CLEVELAND, Ohio — Northern New Mexico was an American Tahiti in the early 20th century — a sunny paradise that lured artists away from grimy industrial cities with blazing light, stunning landscapes and an alluring mix of Anglo, Hispanic and Native American culture.
One of the artists drawn to the Land of Enchantment, as the state nicknamed itself in 1941, was the German-born, Chicago-trained printmaker Gustave Baumann (1881-1971), whose work is the subject of a luminous and deeply rewarding exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
In a 60-year career, Baumann perfected a gentle brand of modernism, evoking a response to Southwestern landscapes that hum with quiet joy verging on a spiritual level of intensity.
Baumann’s superbly crafted woodblock prints emphasize flat areas of color and decorative patterns in a style well adapted to subjects such as aspens quivering on a mountainside or fruit trees flowering in spring.
But he also reveled in the sculpted forms of adobe architecture, red rock canyons, and the sunburnt Sandia mountains outside Albuquerque.
In masterpieces such as his 1934 print of the Grand Canyon, Baumann emphasized the light-dark patterns of shadows cast by clouds across eroding cliffs and rocky terraces while also conveying a richly three-dimensional sense of the canyon’s many layers.
Not satisfied with this brilliant marriage of flat shapes and solid forms, Baumann pulled a veil of rain across the upper left corner of his composition, dissolving the canyon’s rocky crags into mist.
Baumann created all these effects by carving an individual wood block for each layer of color, and then printing those layers in a particular order, aligning the same sheet on each block perfectly, every time, as he ran it through his press.
Organized by Jane Glaubinger, the museum’s retired former curator of prints, the exhibition brings to light for the first time a large selection from the gift of 65 color woodcuts and 26 preparatory drawings donated to the museum in 2005 by Ann Baumann, the artist’s daughter, who died in Santa Rosa, California in 2011.
Glaubinger said that Ann Baumann, a
philanthropist, social worker, and community activist, made the selection for Cleveland from works left to her by her mother. She was also advised by Gala Chamberlain, director of Annex Galleries in Santa Rosa, which represents the Baumann estate, and who recently authored a catalogue raisonné, or complete catalogue, of Baumann’s works.
On view in the show are 79 prints, watercolors and paintings in tempera on paper. One especially exciting portion of the show focuses on five woodblocks carved by Baumann in 1924 for the print, “Summer Clouds,” an image of flowers blooming in the gated courtyard of an adobe dwelling.
The blocks, used to print layers of black, ochre, blue, pink and gray, are shown alongside “proofs’’ of each color printed on individual sheets, and with another row of sheets showing the cumulative effect as each layer is added.
Baumann, who arrived in New Mexico in 1918, became part of a burgeoning regional scene that included well-established artist colonies in Santa Fe and Taos.
In the 1920s, a star-studded coterie coalesced in Taos around arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan and her husband, Tony, whose guests included D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Willa Cather, Leopold Stokowski, Carl Jung, Martha Graham, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams and John Marin.
Yet Baumann held himself apart from the goings-on in Taos. He was more interested in practicing his art and craft than in partying with fellow artists or visiting celebs.
“A concentration of high-powered artists brings its subtle problems,’’ he wrote in his memoir referring to his days in Taos in 1918, the year in which the Luhans bought the four-room adobe that they soon expanded into a retreat for visiting luminaries.
Born in Magdeburg, Germany, Baumann developed his work ethic and sense of focus in part as a response to early privation. The oldest of four children, he immigrated with his family to Chicago when he was 10. His father, Gustave Sr., abandoned his wife and siblings when Gustave Jr. was 16, forcing him to help support the family.
Artistically talented, he found work as a gopher in an engraving house and took night classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. By 1900 he was employed full-time work in a commercial art studio, and by 1903 he was in business for himself. He saved up $1,000 and split the sum with his mother, using his $500 grubstake to spend a year studying printmaking at the Arts and Crafts School Munich in 1905.
After returning to the U.S., Baumann developed a reputation as a leading printmaker, known for sparkling landscapes that combined pattern and color with a sharp eye for essential qualities of places as diverse as New York City, Provincetown, Massachusetts, and rural Brown County, Indiana.
By 1918, Baumann was a successful and fully mature artist who had grown weary of distractions in artist colonies where he sojourned in Indiana and Provincetown. He knew after one summer that Taos was not for him.
Strapped for cash and eager to find peace and quiet, he stopped in Santa Fe, intending to stay a few days before moving on.
He never left. A curator at the then-new Museum of Fine Arts, now the New Mexico Museum of Art, loaned him $500 and gave him a space to work in the museum’s basement.
By 1923, Baumann had built a house in the city, which had yet to become a popular tourist attraction. In 1925, he married Jane Henderson, an actress and singer from Denver who was researching Native American music at the Santa Clara Pueblo. Their daughter, Ann, was born in 1927.
For decades, Glaubinger said, Baumann supported his family on the sale of his prints, which he sold from his house, but also marketed through galleries nationwide.
The Baumanns augmented their income during the Depression by creating a puppet theater, carving marionettes, sewing costumes and putting on plays in their home and in public auditoriums. They continued their performances until 1959.
The Cleveland museum’s exhibition traces Baumann’s evolution from the brownish palette of his early prints in Indiana, to the lighter and more Impressionistic look of his Provincetown images.
But mostly, the show focuses on Baumann’s mature years in New Mexico, during which he developed scores of woodblock prints recording his responses to Southwestern landscapes and Native American settlements.
In style, Baumann’s desert landscapes hint at geometric forms in nature, but without veering into the Art Deco stylizations of contemporary Southwest painters such as Maynard Dixon.
He also avoided steering toward abstraction, like Hartley, Marin and O’Keeffe.
Baumann’s woodcut of Church Ranchos de Taos, a motif also famously interpreted by Adams, O’Keeffe, and photographer Paul Strand, shows he was as fascinated as they were by the building’s massive, stripped-down shapes.
But while the other artists depicted the church as stark, enigmatic form, Baumann introduced a religious procession, enlivening his yellow and earth-toned composition with the bright green note of an umbrella carried by a woman as a sun shade.
The procession of women in long skirts and light-colored shawls gives scale and a spark of life to his composition, while making the viewer aware of the church’s role in a faith community.
The Cleveland museum has been interested in Baumann nearly since its founding; it hosted his first traveling retrospective back in 1918, the year he landed in New Mexico.
The current show is the museum’s biggest on Baumann since 1996, when nearly everything on view was on loan from the New Mexico Museum of Art. Now, thanks to his daughter’s generous gift, the museum is able to represent Baumann’s remarkable achievements in depth.
Yet because the prints are light sensitive, they’ll only make occasional appearances. That makes the current exhibition a rare opportunity to grab, while it’s available.
What’s up: “Gustave Baumann: Colorful Cuts.”
Venue: Cleveland Museum of Art.
Where: 11150 East Blvd., Cleveland.
When: Through Sunday, June 27.
Admission: Free. Face coverings, temperature checks and timed tickets required. Go to Clevelandart.org or call 216-421-7350.