Mabel Dodge Luhan and Company: American Moderns and the West is a traveling exhibition organized by the Harwood Museum of Art of the University of New Mexico that focuses on the life and times of one of the early twentieth century’s most significant, yet under-recognized cultural figures: Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879–1962). This exhibition is the first to explore the impact Luhan had on some of the most compelling modern American artists, writers, and social activists. It offers a glimpse at the uproarious, complicated life of a woman whose goal was to revolt against the old-fashioned, Victorian environment in which she was raised—and from which she benefited financially. She was married four times, had a son, nearly adopted a daughter, and practiced the life of a libertine, having many lovers of both sexes. Her life as a patron was a wild adventure, veering in new directions as she embraced the ideals of some the most significant leaders in American and European culture. Mabel invited D.H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, John Marin, John Collier, Marsden Hartley, Paul Strand and Andrew Dasburg—among scores of other luminaries—to her Taos house and artist colony style compound in the remote high desert, where they subsequently found, intellectual and spiritual inspiration for their work. Looking at the various chapters in Mabel’s life, the exhibition includes the work of these artists presented in relation to Pueblo and Hispano artists to examine the cultural exchange that formed a unique “Southwest Modernism.” Her final purpose in life was dedicated to enriching the arts and preserving the rights of Native Americans.
So who Mabel? In the second decade of the twentieth century, she was known internationally as the “New Woman,” a sexually liberated radical whose wealth enabled her to be a patron of artists, writers, philosophers, and reformers who defined the avant-garde. Born Mabel Ganson in Buffalo, New York, she led a rebellious life, eager to break from conservative society. In 1900, she married Karl Evans, and their son, John, was born in 1902. After Karl died in a hunting accident, Mabel and John traveled to Europe. In Paris she met the wealthy Boston architect Edwin Dodge, whom she married in 1904, starting a new chapter in her aesthetic life. They settled in a former Medici palace near Florence, Italy, called the Villa Curonia, which her former teacher, Buffalo photo-pictorialist Rose Clark, helped to decorate. Here she created a new Renaissance salon to entertain the leading cultural elite. Among her guests were Gertrude and Leo Stein, Alice B. Toklas, André Gide, James Joyce, painter Jacques-Émile Blanche, Pablo Picasso, Arthur Rubinstein, and American art historian Bernard Berenson.
In 1912, Mabel moved to New York City, separated from her husband, and created a salon at 23 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village for “movers and shakers” who challenged bourgeois morals and inextricably altered life in America. Among the many cultural change agents who gathered there in soirées from 1913 to 1916 known as “Wednesday Evenings” were women’s birth control champion Margaret Sanger, political radicals Emma Goldman and John (Jack) Reed, writer/reporter Walter Lippmann, artists Charles Demuth, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, philosopher/activist Max Eastman, Harlem Renaissance writer/photographer Carl Van Vechten, and muck-racking journalist Lincoln Steffens. Mabel promoted their revolutionary ideas—such as free love, working-class struggles, and Sigmund’s Freud’s concepts of psychoanalysis—through her own syndicated newspaper column and articles in The Masses, a left-wing literary and political journal, as well as The Dial and Stieglitz’s Camera Work. She also engaged in mounting and promoting the International Exhibition of Modern Art, known as “The Armory Show,” held in New York in 1913. The massive, ground-breaking exhibition introduced European modernism to the far more conservative American public.
Mabel’s next ill-fated marriage (1917-1922) was to Maurice Sterne, an American painter and sculptor. They lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts and upstate New York, before Sterne convinced her to come to Taos, New Mexico. She grew to love the Southwest, while Sterne could not adjust; and they soon parted ways. From 1918–1947, Mabel Dodge Luhan influenced legions of European and American “movers and shakers” to find in northern New Mexico’s physical and cultural landscapes new aesthetic, social, and cultural perspectives on modern life, eventually bringing modern art to northern New Mexico, putting Taos on the national and international maps of the avant-garde and creating a “Paris West” in the American Southwest. The last mission of Mabel’s life, to preserve Native American land and culture, was motivated, in part, by her marriage to Taos Pueblo Antonio (Tony) Lujan in 1923. (She changed the spelling of her name to Luhan so people would pronounce it correctly.)
Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West tells the story of this extraordinary woman and the remarkable people from Buffalo to Europe to New Mexico whose lives—and artistic creations—intersected with hers. Years in the making, the exhibition was co-curated by MaLin Wilson-Powell, an independent art critic, lecturer, curator, editor, and educator; and Dr. Lois Rudnick, the author and preeminent scholar on Mabel Dodge Luhan, with eight books published on Luhan and her circle. The exhibition is being presented at the Burchfield Penney Art Center because the museum’s mission is to represent the art and culture of Western New York. For this presentation, Nancy Weekly, Burchfield Scholar, head of collections and the Charles Cary Rumsey Curator, will add art, artifacts and memorabilia that amplify Luhan’s ties to Buffalo, including unique documentation of visits made by the Chauncey Hamlin and Martha Visser’t Hooft families. The installation will be designed by Senior Preparator Patrick Robideau.
In Buffalo, the exhibition is presented by Eric Stenclik & Steven Dietz and The Norman E. Mack II Fund at the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. Additional support was provided by the Robert & Patricia Colby Foundation, The Mulroy Family Foundation, The Carlos & Elizabeth Heath Foundation, The Baird Foundation, Lucile Hamlin, Peggy Phelps, and an anonymous donor. Special thanks go to additional generous donations raised through the efforts of Martje More and Cindy Abbott Letro.
For more information, visit mabeldodgeluhan.org/.
General admission to the Burchfield Penney Art Center is free to Buffalo State students, faculty, staff, and Burchfield Penney members