(1898 - 1942)
Willard Nash was frequently referred to as “the American Cézanne”. Like the French Post-Impressionist Cézanne, Nash created form with color and did wonderful work with shadows. Prior to his arrival in New Mexico, Nash painted in a formal, academic style that he learned while studying at the Detroit School of Fine Arts. However, under the tutelage of Andrew Dasburg, a fellow Santa Fe artist and frequent painting companion, Nash learned the principals of Cézanne’s pictorial structure and how to use the contour line as a form of dynamic expression.
His color sense was superb and was recognized by critics throughout the country. In 1931, he was hailed by famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera as one of the six greatest painters of the United States.
Nash originally came to Santa Fe in 1920 from Detroit to sketch material and research color for a mural commission. He went back to Detroit to complete the mural and then returned to Santa Fe in 1921 where he would live and work for the next fifteen years. By the end of Nash’s first year in Santa Fe, a greater brilliance and feeling for luminous color began to characterize his canvasses and the classical construction methods of Cézanne became apparent in his work. Nash was only 22 years old at the time.
In the Fall of 1921 Nash, along with fellow Santa Fe painters Jozef Bakos, Fremont Ellis, Will Shuster and Walter Mruk formed Los Cinco Pintores, Santa Fe’s first modernist art group. The five young painters, all under the age of thirty, considered themselves the radical young avant-garde artists of Santa Fe. In December of 1921 the Cincos held their inaugural exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. In what was characteristic of their work, an art critic noted that “these men believe in color and are not afraid to use it. Upon entering the galleries, visitors are greeted with a great shout of color that’s almost stimulating.”
Tagged with the label “modernist” mainly for exhibition purposes, the Cincos actually painted in several genres and in a diverse array of artistic styles. Critics noted that “Nash can hardly be classed as a modernist, yet he is not bound by academic or classical traditions, and there is a freshness about his work that is very pleasing.” (El Palacio, September 1921)
It has been said that of the Cincos, Willard Nash most consistently chose to reinvent visual truth. He was the only one of the group who had a patron from the East who continued to send him a check every month while he painted in Santa Fe. Unlike his fellow Cincos Nash did not have to constantly scramble for money, thus he was never faced with the dilemma of choosing to paint a “sellable” work over what he truly wanted to paint. Nash could please himself, and did so by exploring formal problems, lightening his palette, and experimenting with Cézanne’s handling of landscape.
In the late 1920s critics often noted the presence of Picasso in Nash’s works, especially prominent in his watercolor nudes. Cézanne was the dominant influence in his works of the late 1930s and by the 1940s his paintings had become predominantly abstract.
Nash received national critical acclaim for the works he exhibited in the two biennials of American Painting at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1932 and 1934, as well as in the “Abstract Art in America” exhibit at the Whitney in 1935.
However, in 1935 his productivity began to suffer, and he left Santa Fe for the West, obtaining teaching positions in California. According to Nash, “I went into a self-imposed exile in Los Angeles. I always considered myself a Santa Fean, and my deepest hope is to some day pick up where I left off.” He never did.
While his contemporaries such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove, who exhibited with Nash at the Whitney, became famous American artists, Nash’s brief and promising career was ended by tuberculosis at the age of 44. A memorial service was held for Nash at the Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Santa Fe and his ashes were spread over Sunmount, the rounded mountain close to Nash’s Santa Fe home, which he and his fellow Cinco Pintores had painted so often.