Bisttram, who left his native Hungary as a young boy, began a career as a commercial artist in New York. He then changed direction, studying successively at the National Academy of Design, Cooper Union, the Art Students League, and with Howard Giles at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art. Bisttram developed into an accomplished teacher in his own right during this period. In 1930 he traveled to New Mexico for a three-month stay, finding it difficult to adjust at first to the strong light and color. He then went to Mexico, supported by a Guggenheim grant, to study fresco techniques with Diego Rivera. After returning to Taos (1932), he started the Heptagon Gallery, probably the first commercial gallery in town, and the Taos School of Art, with a decidedly avant-garde curriculum. Bisttram’s own style, which reflected the extent of his taste and interest, ranged from a broad, calm 1930s classicism to cosmic abstractions based on Jay Hambidge’s Dynamic Symmetry theory. In 1938 Bisttram founded the New Mexico Transcendental Artists group and in 1952 cofounded the Taos Art Association.
Charles Eldredge, Julie Schimmel, and William H. Truettner Art in New Mexico, 1900 – 1945: Paths to Taos and Santa Fe (Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1986)
Along with Raymond Jonson, Emil Bisttram is one of the best-known members of the Transcendental Painting Group of New Mexico. A native of Hungary, Bisttram came to the United States when he was eleven. In New York, he set up a commercial art business and tooknight classes with Leon Kroll, JayHambidge, and Howard Giles at the National Academy of Design, the Cooper Union, Parsons School of Design, and the Art Students League. After completing his studies, Bisttram joined the faculty at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts where he taught the principles of dynamic symmetry developed by Hambidge. He subsequently taught for five years at the Master Institute of the Roerich Museum in New York, and in 1931, supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, went to Mexico to study fresco painting with Diego Rivera.(1)
Bisttram first visited New Mexico in 1930, but was “frustrated by the grandeur of the scenery and the limitless space.”(2) Yet in 1932 he returned and settled in Taos, where he founded the Taos School of Art. Bisttram’s paintings of the early 1930s reflect his all-consuming commitment to the New Mexico environment. Highly stylized canvases depict Hopi snake dancers, portraits of Indian and Mexican-American women, and the distinctive architectural style of Southwest churches. By the mid 1930s, he was actively engaged in mural projects for public buildings in New Mexico, Washington, D.C., and other cities under the sponsorship of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s various New Deal programs. From a rather conventional, representational style of the 1920s, during the mid 1930s Bisttram moved toward nonobjectivity. Yet he continued to paint more traditional work. For example, his mural for the U.S. Department of Justice, commissioned in 1936, is an allegorical composition contrasting the life of modern women with that of “Old World” women.
In 1938, Bisttram founded, withRaymond Jonson, the Transcendental Painting Group, an organization devoted to nonobjective painting that aspired toenhance the spiritual level of society. For Bisttram, who was a Theosophist, theTranscendental Painting Group formalized ideas he had held for many years. Like his New York contemporaries who were centered around Hilla Rebay and the Guggenheim, Bisttram sought a new art for a new world order, and he wrote of universalism and “the essential Oneness of all things” as replacing the mechanistic, dualistic concepts of the past.(3) He spoke out against abstract art as a means of producing simple aesthetic emotion through the psychological impact of pure form and color. Instead, he argued that artists should stimulate deeper ideas and intuitions and thereby make a “significant contribution to the development of our culture and the advance of civilization.”(4)
In his paintings of the late 1930s and beyond, Bisttram explored these concepts and gave titles, such as Upward (ca.1940), and The Oversoul, that indicated the spiritual understandings he intended.
Throughout his life, Bisttram actively contributed to the artistic development of New Mexico. He continued to draw inspiration from legends and visual motifs native to the Southwest but couched them in the nonobjective, transcendental terms he had evolved during the late 1930s.
1. Rivera shared Bisttram’s interest in dynamic symmetry. For additional information about Bisttram’s life and career, see Tricia Hurst, “Emil J. Bisttram (1895 – 1976),” Southwest Art 7, no.10 (March 1978): 83 – 87.
2. Emil Bisttram Papers, Archives of American Art, roll 2893: 202.
3. Emil Bisttram, “The New Vision in Art,” Tomorrow 1, no.1 (September 1941): 35.
4. Emil Bisttram, “The New Vision in Art,“Tomorrow 1, no.1 (September 1941): p. 37.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930 – 1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)