Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Emil Bisttram (April 7, 1895-1976) Abstract Works on Paper

Quite recently I was in the right place at the right time when a portfolio of the artwork of Emil Bisttram was offered to me. I recognized the drawings to be of quite extraordinary quality and beauty, a rare opportunity to own such a grouping.
In my research I have discovered a bit more to this, (I continue to learn more about Bisttram and this collection).
The Bisttram estate was donated to St. John’s College in Santa Fe. Most of the contents of the house were gathered up, put onto a truck and brought to Santa Fe from Taos. The artwork was at first turned over to the Gerald Peters Gallery and a short time later sent to the Munroe Gallery where it was stored in a room in the Santa Fe railyard district and piece by piece appraised and sold by James Parsons of Taos (from 1986-1989) who authenticated the unsigned artwork. Mr. Parsons also created a signature/logo stamp, which he used on this body of work from the estate.
Mr. James Parsons who still lives in Taos, came to look at this portfolio here at my gallery in Ranchos de Taos, Two Graces Plaza Gallery, he and his appraiser friend also in attendance, exclaimed simultaneously ‘wow those are some great Bisttrams’. *These 2 gentlemen have also given me a wholesale appraisal estimate for resale. He is an authority on the artwork of Bisttram, Jim was a consultant on the books ‘The Transcendental Art of Emil Bisttram” by Walt Wiggins (1988) and “Emil Bisttram 1930-1976” by Warren Shaull, James Parsons, Bernard Ewell & David Witt (2003). This body of artwork is thought to be circa mid 1950’s to early 1960’s.

In a 1954(?) Family Circle magazine article on Taos Artists I found this photo of Emil Bisttram in his studio, (above) pinned onto the wall behind him lined up in a row are drawings similar to the B&W work in this group. Although, I cannot say with certainty that any of these are the same exact drawings in the picture, I am convinced this is from the same body of work.

The technique used here is black ink has been painted into a rectangular field, onto a heavy paper and drawn onto with what we think to have been a white china marker or conte crayon. In the margin, (they have about 2” margins all around) one of these has a small hand drawn diagram in the margin at the bottom, Bisttram’s thought process. The B&W field on these is about 9” x 12”, with the paper around 14” x 16”, all are unsigned.

The accountant (who became the unofficial de-facto executor to the estate of the Bisttrams) gathered up the items left behind by the college, (this woman was not just an accountant, she was a trusted and dear friend). It is from the family of this accountant that this portfolio was acquired. Along with this portfolio of Bisttram works on paper, there are also commissioned poster studies by Bisttram, artwork by local Taos artists, drawings by his students, unused zinc plates for lithography (still wrapped in paper from the day he had purchased them) and a pencil drawing of “Dynamic Symmetry” (also referred to as “Designed Reality) on tracing paper. When placed over some of the artwork this drawing matches the shapes and designs Bisttram created here, as someone recently said to me this is the ‘golden mean’. In 1930 a Guggenheim Fellowship gave him the opportunity to study with Diego Rivera in Mexico, there Emil would have learned of this grid technique. Rivera called it the “Golden Section”, sometimes referred to as “Divine Proportion”. It is explained that this mathematical ratio was thought to have spiritual powers.

The single circular pencil drawing is larger than the other work and is from the time period of his masterwork painting “The Oversoul”. This theme continues in drawings known as “Kundalini”, “Atonement”, & “Creative Forces”, this piece is unsigned.

One of Bisttram’s friends would meet him regularly for coffee in a local Taos Plaza coffee shop at one time he remarked that Emil would be better off making the more realistic artworks which sold quite well and popular with the art buying public, rather than this new ‘abstract’ and not necessarily as popular body of work, to which Bisttram replied, ‘this was his real artwork and his true calling’.

This particular pastel is NFS
The group of colorful abstract chalk pastels is again in the range of 9” x 12” only with a smaller border of about 1” around. These images range in subject matter from a landscape, dynamic symmetry examples, the amoeba-like musical notation, and abstract Shalako Kachina heads, all are unsigned.

