Bea Mandelman first came to Taos in the mid-1940s with her late husband, Louis Ribak. Together they were the pioneer contemporary painters in Taos, a town previously known primarily for its school of Western realism. She was one of the founders of the Stables Gallery, where she still shows. She is also represented by Lutz-Bergerson Gallery which has just opened a one-person show of her work, “Celebration Series.” We sat and talked in her bright studio, a few steps from the house perched on a hill a few blocks west of Taos Plaza.
The first thing I want to say, I’ve put in 40 years of hard work.
Tell me about them. When did you start?I don’t want to talk about that. People will figure out how old I am. I want to talk about now.
Who cares?About now?
No, about how old you are.Okay. I started painting when I was a child. I hate to get into the past. Just say that my training was between the Bauhaus and the Ecole de Paris. I’ve been here 36 years, and when Louis and I first came, there wasn’t one gallery in Taos.
You and Louis started the Ruins Gallery, didn’t you?It was a very romantic notion. It was in the early 50s. I don’t remember just when, but it was a very important time in Taos. There was a lot of experimental work going on. Agnes Martin was living here and showing in the gallery, and so were Clay Spohn, Ed Corbett, Tom Benrimo, Mike Klein. Wolcott Ely was with the gallery, doing very good work. Some of them came from San Francisco, some like Louis and I came from New York. Oh, and Louise Ganthiers was with us, too.
Why The Ruins?I was nothing but an adobe ruin in Ranchos. I think we paid $10 a month. We just painted the walls and hung the paintings. No water, no electricity
What about security?Who worried about that? It was the most avant-garde gallery in New Mexico. We had parties, openings. Poets came. I don’t know if anybody sold anything, but there was a nice feeling about it.
What kind of work were you doing when you first came here?I started at the beginning, with the Renaissance. Louis and I both did. I’ve been trying to get simpler and simpler ever since. Abstract art is the end, not the beginning. But when we first came, we both got involved with the Indians. We went to their dances, we were fascinated with their psyche, and intrigued with the elemental essence of the land. I began by painting the landscape. I spent five years getting acquainted with it. Then I started painting my own direction: I painted the feelings I had of New Mexico. I’ve become a New Mexico painter after 36 years! My work has the sophistication of the European tradition, but it also reflects the spirit of the land, the ancient feeling, and also the Indian and Spanish cultures. I think it’s all here.
Your last show was two years ago, at the Stables Gallery. I remember the paintings as very bright, musical paintings. The new work, this “Celebration Series,” is somewhat heavier, denser.These paintings are a celebration of life, and of Louis and his life and his work [Ribak died in 1979]. I think they’re very different paintings. I’m not painting happiness anymore. I don’t know, I let a lot of things go.
Is it tragedy that you’re painting?
Is there any conscious symbolism in your work?No, it’s totally non-objective. The time of the ego is over. I’m not saying I’m a good artist, but I am saying that I think I’m communicating something important to the world. Something that everybody knows, but few know that they know. It’s a basic thing we’ve got, but can’t put into words.
Do you know where the work comes from?No, I don’t know. I feel like I’m on call. When a painting is ready to come out, it comes out. While I’m waiting, I sometimes get depressed, spaced out. I can’t remember . . . Then all of a sudden I just have to do it. I wonder, “Who’s doing all this work?”
Where do you start?With empty space. Then I put down the first notes in the space, and make the melody, and then I weave in between.
But you’re not writing music. I mean, those aren’t notes . . . they’re shapes, and color.What’s the difference? Is there one? I’m painting symbols. I’ve created my own language. The work is full of meanings that have no words. It’s like music.
Can you be more specific about the language?I’m trying to get new meaning, new experience from the oldest, most primitive symbols – circles, squares, triangles. And the colors are elemental, basic. I’m using the most basic things, but using them in a sophisticated way. I don’t know what I’m doing. I just do it, and it comes out clear as a bell. It seems right, sure, good. Do you know anybody who’s paintings like this? In New York or anywhere else?
No.Nobody works like this. Georgia O’Keeffe sees symbols in the landscape and makes them her own. I don’t. She will use a mountain, a gorge, a flower. I will use a triangle, a circle, a line. Out of it I make music. And I do hear the music. Since I’m a painter, I communicate it with paint.
Can you think of any painters who have especially influenced your art?No, not really. Although, in looking back, I’ve recently been very startled by the similarity in attitude and thinking between my work and what the Russian avant-garde was doing around the time of the Revolution, the work being shown now at the Los Angeles County Museum. Malevich, especially, and some of the women painters. They were turning inward, while Picasso and the other moderns in Europe were turning outward.
Larry Bell once said that one of the reasons he’s an artist is because his studio is a refuge from the outside world, which is often a very unsatisfactory place. Does that strike a responsive chord with you?Larry’s right. The whole thing’s a mess, politics, economics . . . The quality of life is not good. We’re living in the middle of a big revolution. But, in the midst of it, or out of it, a new world is evolving, too. Man is going ahead. I’m celebrating that, too.
Looking back at the work you’ve done over the years, the style has changed drastically, and so has the color, and yet there’s some basic rhythm that looks common to it all, some basic ‘Bea-ness.’Yes, I think it’s true.
The work you did a few years ago, the “Balkan Series,” had a lot of swing – those quick, energetic, light arcs.And now there’s more Beethoven, more weight. I don’t feel fanciful.
You said earlier that abstraction was the end, the goal, that you were trying to get simpler and simpler in your work. Do you feel you’re getting closer to the essential Bea Mandelman?Yes, I think so. Though as I look now at this older work, I see that it was there then, very essential things, and I wonder just how far I’ve come. It’s a search for the essence. You spend your whole life eliminating. You have to in the world that’s so unsure. You have to eliminate the frills. It’s a paradox, though, that you have to work so hard to get the simplest expression.
Can you say what the essence is?I’m not a verbal person. This is very hard for me. I think you can see it in my work. Or hear it.
What do you want people to get from your work?I hope people that look at my work get a real experience. It requires new thinking, maybe. The observer has to bring as much to it as the painter, but the result is an experience. I got a real experience looking at the Hopi painting show that was at the Kress Gallery. There was real communication, not from the literal symbolism, but the poetry of the work, the basic things not said but implicit.
Funny question, but do you like your own painting?My own painting turns me on. I feel it in my heart, the same feeling I get when I hear good music. I feel warm, I get a lift. But it’s intellectual, too. I’m trying to work from chaos into order, stripping away, using the basics. That part is intellectual. We’re all different, but I think all real artists are working toward the same thing.
What kind?All kinds -- emotional, intellectual. Where you can just fly. There’s a certain detachment there that comes with freedom, that’s harder for a woman to attain than a man, I think.
Are you saying it’s harder for a woman to make it as an artist?Of course it is. But that’s really not the point. The point is, I did. I am.
Rumor has it you read palms. Would you read mine?Sure.
Stephen Parks, September, 1980