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New Mexican Modernist

by Akemi A. May

Hungarian born, James Emil Bisttram attended the National Academy of Art and Design, Cooper Union Art School, Parson’s School of Design, the American Student’s League, and the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts. Bisttram studied mural painting by Diego Riviera's side. After moving to New Mexico he started the Taos School of Art, where he founded the influential Transcendental Art movement.

Table Of Contents


Emil Bisttram was born on the Hungarian-Romanian border on April 7, 1895. At the age of 11, in 1906, his parents immigrated to the United States with three sons and a daughter. The family settled in the tenements of New York City, called the Irish Buggy Row. It was in the artistic metropolis that Bisttram was educated, mainly through night courses, at a number of art schools including: the National Academy of Art and Design, Cooper Union Art School, Parson’s School of Design, the American Student’s League, and the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts.

By the age of 21, Bisttram founded, what has been noted as, the country’s first free-lance advertising art agency. In 1919, he met the love of his life, Mayrion, at the Parson’s School of Design. They were married that same year. Bisttram’s affinity towards teaching as well as producing art was first realized at the Parson’s School of Design, where he taught from 1920 until 1925. In 1923 Bisttram began to teach at the Master Institute of the Roerich Museum in New York as well; a career move that would have a profound and rippling effect on his life thereafter. It was from the schools founder, Nicholas Konstantin Roerich, the Russian mystic and philosopher, that Bisttram learned of a New Mexico town, Taos.

Roerich had spent some time in Santa Fe in early 1921 and most likely encouraged Bisttram to travel to New Mexico, which he did in the summer of 1930. Although New Mexico had become a mecca for artists in the early twentieth century, both for its unique landscape and inexpensive cost of living, Bisttram found himself blocked artistically during his three month stay. By his own account he states that, Whenever I tried to paint what was before me I was frustrated by the grandeur of the scenery and the limitless space. Above all a strange, almost mystic quality of light. Bisttram returned to New York only to leave once again in 1931, after receiving a Guggenheim fellowship for Fine Arts. This provided him with the opportunity to study mural painting with famed muralist Diego Rivera in Mexico, who was working on the National Palace murals in Mexico City at that time.

In 1932, Bisttram returned to Taos, where his wife and mother-in-law had lived during his time in Mexico, to established residence. That same year his passion for teaching led him to found the Taos School of Art (later the Bisttram School of Fine Art), where he remained as director until his death. In 1932, the Heptagon Gallery, Taos’ first commercial gallery, opened under his direction. Bisttram was consistently involved in the development of the artistic community in New Mexico. In 1938, he along with fellow artist Raymond Johnson and others founded the Transcendental Painting Group in Santa Fe, New Mexico , with the objective to advance painting beyond the appearance of the physical world. In 1952 he co-founded the Taos Art Association.

In 1975, April 7th was declared Emil Bisttram Day, a New Mexico state holiday. Sadly the next year Bisttram succumbed to his ten-year struggle with cancer and died in Taos, New Mexico, at the age of 81, on February 26, 1976.


When Emil Bisttram relocated to Taos he did so as a representational painter. Bisttram was a well rounded artist who had the ability to render works in a wide range of mediums, and an even wider range of objectives. Over the years his works depicted Native American dancers, portraits of Native Americans and Mexicans, local architecture and landscapes. As his career progressed Bisttram became increasingly interested in non-objective, abstract painting inspired by his strong spiritual personality.

Bisttram began his artistic career in New York, commercially producing works of art in order to fund his education. At the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts he was exposed to the teachings of artists such as Howard Giles, Ivan Olinsky, and Leon Kroll. He also studied composition under Jay Hambidge, who introduced Bisttram to Dynamic Symmetry, a system of pictorial composition based on the principles of proportion used by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks which Hambidge re-discovered . Also during this time he was attracted to Theosophy, a spiritual philosophy regarding the nature of the soul founded upon a mystical insight into the nature of God. His interest in the subject was furthered by his friendship with the Russian philosopher and painter Nicolas Roerich. Bisttram later held teaching positions at both the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts and the Master Institute of Roerich Museum. The principles of Dynamic Symmetry and the Theosophical axiom that religion and geometry are integrally related would become fundamental in his approach to painting and in his teaching.

The ideas of the German Bauhaus artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, with their emphasis on geometric form and linear stylistic devices, also played major roles in the development of his artistic oeuvre. There is evidence of their influence in his bright color schemes and abstract forms, particularly in his later works. Bisttram’s ideas in Dynamic Symmetry were shared by Rivera in Mexico. According to Bisttram, Rivera approved of the theory on the condition that the artist be able to use it freely, an idea which Bisttram had been practicing for many years.

By the time Bisttram settled in Taos much of the modernist pioneering in the area had already been accomplished by artists such as Marsden Hartley, Andrew Dasburg, Raymond Johnson, Paul Burlin, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Even the conservative Taos Society of Artists was exhibiting modern painters. Yet, Bisttram’s concepts of Dynamic Symmetry and spirituality were not well received by the resident artists of the community. Eventually his ideas were accepted and in certain circles encouraged. By the late 1930’s his works became increasingly abstract and he himself became a champion of the modernist movement. Bisttram and several other prominent New Mexican, Californian, and Canadian artists founded the Transcendental Painting Group. One member in particular Lawren Harris, the Canadian painter, was already familiar with Dynamic Symmetry and the two were able to strengthen their understanding of the concept by taking a number of classes. The group’s central concept was spirituality and carrying painting beyond the appearance of the physical world.

