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Primitive of a New Art

John DePuy 1927-2023

Like many artists and ethnographers who came to the Southwest in the early years of the twentieth century, John DePuy had an impressive East Coast pedigree. He'd earned degrees from Columbia and Oxford universities, studied at the Art Student League, with the influential abstract expressionist artist and teacher Hans Hoffman in New York, and painted with the avant-garde Cobra Group in Paris.

Like Georgia O'Keefe before him, DePuy found his voice in the American Southwest. Frontier historian Stan Steiner described DePuy's work as strongly individualistic yet indigenous to the Great American Desert. "He has probed, with his cutting line, beneath the deserts and the mountains, into the bare bone of the rock of this land."

DePuy's grandfather had owned a Taos County, New Mexico ranch in the 1890s and DePuy moved to Taos. Artists had gravitated to Taos since the turn of the century. In the 1950s, the post-war generation brought modernism to the mix. The names are familiar: Mark Rothko, Richard Diebenkorn, Agnes Martin.

Later, DePuy spoke of hope and disillusionment, a trajectory common to virtually every artist, although few are fortunate to be in the right place at the right time in the beginning, as their aesthetic was developing.

I think we all felt in those days that we were the primitives of a new art. And we were sadly disillusioned. I think that all abstract expressionists expected that their work would develop into a new art. There was no nihilism, no cynicism [in Taos], there was the sense of the beginning of something new. I think this is why Rothko committed suicide… Rothko, who was in many ways the master of that period, felt that his work would be the beginning… I think he felt that he was establishing a tradition that would last a hundred years, and then he realized that was impossible.

In this recently recut video, Eric Temple captured a vivid description of how a milieu helps create an artist's sensibility. The Southwestern community of bohemians, anarchists, and freethinkers in the 1950s and 1960s created lasting friendships, a distinctive aesthetic, and a world view. All of these were shared by DePuy and his best friend, the writer Edward Abbey, until their deaths.

The ethos of DePuy and Ed Abbey lives on in the desert. Environmental writing doesn't seem to have the energy it had in the 1970s, perhaps because it's become the province of the conventional upper middle class. But free-spirited visual artists in Joshua Tree, Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea, and in New York's Hudson Valley, where American landscape painting was born, have been sending out The Word.

John DePuy died, in his studio, on March 15, 2023. He was 95 years old. He painted every day until his death.

Video by Eric Temple.

Abbey Nicknamed Him Debris

"His line and ink drawings and oil paintings represent clearly, recognizably, the landscape of the Southwest - mountains, buttes, abysmal gorges. But (John) De Puys' landscape is not the landscape we see, but the one, he claims, is really there. A world of terror as well as beauty that lies beyond the ordinary limits of human experience, that forms the basis of experience, the ground of being."

Edward Abbey

See John DePuy's work: John and Isabel DePuy Gallery

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Learn more about John DePuy and the Art of the Southwest

Taos Moderns: Art of the New by David L. Witt (Santa Fe: Red Crane Books, 1992)

More on John DePuy: Memorial