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Printing the Work of Kenneth Miller Adams

Kenneth Miller Adams, "Taos Indian," 1965. Gift of Garo Antreasian. 1994.388

Kenneth Miller Adams, “Taos Indian,” 1965. Gift of Garo Antreasian. 1994.388

In 1965, Garo Antreasian printed Taos Indian, a lithograph by Kenneth Miller Adams in the IMA’s print collection. In an interview with the IMA, Antreasian recalled the process, his brief encounter with Adams, and the impact the Great Depression had on the printing abilities of Adams and his contemporaries.

Kenneth Miller Adams was a painter and the last member of the Taos Society of Artists, elected in 1926. He moved to Taos in 1924 and was often described as the artist with the closest relationship to the city’s inhabitants. He worked there as an artist until 1938, when he moved to Albuquerque to teach at the University of New Mexico. Adams continued teaching until his retirement in 1963, two years before the creation of Taos Indian, but he remained involved and lived across the street from the university until his death in 1966. It was during his retirement, in 1965, that Adams made Taos Indian with Antreasian.

Garo Antreasian is an Indianapolis native who taught at the Herron Institute before moving to Los Angeles to open the Tamarind Lithography Workshop (now the Tamarind Institute) with Clinton Adams in 1960. In 1964, Antreasian arrived at the University of New Mexico to develop a teaching program, mostly for graduate students, with Clinton Adams, who was dean of the College of Arts by that time. The art department at the University of New Mexico was an important one in the 1950s and ‘60s. It brought in well-known American artists to lecture and demonstrate work, including local artists. It was during such instruction that Antreasian worked with Kenneth Adams to print Taos Indian.

It was a brief collaboration. Adams already knew how to create lithographs, so the process was a smooth one. One of the students delivered the stone to his studio where he completed the drawing and sent it back to the university where Antreasian printed it. Their primary interaction was when Adams came to the classroom to see the proof. He liked it, had some small corrections, and Antreasian “pulled the edition.”

Anteasian explained, “in the making of lithographs, the ‘collaborative effort,’ (depending on the personality of the artist and the printer, how they get along, and how they communicate their thoughts together) is a very sensitive thing. If one admires one and the other doesn’t, it goes in fits and starts before the collaboration produces something good. This interaction between me and Kenneth was very smooth and somewhat impersonal because both of us knew what we were doing and trusted one another.”

Adams knew what he was doing, in part, because of the effects of the great Depression on the art economy. In her book, Pioneer Artists of Taos (published, interestingly, in 1955, just as the Post WWII Print Renaissance was gathering steam), Lauren Bickerstaff wrote, “Graphics were the artists’ answer to the Depression.” Bickerstaff describes the American regional artists’ response to an economic period quite different from the one of the 1950s and ‘60s.

As the economy declined in the 1930s, many fine artists sought refuge in commercial art. Printmaking allowed artists to make multiple copies of a single subject and sell them at affordable prices to a wider audience. The organization Associated American Artists sold inexpensive prints by a number of famous American artists, such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, to middle income audiences. Many of the pioneer artists of Taos found print media equally intriguing and produced stunning prints, not only during the Depression for commercial purposes, but also throughout their artistic careers.

Adams was introduced to lithography by Swedish American artist Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt in 1932, three years after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 signaled the beginning of the Great Depression. Nordfeldt immigrated to Chicago with his family in 1891 but returned to Europe for some time to continue his studies in art. He learned Japanese woodblock printing in England (an example of which is in the IMA’s collection) before returning to the United States and moving to Santa Fe. Nordfeldt was a Taos Society artist when Adams was inducted and later lent Adams his lithography tools to learn the medium, which, as Antreasian pointed out, Adams mastered. His prints of the 1930s won multiple awards, and one, Dona Ascensione, was the frontispiece in Harper’s Magazine in 1933.

Adams represents many of the Taos artists who became familiar with printmaking because of the Depression. In a time when artists struggled to find work, the medium was a different and lucrative outlet for their creativity and had a lasting effect on their art. Taos Indian represents not only Adams’s reputation for striking depictions of Taos natives, but also the impact one of the nation’s most difficult eras had on a resilient artist and his later work.

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