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Sirens of the Southwest

(Philbrook Downtown) In the aftermath of the First World War, artists, writers, and ethnologists flocked to the Southwest in search of an authentic American experience and restorative sense of calm. Artists from the East looked to northern New Mexico’s rustic beauty and ancient, earth-based traditions as appealing alternatives to the chaos of urban life. Georgia O’Keeffe was arguably the most famous artist to leave the East for the minimalism of the desert Southwest. She was not the first, nor would she be the last, woman artist with modernist inclinations to visit New Mexico. Sirens of the Southwest features some of these pioneering women who helped to forge a robust regional art movement in Taos and Santa Fe before mid-century. Drawn from the strengths of Philbrook’s Eugene B. Adkins Collection of Western Art and select private collections, Sirens of the Southwest presents daringly original and vibrant paintings, photographs, and prints by modern women.


Lesser-known contemporaries of O’Keeffe like Gina Knee, Ila McAfee, and Margaret Lefranc came to northern New Mexico for reasons as varied as artistic temperaments and stylistic approaches. Some came west in search of sun-drenched scenery, dry climes during the age of tuberculosis, or expanded exhibition opportunities at the Museum of New Mexico, which opened in 1917. Other women followed their husbands out west, while rebels like O’Keeffe and her friend, Rebecca Salsbury James, escaped theirs.


Another important lure to the Southwest was cultural “siren” Mabel Dodge Luhan. Luhan had hosted artistic salons in New York and Florence before moving to New Mexico in 1916. Once there, she continued to surround herself with avant-garde artists and intellectuals, inviting progressives like D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, Dorothy Brett, and Marsden Hartley to stay with her in Taos. Many more would follow in the coming years. These artistic émigrés transformed the region, ushering in a new, modern vision of its people, landscape, and spiritual traditions. Sirens of the Southwest sheds a colorful light on the production of these transformative female visionaries of the West.

Curated by Catherine Whitney.

  • Philbrook Downtown

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