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Walter Ufer

Born: 1876, Louisville, Kentucky, United States of America
Died: 1936, Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States of America

Builders of the Desert
1923

Oil on canvas laid down on aluminum
Image: 50 1/8 x 50 1/8 in. (127.3 x 127.3 cm)
Frame: 57 1/16 x 57 in. (144.9 x 144.8 cm)
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.174
Signed: Lower right: W Ufer
Artist Name: []

Interpretation

With its dramatic backdrop of the mountains and traditional architecture of New Mexico, Walter Ufer's Builders of the Desert depicts Native Americans at work making the mud bricks from which the adobe buildings typical of the American Southwest are constructed. The scene shows several stages of brick production. At the far left, a man in a red shirt bends to shovel mud into wood forms that three other workers arrange neatly in the left foreground to dry in the sun. Partially dried bricks lie in a group beyond them, and to the right the fully hardened blocks are stacked for removal. At the center of the composition, one man shows a finished brick to the driver of an empty horse-drawn wagon, possibly a would-be purchaser, who twists in his seat to view the product. In the distance, beyond irregular mounds of hardened yellow earth and scrubby desert vegetation, an adobe church stands against a backdrop of rugged mountains. The high horizon meets a blue sky painted in a vibrating pattern of small spots of pale violet, green, and pink to mimic the optical effect of the brilliantly clear New Mexico sky seen through blinding sunlight.

Ufer was one of numerous artists who worked in Taos in the early decades of the twentieth century painting its picturesque inhabitants, quaint architecture, and dramatic scenery. He first visited Taos at the urging of Chicago mayor and art patron Carter Henry Harrison Jr., and it was Harrison who suggested that Ufer portray the contemporary reality of Indian life, rather than the romantic ideal of a so-called vanishing race. An impassioned supporter of social justice, Ufer in his art addressed the hardships faced by New Mexico's often impoverished native inhabitants. The bent postures of the workers in Builders of the Desert attest to the backbreaking labor needed to create such buildings as the background church, an example of the dramatic regional architecture that helped make the Southwest an increasingly attractive tourist destination in the 1910s and 1920s. Representative of Spanish colonial religious culture, the church also testifies to adobe brick construction as a fusion of native and Spanish building techniques.

Builders of the Desert carefully documents a routine activity integral to Southwestern Indian life. Ufer based his paintings on first-hand acquaintance with the local inhabitants, and by the 1920s he had begun to paint outdoors to capture the full effects of New Mexico's unique color and light. The artist tempered his realism with deliberate, rationally organized design. Powerful contrasting thrusts are suggested by the bent foreground figures, the three groups of ranged bricks, the cart and horses, and the rutted track on which they are about to depart; these diagonals converge near the exact center of the balanced, perfectly square composition, in the space just between the wagon driver and the man presenting the sample brick. The impression of iconic monumentality is heightened by the exaggerated brilliance and contrast of the painting's light and color, and by Ufer's title, which suggests the biblical antiquity not only of handmade mud block building technique but of the oppressed condition of its practitioners.

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Provenance

The artist
Mr. and Mrs. Lewis J. Ruskin
Grand Central Galleries, New York, New York, 1924
Howard C. Alley and John E. D. Trask, Inc., New York, New York
Private collection
Art Gallery, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana
Private collection
Christie's Houston, Texas, October 16, 1982, lot 14
The Anschutz Collection
Christie's New York, New York, December 4, 1992, lot 264
Berry-Hill Galleries Inc., New York, New York, 1992
Terra Foundation for the Arts Collection, Chicago, Illinois, 1992

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Exhibition History

One Hundred and Nineteenth Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (organizer). Venue: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, February–March 1924, no. 70. [exh. cat.]

Thirty Seventh Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois (organizer). Venue: The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, October–December 1924, no. 208. [exh. cat.]

Ufer in Retrospective, Phoenix Art Museum and Western Art Associates, Phoenix, Arizona (organizer). Venue: Phoenix Art Museum and Western Art Associates, Phoenix, Arizona, October–December 1970. [exh. cat.]

Masterpieces of the American West: Selections from the Anschutz Collection, Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Oregon (organizer). Venues: Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Oregon, September–November 1983; Palm Springs Desert Museum, Palm Springs, California, November–December 1983; The Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, Florida, January–February 1984; Brooks Memorial Art Gallery, Memphis, Tennessee, March–April 1984; New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, Louisiana, May–July 1984; Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio, December 1984–January 1985; Tucson Museum of Art, Tucson, Arizona, February–April 1985; The Rockwell Museum, Corning, New York, July–September 1985; American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York, November 1985–February 1986; Honolulu Academy of Art, Honolulu, Hawaii, March–May 1986. [exh. cat.]

Selections from the Anschutz Collection, Palm Springs Desert Museum, Palm Springs, California (organizer). Venue: Palm Springs Desert Museum, Palm Springs, California, 1984.

Modern View of the West, Palm Springs Desert Museum, Palm Springs, California (organizer). Venue: Palm Springs Desert Museum, Palm Springs, California, September–October 1988.

