Just getting to interview with our three subjects—Ron Barsano, Rod Goebel, and Rulon Hacking—was difficult. The arrangements were made: 7 p.m. at Rod Goebel’s house just west of Arroyo Seco; Rulon would pick me up around 6:30, and Ron would meet all of us at Rod’s. I picked up a six pack to facilitate the discussion, ease the tensions and inhibitions inherent in the perverse process of the interview situation. 6:30 came and went with no sign of Rulon. At ten to seven I popped open a beer, lit a cigarette, and got on the phone—no Rulon. 7:10 and I’m sure he’s forgotten the whole thing. I’m calling his home every 30 seconds or so and pacing. In desperation I call a good friend of his. The person on the other end speaks soothingly. “He’s often late you know. This is nothing. He’ll be there. Just relax.” Ten minutes later, Rulon arrives. I hop in the car and we head out of town. “This damn car has been . . .” and before he can finish his sentence the car gives an insinuating cough and the engine dies. “See?” he says as we coast off the road onto the shoulder. “Vapor-lock. Gotta let it cool off for a few minutes. Might as well have one of those beers there.” We sit and drink. I glance at Rulon who’s staring rapturously at the mountain bathed in the crimson gold of the sunset. “God, look at that will you?” I look. That’s it! That’s what these guys are doing, it occurs to me, trying to capture that in paint. In a few minutes we are once again on our way, stop for more beer, and two miles down the road the engine is repeated. It happens three more times, in fact, but we’re drinking and laughing and hardly care if we make it or not.
We do. Rod Goebel’s house is tasteful, elegant, almost opulent by Taos standards. “Let me give you the tour so we can get that out of the way,” he says. It’s a solar house made of beer cans covered with adobe plaster, beautiful gardens in the back and surrounding the house. His studio, separate from the living quarters, has a stirring view of the mountains. There’s a large painting in progress on the easel (Summer Clouds over Pojoaque, subsequently finished and pictured here.) We go back into the living room and the tape is rolling.
|Ron Barsano, Fiesta, Taos Plaza, oil on canvas, 20x30 inches|
Rulon Hacking: Yeah, I’m heading to Phoenix tomorrow morning. My sister had a baby boy and my parents will be there and I haven’t seen them for a while.
Rod Goebel: Well, this is a good time of year to go.
RH: (Laughter) Yeah, perfect.
RG: 119 degrees. (Laughter) And you’re getting vapor-lock at 85 degrees? Great!
RH: I’m going to borrow a car—a little more reliable. I’m going to do some painting along the trailside down there.
RG: Cactus. Cactus is big . . . Cactus, yuccas.
RH: I tried to paint one last year. Well, several, but God, the bugs would drive me crazy. Thorns everywhere.
RG: They know how to protect themselves.
AL: Rod and Ron, you were both members of the Taos Six [other members were Robert Daughters, Walt Gonske, Julian Robles, and Ray Vinella] which formed in the mid-‘70s. Would you tell us about that group?
RG: It was just a group of artists who were all painting and doing good work and had the potential to be one of the big groups in the country—in the West, certainly. It was gangbusters, really. Had it stayed together, we’d be having shows today that would . . .
Ron Barsano: With relatively no publicity we were involved in shows in the Philbrook Museum in Texas, the Maxwell Gallery in San Francisco. The name caught on unbelievably.
AL: Why did it break up? Painterly disputes?
RG: It’s very complicated. It was nothing among the artists. It was a matter of artists versus galleries. The usual problem.
RB: In any group there’s going to be problems. We all knew that so we drew up by-laws. One of them stated that any artist could show in any gallery he wanted to. The only real commitment was we’d have two shows a year as a group.
(Telephone rings. RG answers it.)
RG: Hello. (Pause) Yes. (Pause. Laughs. To group at large) Wait. Wait a minute. This is a woman who’s writing a book called Who’s Who in New Mexico Bachelors. (Much laughter from all. RG into phone) There’s a bunch of us here, all artists, what would you like to know? (Pause) Forty-five minute interview? (Pause) Who’s gonna buy a book on Who’s Who in . . . Well, what if I don’t like women? (Laughter) So what do you want? Um. Sure . . . (Continues talking into phone.)
RB: (Continuing) So to get back to this. Rod was dissatisfied with the gallery where we’d all been showing. He wanted to pull out and we talked him out of it. He decided a second time—I gotta pull out and I don’t want to talk to the guys because they’re going to talk me out of it again and I gotta get out of here – which I don’t blame him. So he pulled out without saying anything, which really upset two of the members of the Taos Six. They thought the gallery was doing a hell of a job for us. Anyway, the whole thing blew up. We tried to get back together, but it just never worked out. The only bad thing about a group that’s promoted as the Taos Six is that everybody knows about the Taos Six, but they don’t know Barsano. So I realized . . . I was kind of glad it broke up.
AL: It allowed you to establish your own identity.
RB: Right. My own identity was more important to me than the Taos Six. I wanted people to say, “Oh you’re Barsano.”
RG: (Waving phone) Here you are, you’re next on the list. (RG gives phone to RB, accompanied by much laughter.)