Throughout his life in Taos, Bisttram continued to be an active member and promoter of the growing artistic community in New Mexico. In 1975 the state recognized and honored Bisttram for his efforts by declaring the day of his birth, April 7, a state holiday to be known as Emil Bisttram Day.


The 1913, Armory Show in New York had a profound effect on American Art sparking the Modernist movement for the country. The original concepts of art presented by the show literally transformed the way artists conceived of art, shaking the foundations of painting’s visual properties. As the Modernist themes and philosophies spread through out the country it could not have found a more receptive site for artistic inspiration and innovation than in the southwestern state of New Mexico.

The early beginnings of artist colonies in New Mexico can be traced to the late 19th century with the founding of the Taos Society of Artists. This particular society was begun by artists, including Joseph H. Sharp, Bert Phillips, and Ernest Blumenschein, whose interests lay in conservative figural painting. Further recognition of New Mexico’s artistic potential was promoted by the wealthy heiress Mabel Dodge. After growing tiresome of the urban life and society, this major figure of the avant-garde scene in New York, moved to Taos, in 1918. Not only artists, but writers and intellectuals, traveled to stay in Dodge’s home on the outskirts of Pueblo land. While being housed and fed during their stay, they found a nurturing environment for their artistic development.

It might have been at the behest of Dodge that many of the artists visited the area, but it was the state’s rich cultural history, breathtakingly colorful landscapes, and overwhelming sense of spirituality that encouraged them to return or even seek residence. The Northern New Mexico art scene has often been likened to that of Cezanne’s Provence. The parallels of both the light and climate, as well as the brilliant colors of the natural landscape, support the claim. New Mexico, for artist like Bisttram, also signaled a land of vast open spaces and unique vistas that were seen as an escape from the fast paced and expensive big cities. For some, the light and color were overpowering. For the Modernist, they were the very basis for the intangible spiritual intensity that fueled their personal expression.


  • 1895 Born April, 7
  • 1906 Immigrated to America, New York City
  • 1915 Forms the country’s first free-lance advertising art agency
  • 1919 Meets and marries Mayrion
  • 1920 Began teaching at Parson’s School of Art and Design, New York
  • 1923 Began teaching at the Master Institute of the Roerich Museum, New York
  • 1930 First visit to Taos, New Mexico
  • 1931 Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Mexico with Diego Rivera
  • 1932 Becomes a resident of Taos (1932-1976), opens Heptagon Gallery, and founds the Taos School of Art, later known as the Bisttram School of Fine Art
  • 1933 Becomes supervisor for Treasury Relief Act Project, awarded Taos courthouse mural commission
  • 1938 Co-founds the Transcendental Painting Group in Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • 1941 Opens the Bisttram School of Fine Art in Phoenix, Arizona
  • 1951 Co-founds the Taos Artists Association
  • 1970 Named to the New Mexico Art Commission
  • 1975 April 7th is declared Emil Bisttram Day, a New Mexico state holiday
  • 1976 Dies February 26, from cancer at age 81

