For the insatiable salonniere Mabel Dodge Luhan, life’s must-haves were animate. The doyenne of modernism and social rival to Gertrude Stein called herself “a collector of people who made a difference.” Photographer Ansel Adams—one of dozens of painters, photographers, writers, scholars, and assorted intellectuals drawn into her orbit in Florence, New York, and Taos in the first half of the twentieth century—noted, with a touch of malice, her “talons for talent.”
As revealed in Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West, a traveling exhibition making its final stop at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in the cultural arbiter’s hometown of Buffalo, New York, from March 10 to May 28, Luhan was also a collector of objects, a gift her idiosyncratic approach to display sometimes obscured. “I don’t think anyone would have dared tell Mabel how to decorate. Her style was totally eclectic and very democratic,” says Luhan authority Lois P. Rudnick, co-curator of the show with independent scholar MaLin Wilson-Powell, an advocate for the project since 1980, when she secured pilot funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Widowed at twenty-three and independently wealthy, Mabel departed for Paris in 1904 and settled in Florence a year later with her second husband, architect Edwin Dodge. By 1912 she was living in Greenwich Village in New York. Activist John Reed became her lover, and avant-garde art her passion. She moved to Taos in 1918 and embarked there on the most ambitious of her domestic projects, a twelve-acre estate anchored by a rambling Pueblo revival-style great house and assorted guesthouses. She called the property Los Gallos (The Roosters) after the pottery figures she perched on the roof, and she decorated her great room with an exuberant collection of French, Italian, and Asian furniture, splashing pale upholstery with magenta and emerald pillows. “Indian blankets hung on the whitewashed walls and santos decorated the mantelpieces,” Rudnick, a University of Massachusetts professor emerita, writes in her 1996 book, Utopian Vistas: The Mabel Dodge Luhan House and the American Counterculture. As Luhan herself explained in 1933 in volume one of her memoirs, “I have never had a room merely ‘arranged’ in any house I have ever lived in. . . . the houses I have lived in have shown the natural growth of a personality struggling to become individual.”
Among the first things Luhan collected in New Mexico were santos—the encompassing term for Hispano devotional sculpture and paintings called, respectively, bultos and retablos. She displayed them alongside the Persian miniatures she bought while living in Europe. Luhan was precocious in her tastes and competitive in her pursuits: in her hunt for santos, she enjoyed a friendly rivalry with modernist painter Andrew Dasburg, who visited her in Taos soon after she arrived and whom she grudgingly credited with creating a market among Anglo aesthetes for what they regarded as folk art. She declined to sell santos to Dr. Albert Barnes, who purchased New Mexican votive art from Dasburg instead. Luhan was ahead of the curve when she sent her figures to New York for exhibition in 1919.
Smatterings from Luhan’s collections, some now owned by Taos’s Harwood Museum of Art, are in the traveling show, which concerns itself primarily with her galvanizing influence on others. Luhan and her belongings live on in contemporaneous works of art, from Gertrude Stein’s 1912 privately printed Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia to Marsden Hartley’s 1919 oil painting El Santo to Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1929 pastel The Porcelian Rooster, a nod to Los Gallos.
She also owned early New Mexican furniture, though little is known about where or from whom she acquired it. Her fourth husband, Tony Lujan, (Mabel anglicized the spelling of his surname) was a Taos Pueblo tribe member, and the couple’s contacts among local families were extensive. Although primitive, early New Mexican furniture is scarce and desirable, especially for museums looking to tell an inclusive story about America’s past. Remarkably, two pieces—a chest and a trastero (or freestanding, ventilated cupboard)—with Luhan provenance surfaced in 2016, offered for sale by Santa Fe dealers Lane Coulter and Jan Brooks.
The rarer of the two pieces is a framed chest with one drawer that Coulter and Brooks date to the late eighteenth century. It is made of ponderosa pine, a wood native to the northern reaches of New Mexico and Arizona. Its chip-carved surface is a distant echo of the lavish inlays and carved details found on Spanish prototypes. Carved wood balls attached to the stretchers and brackets of the tall base add an element of playfulness to the piece’s otherwise sturdy facade. According to Coulter and Brooks, the piece is one of four similarly scaled, framed, onedrawer chests with ball ornaments. One, at the Art Institute of Chicago, belonged to the painter Eanger Irving Couse (1866–1936), a founder of the Taos Society of Artists. The museum dates it to between 1780 and 1830. The chests are most likely from the same maker or shop, possibly the Valdez (or Valdés) family of Velarde, about thirty miles south of Taos. They belong to a larger group of chip-carved, braced chests on legs documented by Lonn Taylor and Dessa Bokides in their 1987 survey, New Mexican Furniture, 1600–1940.
The trastero, which looks something like a food safe of the sort found in the backcountry South, dates to the first quarter of the nineteenth century. John S. Candelario, grandson of one of Santa Fe’s first curio dealers, photographed Luhan with the trastero in the living room of the great house around 1940. It features spindled double doors above a single drawer, paneled sides, and a scalloped crest shaped with a crude, handmade saw. “Prior to the common availability of commercial tools, one sees very simple moldings made with very simple, hand-forged gouges, or curved blade chisels,” Coulter explains. “People were clever in making patterns and using creative arrangements with these moldings to [produce] decorative motifs. The same was true of tinwork. Every single scrap was used. Nothing was wasted.” Like the chest, the trastero stands on long, square legs. The paint—locally available natural pigments in black and maroon—is original and mostly intact. The interior is fitted with three shelves.
How the chest and trastero resurfaced on the market is itself a story. Frank Waters, author of the influential novel The Man Who Killed the Deer (1942) and the landmark study Book of the Hopi (1963), recalled to Rudnick in 1986 that he had been invited by Tony to a party at Mabel’s soon after he arrived in Taos in 1937, and had found the town’s leading lady, contrary to reputation, “friendly and warm and it destroyed my bad impressions of her immediately. I liked her very much.” Waters formed a tight bond with Mabel and Tony over their mutual interest in mysticism and Native American culture and causes. For a time in the late 1930s, Waters lived above the garage in the house Tony built in 1922 as a quiet respite from Mabel’s socializing. After Waters purchased a residence in Arroyo Seco in 1947, Mabel encouraged him to take some of the apartment’s furnishings with him. The chest and trastero were still in his house when his widow, Barbara, died in 2015.
Rudnick never learned what became of the remaining contents of Los Gallos, though she did once see an inventory drawn up around the time the actor Dennis Hopper purchased the compound in 1970, not long after starring in Easy Rider, part of which was filmed nearby. Coinciding with her move to more practical quarters in 1948, Luhan relinquished many of her belongings, even renting space in 1952 from local bookshop owners to sell off some of her antiques, according to Coulter and Brooks. A 1988 image by architectural photographer Tim Street-Porter shows what appears to be Mabel’s Florentine dining table in Hopper’s Frank Gehry–designed house in Venice, California. What fascinating conversations that table must have witnessed.