In order to make ends meet he created his own art school The Taos School of Art, renamed in 1943 the Bisttram School of Fine Art, he also taught through the University of New Mexico Summer Arts Program, and at an art school in LA from 1945-1951 during the Winter. Bisttram was also involved with starting one of the earliest art galleries here “Taos Heptagon” along with a Taos Artists Society. 1938-1942 he was also a member of the Santa Fe “Transcendental Painting Group”, which promoted abstract painting.

The oddest pieces here in this collection are the poster designs, which are on illustration board and done in watercolor, quite beautiful in their own right, again something probably done to earn some money.


Along with the original Bisttram’s are a group of Portrait and Figure drawings from one of his art classes. These are matted and signed by the students, it is my deduction that these were matted to have them displayed in a student group show as an exhibition to celebrate the end of that semester. One drawing in particular of a figure, has a smaller figure drawn on the lower right side, which from my own experience in art school would have been drawn by Bisttram himself to demonstrate his point to a struggling student searching for the best way to depict the figure. This tends to be the way most figure drawing teachers teach, thus a jewel of a Bisttram sketch appears along with this particular students drawing. These student artists include works by: Bob Burke, M. Tuttle, W. Jimenez, Gendron Jenson, Marilyn Wood, F.B. Coffman & Bob Matz. Another aspect of this group of drawings is that in the book “Modernists in Taos, From Dasburg to Martin” by David Witt on page 64 a photograph of the Bisttram school of art shows students at easels with the student in the center of the photo painting a portrait of the very same Hispanic gentleman that is included in this portfolio.
Today in the market place it is thought that there are many forged Bisttrams. It is my belief that this is untrue, that actually there are forged signatures on real artwork, because much of the 3,000 pieces of art that Bisttram created had never been signed by him and that he tended to sign things as he sold them and not before. An artist as prolific as Emil Bisttram would be making some great work and some not so great artwork at this level of output (during almost 60 years). The signature of Bisttram is almost always a simple block printed last name, which would be extremely easy to recreate, (thus forge). In a local gallery there is a pastel drawing, which is signed with a script signature. When I inquired about this, the gallery owner told me this particular piece had come from the estate of Helene Wurlitzer who had purchased it herself directly from Mr. Bisttram.

With Taos being one of the oldest art colonies in the US and with the amount of truly talented artists who have lived here over the last 100 years it is not unheard of for some of the artwork created here to turn up every now and then. I’ve seen paintings by the Taos Founders (aka The Taos Society of Artists) stored under the bed of a local Taos resident!
I've removed the photo of the Bisttram House, it was the wrong house, in reality it is the house directly west of the Harwood Museum, built in 1936 at the same time as the library building.
*If you are interested in making a purchase of the entire collection or single artworks, contact me at r2c2graces@gmail.com or 575-758-4101
This artwork is unframed at this time.
Prices range from 75.-100. for each of the 11 figure or portrait drawings by his students, if you would like to see more of these I will email photos to you or you may set up an appointment with me for viewing.
The 'Taos' Posters are priced at 750. each. (the Kangaroo San Diego Zoo is SOLD, all Taos Posters are SOLD, w/Shalako Mask is SOLD)
The circular pencil drawing is priced at 1,800. and will need to be taken to a paper conservator for cleaning.
The pastels range from 2,000-2,500. each, there is a separate price if interested in the entire group.

The B&W's are being purchased by the Taos Harwood Museum with a generous benefactor's gift.
The tracing paper dynamic symmetry drawing is being donated to the Taos Harwood Museum as part of the arrangement with the benefactor & Museum. We are thrilled that these artworks will go to a local Taos Museum, especially that the Harwood is directly next door to the Bisttram Home. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks very much for this post. Emil was my cousin and I greatly enjoy learning more about his work.