RB: (Into phone) This is Ron Barsano, bachelor, what can I help you with?
RG: She said someone else did a book like this in Texas, and it was a best seller. They had a lot of pictures . . .
AL: They’ll probably want a lot of pictures of your place.
RG: I’m not sure I want this at all.
AL: Let me change the direction a little bit. Do you object to being called impressionists?
|Rulon Hacking, Winter Brook, oil on canvas, 40x30 inches|
RH: It’s the best term that I can think of to cover that manner of painting, but there’s a kind of stigma attached to a school of painting that’s a century old. When you say impressionist, people automatically think of Monet or whoever, rather than think of what impressionism is—the projecting of an impression of a scene, or a feeling, without having to do the whole . . .
RG: The fact of the matter is that the impressionists were painting what was really going on out there in the real world, and they were the first ones to do this. The public tends to think that impressionism is an artificial style or technique, whereas it’s really the most accurate means of representing the truth—the truth of light and form as it exists outside. Monet was out there! And so impressionism is far more realistic than what people think of as realism. It is more realistic.
(RB interrupts, handing RH, bachelor number three, the phone.)
RH: Hello. Yes.
RG: (To all) Let’s wait until this is over.
RH: (Into phone) Pardon? R-U-L-O-N H-A-C-K-I-N-G . . . five foot ten . . . (much laughter) … Do I have to remain single for a whole year? Well, I’m dating a lady but I don’t want to get married. She wants to get married. What? All kinds of ladies . . . hmmm . . . Well it sounds really fun. Kind of kinky though . . . Well, okay. You know, I’m probably the wrong guy . . . Tomorrow?! I’ll be in Arizona . . . I’ll let you know. Cecile Spall? . . . 471-6748 . . .in Santa Fe . . .Right. Bye. (Hangs up phone).
AL: Is she herself single?
RH: I don’t know. She’s a graduate student in something. They’re going to have this big party when the thing gets published and invite all these ladies and there’s going to be all the guys to autograph it.
RG: That would be fun!
AL: Sounds like the all day duck races in Deming. (Laughter)
RH: What were we talking about? Impressionism, wasn’t it? (Laughter)
AL: I was saying that you all are working in a traditional style or manner . . .
RH: It’s about the only thing left that can’t be called contemporary. Super-realism is now called contemporary, but it’s not new.
AL: How did you happen to choose, individually, this style of painting?
RG: One doesn’t necessarily choose a style of painting. Some do, and those are the people who tend to be bad artists because they’re not . . . it’s not coming from within themselves. But a realistic vein or mode has always been the thing that interested me. It was natural to me. Taos was the natural place to come because I grew up in Albuquerque. The early Taos school was still here, the landscape is extraordinary, the mountains are totally unique. Taos also has a far greater variety of things to paint than any other place I’ve seen. In Santa Fe the landscape tends to be the same everywhere you are. The magic is what attracted those earlier artists. Interestingly enough, all the members of the Taos Six came out here about the same time—about ten years ago. And since that time, other than yourself, Rulon, there have been very, very few other artists working in a realistic vein that have come here.
RH: I can’t think of anybody . . . What’s his name? He does really tight super-realism?
RG: Bill Acheff. But, of course, Bill is not painting the area. That’s not the area—still lifes. You could do a still life in San Bernardino. Some other young artists have come since, but they haven’t stayed here for the most part.
AL: Any good ones?
AL: Well, why did you choose this style, Ron?
RG: When I was growing up in Chicago there was an illustrator who lived next door and I was friends with his son. He always said that when we were old enough, we could go to the American Academy of Art and study under William Mosby. I graduated from high school, my friend decided he wanted to be an actor, and I went to the American Academy and studied under William Mosby. I was very naïve about fine art. But immediately I knew that was what I was going to do.
RG: Why was it, Ron, that you came to Taos?
RB: I saw what happened to other artists who left school, started painting, and thought they were better than anyone else, and I saw how their quality and their success dropped to the point where if they worked in the arts at all, it was with some commercial studio. I realized that you have to be open to new things, and to criticism from other artists. I had heard about Taos, about Fechin, some of the American Academy students were out here, so I decided, I’m moving to Taos. I didn’t like it, but decided to stay for a year. Then I fell completely in love with the place for exactly the same reasons Rod gave.
RG: Plus, don’t forget, there are also so many wonderful bachelors here. (Laughter)
AL: Rulon, do you infuse feeling, emotion into a scene, or is it a particular feeling that the scene conveys to you . . .
RG: (Interrupting) If you don’t put that in there, it’s not art. Reproducing a landscape does not make art. Only when you put your own spirit . . . It’s much more difficult to do something that’s realistic and at the same time show your emotional response to it, than it is to do an abstract sort of thing, which is all emotional response. The viewer gets some emotional response from an abstract painting, if it’s successful, but if you’re doing a realistic painting, if that painting is good you also get the same emotional response from that work. You’re painting not only what is there, but you’re painting what was in you.
RH: The main component in any work is the idea, the underlying emotion that you try to project whether it’s from arbitrary symbols or known symbols, which is realism.
AL: Is that a feeling you have to wait for, or are you able to conjure it?
