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Style Icons of the Southwest

  • Words by: Tag Christof
  • Images by: Keith Pfeiffer
  • File Under: Womens
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It’s no cosmic coincidence that a retrospective of Agnes Martin’s tranquil, transcendent work graced the spiral confines of the Guggenheim New York last year just a few months after a landmark Georgia O’Keeffe show at the Tate Modern. While both women were Modernists in the broadest sense, the real common ground between their work is the literal ground on which they worked, lived, and died: northern New Mexico. O’Keeffe was a New Yorker and Martin, two decades younger, was from provincial Canada, but both spent their most fruitful years in this remote and little-understood slice of America. Both were heavily inspired by its culture and landscapes, and over time, they also both came in part to define the highly unique style of the place.

Though the American southwest is often painted with a broad brush, there are actually few similarities between the glittery cowpoke frontier folklore that underpins Texas style, the mission, canyon, counterculture roots of modern California style, and the tradition, deep connection to the land, and multiculturalism that defines New Mexico. It is America’s original cultural crossroads, a place where Native Americans, Spanish speakers and, later, English speakers have co-existed in relative harmony for centuries, and in our lifetimes it has been among the most important crucibles for American science and art.

Together with O’Keeffe and Martin, these are five women, among many more, you should know who in some way shaped this original southwest style. In addition to the famous Modernists, there’s a genius potter, a great patroness of art, and an architect who arguably invented the Santa Fe style.

Agnes Martin


Martin's work is nothing if not serene, and in many ways belies her near-lifelong battle with schizophrenia. She grew up in Vancouver, and spent time in New Mexico intermittently in her early years. After spending most of the '60s in New York City, she moved permanently to New Mexico, first to the town of Cuba, then to Galisteo, and finally retiring to Taos. Her reflective, immersive work, with its gentle gradations, soft tones and graphic forms occupies a unique space between abstract expressionism and minimalism.

Her style, though, was pure minimalist—a collection of function, angularity, and muted color in the vain of early Jil Sander. Agnes basked in the sublime isolation in raw nature that few places in America provide as readily as New Mexico, and while there saw and interpreted a dimension of it no artist has matched before or since. Her vision was the southwest stripped to its essentials, distilled to near-spiritual clarity.




Mary Colter





If women struggle for prominence and recognition even today in the architecture world, that makes Mary Colter, born in 1869, a total pioneer. She graduated from what is now the San Francisco Art Institute, and was working in the Midwest when she was recruited to New Mexico by the Fred Harvey Company—the 19th century's version of Chipotle and Airbnb in terms of innovation—to configure and decorate a new museum of Native American artifacts for railroad tourists in Albuquerque. She did such a bang-up job that she became the point of reference for the company's entire design operation from that point forward, and moved from interior designer to full-fledged architect. Her stern, functional attire, appropriate for a both a job site in the frontier west and the refinement of a museum or fine restaurant, was a reflection of the strong working woman she was.

Mary went on to design and build several other significant projects across the west, the most iconic of which was the iconic La Fonda hotel, just off Santa Fe's main plaza. It became a main origin point for the Santa Fe style.

These women were heavily inspired by its culture and landscapes, and over time, they also came in part to define the highly unique style of the place.

María Montoya Martínez

THE POTTER 1887—1980

As often happens in America, an increase in tourism to a previously isolated place can commercialize it to the point of cultural ruin. When the Santa Fe railroad opened New Mexico and Arizona to wealthy travelers from the east, it wasn't long until they were snapping up and hoarding the region's fine works of Spanish colonial furniture, painting, and tinwork and Native pottery and jewelry. One silver lining, though, was that many artisans who would otherwise have been invisible to the wider world suddenly had a much larger audience. María Montoya Martínez, a potter from San Ildefonso Pueblo, a Native reservation north of Santa Fe, became internationally renowned for her meticulously, superlatively constructed work. The innovative process she used for firing jet black pottery effectively revived a centuries-old practice that had been lost for generations.

In the face of gentrifiers and wide-eyed tourists, María was a steadfast bridge between cultures and an exemplary steward of the craft she was heir to. Even when her international fame grew, and she was cited as an inspiration by ceramicists from the Bauhaus to Japan, she always maintained a resolutely traditional dress: turquoise and silver, beadwork, locally woven textiles, natural leathers. María's style is a reminder of the of the beauty in knowing who you are and owning it.





Mabel Dodge Luhan


Mabel was an heiress to a New York banking fortune. She spent the first half of her life moving among elite East Coast circles, then spent a half-decade in Florence before moving to Santa Barbara, California. In 1912, she permanently resettled in Taos, where she founded a literary colony that over the years hosted dozens of artists of international note, among them Georgia, Aldous Huxley, Ansel Adams, and Willa Cather. The Taos Art Colony, which exists to this day grew into an important fountain of American art thanks to her presence in the town, and her pueblo villa home has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Her over-the-top fashion sense mixed the highbrow sensibility of a cosmopolitan East Coast socialite with natural materials and easy functionality suited to the mountain West.





Georgia O’Keeffe






Georgia needs very little introduction these days, but since well before her death in 1986, she was a common sight in the small towns of northern New Mexico from Santa Fe to Taos. Even in old age, her monochrome wardrobe, silvery hair and decisive movements set her apart as a person of great presence and it was still easy to see the muse her husband Alfred Stiglitz had immortalized in portraiture in earlier years.

Today, she is popularly referred to as the Mother of American Modernism, and her work continues to delight the world and inspire love for New Mexico from afar. Georgia's own indomitable style—stern, elegant, the template for the consummate artist—is as part and parcel of the Southwest as its monumental landscapes.

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