
Higgins, adapting his mastery of watercolor, as
evidenced in Rinconando. It was the great New
York watercolorist John Marin, during a sojourn
in Taos in 1929, who had inspired Higgins,
and we see the fleeting energy of that medium
in the handling of oil paint in the Little Gems.
Yet the sense of abandon in these works, an
abandonment of self, seems to signal that he is
letting go of the pursuit of distinction, and that
the desire to stand out, to achieve a kind of
stature, was futile.
Yet there are singularities in these works,
gestures to this theater, the theater of Taos. In
The Red Tree, oil on masonite, 12 x 17"
51
Valley SpringNew Mexico, oil on panel, 10 x 18"
Rio Grande Landscape, oil on board, 12 x 19"
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52
W E S T E R N A R T I N S I G H T S
The Red Tree, Rio Grande Landscape, and Valley Spring, the single trees
that stand alone and apart are like actorsactors rooted in the earth, in
this earth, speaking mute soliloquies in the vast indifferent (the horses in
Valley Spring crop away, paying no attention) amphitheater of nature.
The viewer is outside of the landscape, far off, at a distance where a
sense of a whole can be perceived, a distance that precludes participation.
The relationship is that of the spectator to the play, engaged, yet removed,
alternating between being lost in the performance and being aware that
it is a performance. Like the artist, the viewer apprehends but does not
inhabit, gains perspective but forgoes involvement.
Deeper, inside the reflexivity of the Little Gems, they seem to describe
the relationship of artist to artwork, the gap between inspiration and
execution, between imagining a performance, performing, and reflecting
on the performance afterward. Perhaps they are so successful, these
masterworks, these Little Gems, because they define a kind of failure,
an artists feeling as he grows older that he never quite got it, got to the
essence of the world he wanted the eyes of the world to take inthat
this is, and always was, perhaps, impossible, that this impossibility is, in
the end, the big picture, the ultimate meaning of art, that it is a striving
that precludes attaining.
In the Little Gems, Victor Higgins is an actor on a stage of his own
making, saying lines he has written in a theater he suspected was empty.
The Little Gems are vibrant, lovely, lonely paintings. Our eyes fill the
seats now.
About James D. Balestrieri
Jim Balestrieri is director of J. N. Bartfield Galleries
in New York City. He also writes the Scottsdale
Art Auction catalogue and, during the sale, can
be found screaming out phone bids. Jim has
written plays, verse, prose, and screenplays.
He has degrees from Columbia and Marquette
universities, attended the American Film Institute
and has an MFA in Playwriting from Carnegie-
Mellon. He has an excellent wife and three
enthusiastic children who, he insists, will work in finance or science,
though they are taking an unhealthy interest in the arts.
Victor Higginss
original paint box
is on display at the
Eiteljorg Museum.
COURTESY THE
EITELJORG MUSEUM
OF AMERICAN INDIANS
AND WESTERN ART,
INDIANAPOLIS, IN
53
Rinconando, watercolor, 17 x 22" (signed lower right)