Fine art

Nearly forgotten, now celebrated

How a Taos art gallery and curator hope to bring works by Edward Corbett back into the light

By Virginia L. Clark
tempo@taosnews.com
Posted 7/10/19

How a nationally recognized artist is simply dropped from the annals of major artistic contribution is hard to fathom, but that is what has happened to Edward Corbett (1919-1971). …

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Fine art

Nearly forgotten, now celebrated

How a Taos art gallery and curator hope to bring works by Edward Corbett back into the light

Posted

How a nationally recognized artist is simply dropped from the annals of major artistic contribution is hard to fathom, but that is what has happened to Edward Corbett (1919-1971). It is something 203 Fine Art Gallery of Taos is intent upon correcting.

"We are fortunate to have been able to acquire several fine examples for this exhibition," said 203 Fine Art manager Caitlyn Au, "which will likely be one of the largest showings of Corbett's work since his 1990 retrospective at the Richmond Art Center in Richmond, California."

Admittedly, Corbett was an exacting craftsman and idealistic artist and instructor who was outspoken about postwar art gimmickry and materialism. Regardless his personal politics, Eric Andrews and Shaun Richel of 203 Fine Art, along with David L. Witt, one of New Mexico's leading art historians, are among increasing numbers who say Corbett's career should be on par with his abstract expressionist contemporaries - Jackson Pollock, Agnes Martin, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Clyfford Still and many more.

"When he was in San Francisco, Edward Corbett was one of the finest artists in San Francisco - when he was in Taos he was the most important artist in Taos, as well as the best," Witt said in a phone interview last week.

Witt was curator of the then-Harwood Foundation (now the Harwood Museum of Art) in Taos for 23-years, and author of "Modernists in Taos: From Dasburg to Martin," "Taos Moderns: Art of the New," and "Spirit Ascendant: The Art and Life of Patrociño Barela." Witt said he had planned writing a book on Corbett while still at the Harwood because of Corbett's artistic excellence and important connection to Taos.

Witt said he purchased some of Corbett works for the Harwood's permanent collection, one of which is a small piece from Corbett's "White" series, considered by many to be ground-breaking works of monochrome abstraction, which influenced good friend and well-known abstract expressionist Ad Reinhardt's own black paintings of the 1950s and '60s, among others.

"Everyone in Taos was influenced by him because he was just so good," Witt said. "He was an influence on Ad Reinhardt, on Agnes Martin, on everybody."

His "Paintings for Puritans" series from the mid-'50s were hailed as paradigms of minimalist abstraction, something important to Martin. "A lot of people misidentified Agnes as a minimalist," Witt said. "She told me herself, 'I'm an abstract expressionist.' " Witt said it was Corbett's influence that taught Martin "you can be very minimal in technique and still be an abstract expressionist."

Abstract expressionism developed simultaneously in San Francisco and New York during and right after World War II and elsewhere across the nation, giving rise to a non-European-based American art. Many of the artists ended up living in Taos during the 1950s.

In the mid-'40s, Corbett moved into San Francisco's North Beach arts area, where he was included in San Francisco Museum of Arts annual showcase of Bay Area artists. In a 1946 show at the Pat Wall Gallery in Monterey, Corbett's work was singled out as the best of the group, and garnered a one-man show shortly thereafter, also to rave reviews. In the same year, he became a member of American Abstract Artists, a prestigious group based in New York - but from which he eventually distanced himself.

Corbett had distinguished himself in the 1940s as one of the most influential teachers at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), according to curator Susan Landauer's "Edward Corbett: A Retrospective" catalogue, for the 1990-91 exhibits at California's Richmond Art Center and Laguna Art Museum.

Landauer notes that California School of Fine Arts director Douglas MacAgy hired Corbett, Reinhardt, Rothko, Richard Diebenkorn, Clay Spohn, Elmer Bishoff and Still - the most progressive painters around - because postwar artists felt a growing obligation to protect freedom of expression and experimentation.

Landauer notes that the war veteran art students' "maturity and drive, combined with MacAgy's extraordinary faculty, produced an outburst of creative activity which resulted in some of the most radical breakthroughs of abstract expressionism" - singularities Landauer attributes to the fundamental development of the movement overall.

In 1951, the year Corbett moved to Taos, he was one of 15 artists invited to show in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "15 Americans," the only artist not associated with New York in this early group show of abstract expressionism. In April 1952, Art News critic Thomas Hess singled him out as "the most interesting new artist in the show."

Born in Chicago, poet, artist and amateur musician Corbett attributed his artistic awakenings to desert landscapes like that of the vast plains of the Southwest where he spent some of his youth and wherever his father was stationed in the army.

"Something must be said to reveal the secrets not only of the mountains and the deserts and their distances, but of the senses and the mind discovering," Landauer quotes Corbett writing about his awakening to art. "I was prepared, by a wish at least, to be an artist."

In 1953 Corbett joined the faculty of Mount Holyoke College as assistant professor of painting and for the next decade divided his summers between Taos and Provincetown, Massachusetts. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1968.

Four works in the 203 Fine Art exhibition are on loan and not for sale. The exhibition continues through Aug. 11. For more information, visit 203fineart.com or call (575) 751-1262.

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