    Solo Exhibitions:
  • Buffalo Art Museum, Buffalo, New York 1927
  • Philadelphia Art Alliance 1928
  • Boston Art Association 1928
  • Witte Memorial Museum of Art, San Antonio, Texas 1933
  • Santa Fe Museum of Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico 1933
  • Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas 1936
  • Denton College for Women, Denton, Texas 1936
  • Houston Museum of Art, Houston, Texas 1936
  • Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma 1943
  • San Francisco Museum of Art 1946
  • Jonson Gallery, University Art Museum, University of
  • New Mexico, Albuquerque 1953
  • Santa Fe Museum of Art 1953
  • Beaumont Museum of Art, Texas 1953
  • Springville Annual, Utah 1953
  • Retrospective, Leone Kahl Gallery Dallas, Texas 1959
  • Retrospective, Harwood Art Museum Taos, New Mexico, 1959
  • Tribute exhibition, Taos Collects Bisttram,
  • Taos Artists Association 1968
  • Jonson Gallery, University Art Museum, University of
  • New Mexico, Albuquerque 1970
  • Jamison Gallery, Santa Fe 1971
  • Group Exhibitions & Competition Awards:
  • Pennsylvanian Watercolor Club in Philadelphia, awarded First Prize 1924
  • Invitational Pennsylvania Water Color Club, awarded First Prize 1925
  • Invitational Pennsylvania Water Color Club, awarded First Prize for second consecutive year, received a Gold Medal 1926
  • Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1926-28
  • New York Watercolor Club, awarded Purchase Prize 1927
  • American Watercolor Society, prize 1927
  • New York Watercolor Club, awarded Purchase Prize 1930
  • American Watercolor Society, prize 1930
  • Invitation to exhibit at the Chicago Watercolor Show at the Chicago Art Institute 1931
  • American Watercolor Society, prize 1931
  • Philadelphia Watercolor Club, medal 1931
  • Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York, exhibition honoring Guggenheim Fellows 1933
  • Legion of Honor exhibition, Los Angeles, honorable mention 1936
  • Group show at Corcoran Galleries, Washington, D.C. 1937
  • State Fair, Albuquerque, awarded First Prize 1941
  • Invited to exhibit at the Museum of Non-Objective Art, New York City 1945 and 1946
  • Whitney Museum of American Art 1951
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art 1951
  • Invitational group show at the Santa Fe Museum of Art 1953
  • Participates in Taos Moderns which exhibits at the Jonson Gallery, Los Alamos Museum, and the Santa Fe Museum of Art 1954
  • Grand prize for painting at the New Mexico State Fair 1959
  • Traveling exhibition, Art and the Atom, with eight other Taos artists, 1963
  • Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center, Pueblo, Colorado, 100 West: One Hundred Paintings by One Hundred Western Artists from the collection of Mr. & Mrs. William D. Harmsen, March 19 to April 27, 1973
  • Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, Artists of the Western Frontier, July 3- Oct 17, 1976
    Awarded the Eric Gibberd Memorial Award, Taos Artists Association Open Award Show, 1975
  • The New Deal in the Southwest: Arizona and New Mexico, a traveling exhibition 1980
  • University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, January 18 – February 15
  • Northern Arizona University Art Gallery, Flagstaff, March 27 – April 28
  • Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, May 24 – July 13
  • Martin Diamond Fine Arts, 1984
  • Modernist Themes in New Mexico: Works by Early Modernist Painters, Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico, August 4-16, 1989
  • Denver Art Museum, Oct 21, 2000-January 21, 2001
  • The Cocran Gallery of Art, May 9, 2001 - July 30, 2001
  • Joslyn Art Museum, Novermber 3, 2001-January 13, 2002
  • Art Institute of Chicago, Summer 2003

  • Albuquerque Museum, Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Arizona State University Art Museum: Nelson Fine Arts Center. Tempe, Arizona
  • Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas, Texas
  • Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado
  • Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, Indiana
  • Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, New Mexico
  • Jonson Gallery of University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
  • Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
  • Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri
  • Nicholas Roercih Museum, New York, New York
  • Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Logan, Utah
  • Oakland Museum, Oakland, California
  • Oklahoma Art Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
  • Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, Texas
  • Philadelphia Museum or Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, Arizona
  • Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts
  • Roswell Museum and Art Center, Roswell, New Mexico
  • San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA
  • Sangre De Cristo Arts Center, Pueblo, Colorado
  • Sheldon Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
  • Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas
  • Murals:
  • Court House, Taos, New Mexico, 1933
  • Court House, Roswell, New Mexico, 1936 (lost)
  • Department of Justice Building, Washington, D.C., 1936
  • United States Post Office, Ranger, Texas, 1937

    Mexican Wake, 1932, oil, 36” x 48” University Art Museum, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque
    Fiesta Day in Taos, 1970, Zaplin-Lampert Gallery, Santa Fe
    Space Angel, 1964, acrylic, 48” x 36”, Private collection
    Some Works owned by Gerald Peters Corporation, Santa Fe:
    Hopi Indian Snake Dancers, c.1933, oil on canvas, 36” x 26”
    Church at Ranchos, c. 1930, watercolor, 14” x 20”
    Space Images, c. 1954, oil and casein on panel, 36” x 48”
    Adobes, Santa Fe, c. 1955, oil on masonite, 24” x 32”
    Works held by Robert L. Parsons Fine Art as of 1/05:
    Pueblo Woman, 1935, oil on canvas, 15” x 10”
    Ranchos Church, Evening, ca. 1940, oil on canvas, 27” x 36”
    Old Guadalupe Plaza, Taos, NM, 1950, pastel on paper, 16” x 13.5”
    Blue Mesa’s, 1930, watercolor, 18” x 24”
    Reflection, 1963, oil on canvas, 40” x 26”
    Red Rocks, 1950, oil on canvas, 24” x 29”
    Ranchos Church, winter, 1954, oil on canvas, 17” x 23.5”
    Works held by Peyton Wright Gallery:
    The Fiery Chalice, 1960, oil on board, 36.25” x 30.25”
    Garden Fantasy, 1959, enamel on canvas, 46” x 36”
    Nucleii, 1959, oil on board, 39” x 32”


      3. Original members/founders: Emil Bisttram, Ed Garman, Robert Gribbroek, Lawren Harris, Raymond Jonson, William Lumpkins, Agnes Pelton, Florence Miller Pierce, Horace Towner Pierce, Dane Rudhyar, and Stuart Walker. All were artists, except Rudhyar who was an avant-garde composer. (
      5. Wiggins, Walt. The Transcendental Art of Emil Bisttram. Ruidoso Downs, NM: Pintores Press, 1988, p.82.
      6. Modernist Themes in New Mexico: Works by Early Modernist Painters. Edited by Barbara G. Bell. Held at Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico, August 4-16, 1989.