RB: You can’t conjure up the emotion, and you can’t wait for it or you’ll paint one or two paintings a year. And I paint ten paintings a year so I’m close to that but not quite there. (Laughter) Your real goal is for someone to come up to a painting and say, “I’ve been there,” to get some kind of physical response, and not to have them say, “Well, this color will match my furniture.”
|Rod Goebel, Clouds over Pojoaque, oil on canvas, 42x50 inches|
RG: You want some universal feeling to come through. I think basically the reason why I work in realism is that it’s universally understood.
AL: Do you find it difficult working against almost a cliché, in the sense that a hundred people have painted it already.
RG: It used to be that aspens were painted a lot. Now try to find an aspen painting. You can’t. Certain subjects, because of their inherent beauty, are overdone, done by too many bad artists. And that is unfortunate because there is nothing more glamorous to me than an aspen forest. It’s unfortunate that that happens because everything is the subject of art and it can never be diminished no matter how many times it’s used, no matter what the trends are as to what people buy. All that’s important is whether it’s a good painting. What’s being painted isn’t all that important to the buying public.
AL: Apropos of that, I was in the Variant Gallery recently looking at slides of your work, Rulon, and I came to one with an Indian figure and I remarked on it, and the gallery director said, “I wish he’d paint more of those. If he did I’d sell them like crazy. Fifty people wanted that painting.” Does that put certain pressures on you?
RH: I think we all feel that way don’t we?
RG: There’s always a danger for any artist to become locked into any one subject because it limits his freedom and the true artist should have as much freedom as possible. That should be the first and foremost thing. Certainly an artist has to live, so you are aware of those considerations. But I’ve always found, and I’m sure that Rulon and Ron would agree, that whenever you’re painting something that you are really most interested in, that’s the painting that sells. Always.
RB: I don’t know. When I moved here aspen paintings were the hot thing to do. I never did one until last year when I was up in Garcia Park and I saw this beautiful setting. I painted it and it never sold. (Laughter)
AL: Somebody I knew once said that if they were going to do landscape paintings here they’d set their easel up in the junkyard.
RG: That’s the easy way out. That’s what you find in art schools, that sort of philosophy. Even though you’re surrounded by beauty and inspiration, you’re not really an artist unless you do something totally different. To search for something outside of yourself is to ignore the basic element of art, and that is your own humanity. And to go to something else is false. Whether it’s Picasso or Rembrandt, their humanity comes through their art.
AL: Do you work more in the studio or in the field?
RH: I used to work mostly outdoors, but in the last couple of years I’ve tried to work more from my imagination. Occasionally I do a color or pencil sketch on the spot, but a lot of times I’ll just start from scratch, from an abstract form—make a few brush strokes and sit there and stare at it until I think about a scene that I remember and then try to recapture the whole thing.
RB: I don’t do any work that way. The subject matter is in front of me, but the painting, I’m happy to say, is usually nothing like the subject that’s in front of me. Colors are different, values are different.
RG: The problem with working realistically is that you still have to follow certain physical laws of nature. The tendency, I know my tendency is to ignore that, to get lost in the excitement of the color and the paint and so on. But there are certain confines you must work within. Now painting a landscape is, in a way, much easier than painting a figure, because you can change the shape of a tree very easily. You cannot change the shape of an arm.
RH: All these things have to become second nature. You can’t paint a masterpiece of realism or anything and be laboring over how the finger goes. The eye can’t stop at a toe and be wondering if that’s right. You have to feel it.
AL: How long was it before you had that feeling?
RG: Many years. Because the best is based on exactly that – feeling. And more often you sense or feel not when something is right, but when it’s wrong. And the skill comes in saying, “Why is it wrong? What will it take to make it right?” And that feeling only comes from many, many years of doing it.
AL: Do you enjoy talking to other artists?
RH: It’s hard.
RG: Part of the reason I don’t is that whenever I have it’s always gone bad
RB: The reason is that in Taos the realistic artists have their group of friends . . .
RG: Well Taos is just like everywhere else.
RB: No, no, I disagree. If you lived in a place like New York City, in a building that housed every type of artist, you would get together with that group and it would be really stimulating.
AL: Was the Taos Six like that?
RG: No. It can be a very bad thing because when you get a close group of artists like that they tend to paint for their peers. And they tend to want approval, especially when you’re working in an area that is so nebulous, where you don’t know what you’re doing, whether it’s good or bad. So you want some kind of reinforcement and the danger is that you tend to paint to please them. Any time you have an artist’s colony this happens.
--Thom Collins, September, 1981
(Rod Goebel exhibits at the Total Arts Gallery, Taos, the Peters Corporation, Santa Fe, and Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale. Rulon Hacking is represented by the Variant Gallery, Taos, Pelham Gallery, Santa Fe, Carlson Gallery, Denver, and Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale. Ron Barsano’s agent is Linda Hill, Box 2860, Taos. He exhibits at his studio, and at the Wichita Gallery of Fine Art, Wichita, Kansas. Paintings by both Barsano and Goebel have been selected for the Beijing Exhibit of American Western Art which travels to China in November.)