Love Letter: Three Pivotal Decades of New Mexico Art

Off-Center: New Mexico Art, 1970-2000, opening June 8 at the New Mexico Museum of Art Vladem Contemporary, examines an overlooked era of creativity. Curators Katherine Ware and Katie Doyle explain that “the show isn't a comprehensive history or a collection of greatest hits. Instead, it's a vibrant snapshot of New Mexico’s thriving art scene during those three decades.”

Organized in five rotations through May 4, 2025, the exhibition explores subjects of "Place" with such artists as T.C. Cannon, Betty Hahn and Agnes Martin; "Spectacle" with Miguel Gandert, Erika Blumenfeld and Peter Sarkisian; and "Identity" with James Drake, Janet Lippincott and Ramona Sakiestewa. Featuring 150 artists overall, Ware says, “It’s a who’s who of artists working in New Mexico after 1970.”

Each rotation showcases a breadth of artistic approaches, with no artist shown more than once. Ware says Off-Center "acknowledges the thriving art community of artists and artist families that were already here, represented by Dan Namingha, Lee Marmon, Roxanne Swentzell and Jerry West, among others.”

The influx of artists to New Mexico after 1970 wasn't random. Many, who Ware describes as "incomers," sought alternative lifestyles and were drawn to the back-to-the-land movement. Others honed their skills at the renowned art programs at the Institute for American Indian Arts and the University of New Mexico, while established artists came to teach or work.

Similar to the rush of artist-pioneers to the state in the late 19th century, this "second wave" was captivated by New Mexico's distinct qualities: breathtaking landscapes and rich cultural diversity. And by 1970, the region had developed a strong reputation for visual arts with established galleries, collectors, museums and art schools.

New Mexico also offered a stark contrast to the competitiveness of big city art scenes. Artists like Harmony Hammond, Ken Price and Judy Chicago found freedom from mainstream pressures, allowing them to experiment and forge their own artistic paths.

"New Mexico isn't the center of the art world, like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles,” Ware explains. “There's no single center here either. The art scene thrives in communities across the state, from Silver City and Galisteo to Albuquerque. It’s off-center."

This exhibition is significant, says Christian Waguespack, the museum’s head of curatorial affairs and curator of 20th-century art. "On view is a neglected part of New Mexico's art history. We have excelled at showcasing established artists, but Off-Center does justice to our entire collection."

The Vladem Contemporary’s vast, high-ceilinged galleries provide a perfect platform to display many large-scale works for the first time, some unseen until now even by the curators themselves. And now available in the museum archives are insightful oral histories the curators conducted with many of the artists on view. This adds valuable primary source material for researchers, says curator of contemporary art Alexandra Terry. "Art during this period was very conceptual, and who better to explain their work than the artists themselves?"

Off-Center and its affiliated public programs, including a lecture series, were made possible through private support via the Museum of New Mexico Foundation. Members of The Circles will enjoy a First Look exhibition preview on Thursday, June 6. A Member Preview for all members takes place Friday, June 7, where many of the exhibition artists will be in attendance.

Mark White, the museum’s executive director, sums up the exhibition. "Off-Center is a love letter to New Mexico's artists. It's a survey of both our permanent collection and many of the artistic developments that shaped the state's late 20th century art. It was, without a doubt, a pivotal moment in our artistic and cultural history."

This article and images are from the Museum of New Mexico Foundation’s Member News Magazine.