While withholding its authentic treasures for serious seekers, New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, makes nostalgia bordering on kitsch easily available. Fortunately, when we embarked on our own West by Southwest migration in this issue we had the benefit of some clear-eyed guidance from Laura Beach, who comes from Santa Fe, and Frederick Turner, who has lived there for thirty years and written widely about American culture and landscape.
You need guides like these to capture the many senses of a place that has hosted major Native American settlements for two thousand years, Spanish settlements for over four hundred years, and only became a state less than a century ago.
Beach’s guide to Santa Fe’s galleries indicates a vibrant current scene where the ragged conjunctions of Spanish, Native American, and contemporary art have made that city the second largest art market in the country. Her article on the Juan José Prada house now owned by Nedra and Richard Matteucci, who live there with a collection of several centuries of art inspired by the region, is a nice example of how the local dynamic keeps artists and collectors moving forward.
In addition to being the gateway to Los Alamos, where J. Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues unleashed the first desert mushroom cloud and fireball, Santa Fe is only a short drive from the less quaint but no less interesting town of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where Turner uncovers layers of unsanitized American history too often overlooked.
While the “westering” experience was, as Peter H. Hassrick notes in “Creating the West in art,” often undertaken as a way station to economic opportunity, the migration of painters, writers, and others disenchanted with modernity to the Southwest, particularly to Santa Fe, has had a different motivation—the pursuit of authenticity. Dismayed that the pioneer values she wrote about in her first great novels, from O Pioneers! and My Ántonia to The Song of the Lark, had lost out to the forces of commerce, Willa Cather retreated in her imagination to New Mexico. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Father Jean Latour journeys south from Santa Fe 1500 miles into Mexico, encountering as he does the Spanish missions and their art that Michael Komanecky describes in “The art of the missions of northern New Spain.” Like the padre, Cather was drawn to the elaborate artifacts from the missions, and also to the primitive but no less beautiful blankets and carvings of the indigenous people.
Cather’s book is elegiac in its withdrawal to the traditional and the primitive, and it is also beautiful. She had not yet become as wholly intolerant of American culture as she would be later, but she was on her way. We have taken a different approach from that of my favorite American writer and our quest has helped us to see that the meetings of present and past continue to be fruitful.