Visions of a Nation: Exploring Identity through American Art, Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois (organizer). Venue: Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois, August 10, 1996–January 12, 1997.

Collection Cameo, Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois, August 1998.

Taos Artists and Their Patrons, 1898–1950, Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana (organizer). Venues: Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma (May 16–July 18, 1999); Snite Museum of Art, Notre Dame, Indiana (August 29–November 14, 1999); Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, Arizona (December 18, 1999–March 5, 2000); The Albuquerque Museum, Albuquerque, New Mexico (April 16–August 6, 2000); McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas (September 12–December 3, 2000). [exh. cat.]

The People Work: American Perspectives, 1840–1940, Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois (organizer). Venue: Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois, March 15–May 25, 2003. [exh. cat.]

Window on the West: Chicago and The Art of the New Frontier, 1890–1940, The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois (organizer). Venue: The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois, June 28–October 13, 2003. [exh. cat.]

Art Across America, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; National Museum of Korea, Seoul, South Korea; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois (organizers). Venues: National Museum of Korea, Seoul, South Korea, February 4–May 12, 2013; Daejeon Museum of Art, Daejeon, South Korea, June 7–September 1, 2013. [exh. cat.]

ArtWork: Art and Labor, Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska, Lincoln (organizer). Venue: Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska, January 24–May 25, 2014. [exh.cat.]

Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West, Harwood Museum, Taos, New Mexico (organizer). Venues: Harwood Museum, Taos, New Mexico, May 22–September 11, 2016, Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, Albuquerque, New Mexico, October 29, 2016–January 22, 2017, Burchfield Penny Art Center, Buffalo, New York, March 10–May 28, 2017 [exh. cat.]

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Published References

Castello, Eugene. “Philadelphia.” The Studio 87, no. 373 (1924): 222. Text p. 222; ill. p. 222 (black & white).

E. L. The Art News 22, no. 18 (February 9, 1924): 1-12. Text p. 2.

“The Page of the Seven Arts.” The Christian Science Monitor Boston (February 23, 1924): 9. Ill. p. 9 (black & white).

Catalogue of the Thirty Seventh Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, (exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago). Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1924. Text cat. no. 208.

Ufer in Retrospective. (exh. cat., Phoenix Art Museum and Western Art Associates). Phoenix: Arizona: Phoeonix Art Museum, 1970. Text cat. no. 3 (checklist).

Christie's Houston, Texas (Sale UFER 5171, October 16, 1982): lot 14. Ill. lot 14 (color).

Cunningham Elizabeth, Eldredge Charles C. Masterpieces of the American West: Selections from the Anschutz Collection. (exh. cat. American Museum of Western Art) Denver, CO: American Museum of Western Art – The Anschutz Collection, 1983. Text no. 72; ill. pl. 72 (color).

Cunningham, E. "Taos Reflects." Artists of the Rockies and the Golden West (1984): 109. Text p. 109.

"Masterpieces of the American West: The Anschutz Collection – A Visual Sampler." Southwest Art (October 1985): 86–95. Text p. 89; ill. p. 89 (color).

Christie's New York, New York (Sale NATALIE-7544, December 4, 1992): lot 264. Text p. 218; ill. p. 219 (color).

Builders of the Desert, Walter Ufer. Collection Cameo sheet, Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois, August 1998. Ill. (black & white).

Porter, Dean A., Teresa Hayes Ebie, and Suzan Campbell. Taos Artists and Their Patrons, 1898–1950, (exh. cat., Snite Museum of Art) Notre Dame, Indiana: Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame in conjunction with the University of New Mexico Press, 1999. Text p. 112; ill. p. 113, cat. no. 80 (black & white).

Barter, Judith A. Window on the West: Chicago and the Art of the New Frontier, 1890–1940. (exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago). Chicago, Illinois: The Art Institute of Chicago in association with Hudson Hills Press, 2003. Text p. 68; ill. p. 69, fig. 32 (color).

Rodriguez, Sylvia. “Over Behind Mabel’s on Indian Land: Utopia and Thirdspace in Taos.” Journal of the Southwest 53, no. 3/4 (Autumn-Winter 2011): 379–402. Text p. 398; ill. p. 398, fig. 3 (black & white).

ArtWork: Art and Labor. (exh. cat., Sheldon Museum of Art). Lincoln, Nebraska: Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska, 2014. Text, p. 21, 47 (checklist); ill. p. 23, fig. 11 (color).

Art Across America. (exh. cat., National Museum of Korea, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Terra Foundation for American Art). Seoul, South Korea: National Museum of Korea, 2013. Text pp. 34, 113; ill. p. 35, fig. 14 (color), p. 112 (color).

Smith, Thomas Brent, ed. A Place in the Sun: The Southwest Paintings of Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Norman, in cooperation with the Denver Art Museum, 2016. Text pp. 137, 139, 145; ill. p. 137, fig. 6.12 (color), p. 144, fig. 7.01 (color).

Wardle, Marian and Sarah E. Boehme, eds. Branding the American West: Paintings and Films, 1900-1950. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016. Text p. 105; ill. p. 106 (color).

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