Beatrice Mandleman: Overflowing With Color

My whole world is about life and color surrounding me. Everything is overflowing with color.

Late in life, Beatrice Mandelman—best-known as a Taos Modernist— wrote those words while reflecting her creative journey.

Beatrice Mandelman, known here in Taos simply as Bea, was an American abstract artist associated with the group who came to be  known as the Taos Moderns. 

Beatrice Mandelman was born on December 31, 1912, in Newark, New Jersey, to Jewish immigrant parents who imbued their children with progressive social values and love of the arts. By age 12, Mandelman had begun taking classes at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art and had already determined that she would become an artist.

Early on Mandelman had developed a broad,  international sensibility, absorbing influences from all  forms of Modernism being made both here and in Europe. In 1924 artist Louis Lozowick, a family friend, had returned from a four-year sojourn in Europe and Russia, and was an important source of information about Russian Constructivism and other avant-garde developments abroad. 

Mandelman met graphic designer and illustrator Robert Jonas, who introduced her to Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and other New York vanguard artists. After studying art in New York City and being employed by the Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project, she had got her start as a social realist painter working as a muralist.

Mandelman was a prolific painter, known for her use of vibrant color in her primarily abstract works, but ironically she ended up spending the majority of her career in Taos, New Mexico, far removed from the center of the American art world.

Mandelman arrived in Taos, New Mexico, with her artist husband Louis Leon Ribak in 1944 at the age of 32.They would live in this mythic desert town for the rest of their lives. The couple, along with their close friend painter Agnes Martin, were among the leading members of the Taos Modernists, a group of artists active during in the 1960s. Their initial move to New Mexico, they told people at the time, was in part because Ribak suffered from asthma, but the couple, who were considered radical leftists in reality left New York to avoid undue scrutiny of their political affairs.

They were trailed by the FBI, who  searched the couple’s apartment even after they had left New York. And later in Taos, an undercover agent enrolled in the Taos Valley Art School run by the couple. Mandelman’s political leanings are easily identifiable in much of her work, especially in the anti-war collages made in response to the war in Vietnam. Though she sold work throughout her career, the couple never had much money, so many of the works were small, and made with available materials at hand.

Mandelman’s oeuvre consisted of paintings, prints, and collages. Much of her work was highly abstract, including her representational pieces such as cityscapes, landscapes, and still lifes. Through the 1940s, her paintings featured richly textured surfaces and a subtle, often subdued color palette. 

The New Mexico landscape and culture had a profound influence on Mandelman’s style, pushing her to use a brighter palette, more geometric shapes, flatter surfaces, and sharply defined forms. Hugely influenced by both Cubism and Expressionism, it’s work that is still relevant today, both aesthetically and politically.

The primary colors and thoughtful compositions featuring bold shapes that  the cut-outs of Henri Matisse (she spent a year studying art with Fernand Léger in Paris) are what she became most known for, and although Mandelman was quick to deny being a “Southwestern artist,” the influence of the New Mexican desert and its ever-changing light clearly informed the work she made after moving here.

Last Friday, December 13, 2019 Beatrice Mandleman: Overflowing With Color, opened at the Harwood Museum of Art. The show runs through  Sunday, April 26, 2020. 

The exhibition of serigraphs (silkscreen prints) and color lithographs is drawn from the Harwood Museum’s Mandelman-Ribak Collection. The selected works reveal the initial phase of Mandelman’s immersion in color and form, during the period (c. 1938-1943) when she worked in the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. The Project’s mission was two-fold: to provide meaningful, salaried employment to artists; and to bring accessible, affordable works of art to Americans everywhere. 

For Mandelman, working in the Silk Screen Unit offered opportunities to work in color lithography and to experiment with a new medium—fine art serigraphy—under the supervision of Anthony Velonis, the acknowledged innovator of the process. The exhibition  showcases the color-saturated prints she produced of everyday scenes—realistic streetscapes, landscapes, and seascapes among them—transformed almost into visions by layers and layers of colors carefully laid one over another. 

This exhibition is being presented in conjunction with the Bea Mandelman Documentary by New Mexico PBS, Creation is pure freedom ~ Bea Mandelman which will premier  on April 11, 2020 in the Arthur Bell Auditorium at the Harwood, who inform us that: New Mexico PBS is bringing one of Taos’ great artistic stories to life in a special one-hour documentary about painter Bea Mandelman. An intimate portrait, Bea’s voice rings out through recently available private journals that she kept throughout her life and a candid, radio interview produced by Phaedra Greenwood in 1995. Her unmistakable voice complimented with her writings provides rare insight into Bea’s thoughts about painting and process. Her story is richly illustrated with a lifelong collection of artworks and personal photographs from Bea’s archive. Featured are interviews with those who knew Bea best: David Witt, Phaedra Greenwood, John Nichols, Alexandra Benjamin, and Brenda Euwer.

The goal of the documentary is to further recognize and celebrate the great contribution of New Mexico’s women artists through Bea’s story. The documentary is being produced and directed by Michael Kamins and made in collaboration with the University of New Mexico Foundation, UNM’s Center for Southwest Research and the Harwood Museum.

This show of Beatrice Mandleman’s work could not be more timely. This remarkable woman’s courage and determination to continue creating meaningful work while constantly under political scrutiny, lives on in her work; her Taos legacy that continues to inspire so many.

For more information about the artist and the exhibit,  please visit the Harwood Museum’s site linked below this post.

The Harwood





All images thanks to the Harwood Museum