Though just a block off the bustling Taos plaza filled with galleries, gift stores and real estate offices, the studio stands above one of the last charming lanes in the town, overlooking a verdant pasture of swampy grass upon which cows are still occasionally left to graze. It may not be so for much longer. A condominium complex is planned for the field. The dusty charm of Taos that attracted Sharp, the first of the Taos Founders to settle there in the late 1890s, is rapidly being consumed by commerce, and Waldrum rues the passing.
One of Sharp's most famous paintings, Pueblo Dancer at a Window, is a slightly gooey rendition of a statuesque young brave standing in Sharp's studio between the adobe fireplace and the round window in the square frame that looks out to the pasture on the south. Waldrum, too, has painted this studio window, but here the comparison stops. Where Sharp was a sentimental romantic steeped in the aesthetic traditions of 19th century European painting, Waldrum is a tough-minded contemporary artist. Whereas Sharp's subjects appear today as rather sappy, idyllic portrayals of Taos life and light, Waldrum's are clean and hard.
Nevertheless, Waldrum in his own way is a romantic himself, an artist in love with the power and glory of color. In his paintings, etchings, and drawings, he is devoted to the architectural forms of the region's churches, and he lets his metaphysical regard for the place bleed from the formal structure of his work and his orchestrated control of color.
Stocky, barrel-chested and handsome with his strong features, salt and pepper hair and steel gray eyes, Waldrum's public demeanor is detached, serious and a bit shy. At home and among those he knows, though, he is quite garrulous, an aggressive and intense conversationalist. "My pet peeve," he says, "is people with petty peeves. In San Francisco, they're all bitching about New York. In Taos, they're all bitching about Santa Fe. If they'd just drop that crap and get on with attending to their own lives.... It's a waste of time. It comes out of fear and neurosis. Here, I think, people avoid any deep analysis. In New York [where he lived for some years] they totally explore. They've got the mentality of accomplishment. Here, accomplishment is eschewed as something that might stain your morality."
Waldrum's first painting of a New Mexico church was undertaken in 1979 as a kind of aesthetic challenge. He had spent nearly a decade working on his Window series, investigations of color weight and value based on the form and thematic implications of windows in general, and New Mexico windows in particular. Writing about an exhibition of Windows in Santa Fe, a critic applauded the paintings but questioned their relevance to New Mexico. As Waldrum was returning one day from Santa Fe to his home in Taos, he passed through Ranchos de Taos and happened to glance at the famous St. Francis de Assis church, perhaps the most familiar art subject in the Southwest. He thought to himself, "I'll paint that." The result, Ranchos, dominated by a gold bar of light pushing out against two receding purple shapes and a dark red sky form, was simultaneously an accurate presentation of the instantaneous visual impression of the monument's bulk and color, and a statement of the church's spiritual significance. It is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe.
A year later, although still immersed in the subtle complexities of the Window series, he did another painting of the Ranchos Church, Ranchos Bermellon, and soon after a third, Ranchos Amarillo Verdoso. Suddenly Waldrum realized what was happening: in these paintings he was employing the form of the old New Mexico churches for the same purpose he had been using the windows. The forms served as vehicles for exploring color weight, for creating the visual harmony that sets up a clear, resonating feeling of rightness, or correctness.
We talked in the studio and in Waldrum's home in Llano Quemado, just south of Taos.
Your concern for the old adobe churches goes well beyond subject matter for paintings. I know you've launched a campaign to save El Valle's crumbling church. [The church, La iglesia de San Miguel, was torn down in 1986].
The Catholic diocese is suggesting that the people of El Valle tear down their old adobe church and move into a new concrete block one or something equally absurd. I've found them an attorney, took Anita Rodriquez [an accomplished Taos enjarradora] over there to consult with them on rebuilding, and I've got a New York restorer who will restore any of their art. I'm moving slowly in the New Mexico way, not pushing the people at all. I hope it will happen. There's something special about the churches here that reflects a love and fear of the people who built them, the things they go through in their lives. If you've seen one Lutheran church, you've seen them all. But there's no ostensible similarity between the Placitas church and the one in Chimayo or El Valle, and yet there's a collective ideology that holds them together. And it's not just that they're adobe. It's related to the community, to shared experience and pain.
How would you explain their appropriateness as subjects for your paintings?
I'm not a Catholic, I don't care about any of that. But there's something about these churches.... They found an elegant solution to a problem. That's what I try and get. I don't know how else to put it.... Elegant cadence? Resolution. A good feeling. There's more spirit in an old church than in a new one.
You often use musical references when you talk about your painting, don't you.
Leonard Bernstein used to talk about how Beethoven gave away his life energy just making sure that one note followed another, inevitably. He worked for years to get the climax of the second movement in his Fifth Symphony right, to get that inevitable sense that gives us the feeling that everything's okay, that something in the world is good and right. He didn't write especially interesting melodies or orchestration, but his music is simply inevitable, and that's what I want. The only thing I don't like about Beethoven's Sixth Symphony is that there is a little story that goes with it. The story gets in the way because music is a total auditory thing. In painting, it has to be a retinal experience. That is what these paintings are about. The best label to put on me is romantic-formalist. I'm going for `Wow!' In New York, the symphony orchestra performs the 1812 Overture every summer in the park, and at one point, when everyone recognizes the tune, 200,000 people stand up and cheer. That's the way I want people to react to my work.
There seems to be a fair amount of bitterness in art today, artists who aren't making a living but believe that they are for some reason owed a living. You've spent a long time in the art trenches, what do you think this is about?
In the '60s, college art departments got their chance, and they turned out thousands of trained artists. I participated in that. They all moved to SoHo, which is now filled with pissed off people. They found that being an artists didn't come with the degree. But because of the number, they're a power that can't be ignored. They can all talk about their work, but most of it it is phoney. I was talking to some people in Santa Fe once, and a lady said that she had spent 15 years painting, she had a sign on Canyon Road, and lots of people came to look at the work, and nobody bought anything, and she said that it just isn't fair. And I said that maybe the reason nobody bought her work was that nobody liked it. And, man, you should have seen the attack! But that is the bottom line in art.
You're starting to achieve a fair amount of success and notoriety. Do you feel much jealousy from your fellows?
Some, but success is part of the territory. There is no way you can be a well-known obscure artist. Many artists are afraid that, if they're successful, they won't be able to maintain their ethics. They don't trust themselves. Give me a million dollars and watch me paint!
Many artists are doing things you won't understand, and if an artist is understood, they think he's shallow. You've got to communicate! The only way you can add anything is to give form to it. That's what Beethoven did, he communicated through form.
You started out in music, didn't you? [Waldrum was a music arranger and high school music teacher]. How did you make the switch to painting?
I was looking at a score, wondering why my students were having trouble--it was Bach's Come Sweet Death, and it was for the band, maybe that was what was wrong--and I suddenly realized I hated the sound of a band! It cannot be anything but ugly when you have these three notes being played by the saxophones, the trumpets, the French horns, and the third clarinets. If I had been really mentally alert, I would have gotten up, walked to the car, and left. But instead, I spent ten years restructuring the sound wind instruments can make, I found a very rich community in Kansas--Lakim, near the Colorado border--that had the best instruments in the world, just so I could complete that sound I wanted. They had an intense interest in music, and some of them drove 50 miles and we sometimes had to turn on the lights in the football field, we started so early. I would go to bed at 7 o'clock, and my wife would wake me at 10, and we would have an hour together and then I would work [at arranging music for the band] until the next morning. That was the only way I could keep ahead of them.
I was obsessed. I actually asked one girl--her name was Donna--when her period was, because she always played flat during her period and I wouldn't schedule a concert during that time. I found myself taking that kind of thing into consideration, because you are only going to get one peak performance from amateurs.
Or the marching band.... To plan a half time show, you have 75,000 to 90,000 steps that have to be plotted. They are plotted on a grid of a football field, and you use these big pads of paper and you mark little x's on them forever. And the players carry charts and they do all that stuff. A marching band takes a 22 1/2 inch step, eight steps every five yards. You can teach them much faster to march in straight lines if you have them hit that yard line with the right foot and cross it. I had a friend at Purdue who said that the left foot should hit the yard line. That is important because I couldn't imagine myself giving up my life energy worrying about the left or the right foot hitting the yard line, for a bunch of people who were there because they were too lazy to go and buy a hot dog. The whole thing was just absurd.
Instead of just lifting the knees with those short steps, I wanted to see a band come down the field sometimes just casually elegant, so I started six-to-five [six steps to every five yards], and that is a 30 inch step, standard military march. The theory was that high school students can't make a step like that, but we proved them wrong. Sometimes I made them march five-to-five, and you got a visual effect that makes anybody who is turned away snap back to the football field.
The band had a fierce esprit de corps. They got so good at it that they felt cheated unless I took them behind the stadium and made changes right before they went on the field, and this would interest them. They were always beautiful, because they were very proud and involved as the development took place on the field. I thought that produced a student or a human being who could possibly then go out into life and, whether they were getting married or farming or whatever, they would be open to possibilities that other structured people would not be open to.
Anyway, it would be inaccurate to say I'd had a nervous exhaustion thing because of the music, because what it really was--I didn't have the guts to quit and do what I wanted, which was to paint and work alone. I'd been painting seriously, though at very odd hours, for about five years, and had had a one man show in Colorado Springs. I had to go into the hospital for ten days or so, and that was what I used to give me what appeared to be a legitimate reason to quit the music.
Then you studied art for a while, and taught it for awhile, before really striking out on your own as an artist. What was your work like then?
I believe Otto Rank [Sigmund Freud's secretary and author of Art and Artists], that when every artist begins, he embraces an already established ideology. [He showed a small oil collage that he had painted years before.] It resembles abstract expressionism, doesn't it? That was the reigning ideology of the time. Everybody goes through this, but most artists continue to do all those things that people have taught them, that Art in America says is art. That was one of the things that upset me most when I was teaching in college. The day that Art in America came in, all the students and teachers were running around with it, and you knew that whatever was in that issue, you were going to see it the next week in your classes.
To get beyond this, the artist has to find his ordinary. I'm not an action painter. I'm a...[he pauses and makes slow, measured, imaginary strokes in the air] precisionist, and that's my ordinary. That's more important to me than the particular subject matter that I might paint. Anything other than this and I'm just performing stunts.
How do you go about discovering what your ordinary is?
I don't want this to be blown out of proportion, but it was a factor so I'll tell you. When I was living in Texas, right before moving to New Mexico, someone gave me some peyote. I ate it, threw up, and then went out to my studio. There were all my paintings, but what I saw were paintings by Sharp [William Bertram Sharp, an abstract expressionist of some note and Waldrum's teacher], Braque, Gottleib, and I had a crisis. What if my ordinary isn't good enough? But I came to realize that it's all you've got. It was all Beethoven had. I knew that I had to do something that was totally ordinary to me, and if what I did turned out to be extraordinary to other people, then you can call it luck or anything you want. But you can not decide that you are extraordinary. If you try, you will come out as a fool. I do believe that you have to study and you have to know and go through a certain experience until you get total control of yourself, but there is a point at which you get it, and probably it is the point of nomination, when you know you are an artist and you are going to be responsible for the rest of your life. Making art is a lot like cleaning out your bathroom plumbing. You keep at it until you get the job done.
[Waldrum's faith in art, in himself as an artist, and in northern New Mexico as subject of his art, were all severely tested in the mid-1970s. He had purchased an old dance hall and attached house in the village of Gusano, and in what was apparently a racially motivated incident, Waldrum was attacked and the building burned to the ground. He narrowly escaped with his life. It was an incident that he talks about with reluctance.]
I did all kinds of things that night that are not normal to me. I mean physical things. And I got out. And prior to that event, there were lots of unfinished paintings, things to mull over and think about. In my studio there might be a painting that was five years old that I had not pushed to its proper conclusion, but after that incident, mo more. I found that I have a toughness and determination, and occasionally I can call upon that when I need it to finish paintings.
Why did you stay in New Mexico?
I left teaching because it was hopeless, my parental home because that was hopeless, and my marriage of 15 years [he was divorced in the late 1960s], not because that was hopeless, but because it was finished. And in what appeared to be the most hopeless situation, I found that I couldn't run. Somebody said to me recently, "Every moment I'm painting is ecstasy." Come on! You get an hour of ecstasy after you finish it. A week if it's a great painting. But immediately something starts eating at you for the next one. I believe we are important, and maybe special, but let's be realistic about it. [He stopped suddenly] As soon as this interview is over, I'm going to do what Matisse advised all artists to do--tear out my tongue.
Harold Joe Waldrum died in 2003. He was 69.