Swimming In The Deep End: The Work of Tony Abeyta

| THE magazine - July 30, 2013

"I soon discovered that Abeyta had simultaneously created three distinctive bodies of work: landscapes, kachinas, and what he calls 'analogous forms and shapes,' which reference music. My favorite Abeytas are the landscapes that depict adobes. "

Photograph: Dana Waldon

I admit it; I’m a tremendous Fritz Scholder fan. I was hooked the day I stumbled upon the exhibition catalogue from the artist’s National Museum of the American Indian retrospective, enigmatically titled Indian/Not Indian. At the time, I had been hunting for art books at Green Apple, in San Francisco, when the volume seemed to leap out at me. After carefully studying the reproductions, I felt the poignancy of the work and began to appreciate Scholder’s authenticity.

Fritz Scholder’s career was star-crossed. He was a Native American painter whose prime work from the 1960s and 1970s was exhibited in the serious Manhattan contemporary art world—a phenomenon which had never occurred before and hasn’t since. Though he died a multi-millionaire, and received more honors and accolades than you can imagine, he was conflicted over his very identity. Was he an artist or an Indian artist? It was a conundrum he would never resolve and one that haunts many Native American painters to this day. 

Since Scholder’s death, in 2005, one of the few painters to step forward with the talent and self-confidence to take his place is Tony Abeyta. A Navajo, originally from Gallup, Abeyta currently lives and works in Santa Fe. Ironically, his studio was the former Janus Gallery, which once housed Scholder’s first Santa Fe exhibition in 1971. When I first met Abeyta, he impressed me not only with his art, but also with his firm grasp of the national art scene. Scholder also closely followed the New York art world and even owned a studio in SoHo. Though both artists were/are art market savvy, the difference is Abeyta, unlike Scholder, also knows who he is.

I was originally introduced to Abeyta’s work by the extraordinary ceramic artist Diego Romero, during the summer of 2012. Just as the two of us arrived at Abeyta’s studio, an assistant whisked a framed canvas out the door. A fleeting glance revealed imagery inspired by the early Taos Modernists—but with a twist. The clouds, mountains, and piñon trees retained their identities, but appeared as if they had been run through a contemporary art filter—like a streamlined Ernest Blumenschein. 

I soon discovered that Abeyta had simultaneously created three distinctive bodies of work: landscapes, kachinas, and what he calls “analogous forms and shapes,” which reference music. My favorite Abeytas are the landscapes that depict adobes. Abeyta’s adobes also have a strong sense of history and feel like they’ve been occupied for many generations. These paintings speak of the ancient Taos Pueblo all the way up to the modern adobe-style homes that surround downtown Santa Fe. They convey Abeyta’s appreciation of art history and pay homage to the painters who came before him. 

As I continued to sift through Abeyta’s paintings, Diego and Tony told sordid tales of their early days together (mostly involving wild women). While listening to them relive their misspent youth, I noticed a sand-cast silver and Bisbee turquoise ring on a small table. The craftsmanship and design were superb. 

“Whose work is this?” I asked Tony. “Oh, you like that?” he replied. “It’s mine but I’m no longer making jewelry.” Too bad, I thought. 

Later that day, I went online and found a tuffa bracelet of his for sale from Fine Arts of the Southwest. Price: $3,850. It turned out that Fritz Scholder also briefly tried his hand at jewelry making, mostly colored enamel and silver bolo ties depicting human skulls and buffalo heads. It was yet another unexpected connection between the two artists. 

About six months later, I met Abeyta for a second time, at the Los Angeles Art Fair. His work was featured in Blue Rain Gallery’s booth. There was a tasty variety of paintings, which ran the gamut from realism to abstraction. What tied the pictures together was their confident paint handling. Abeyta reminded me of the ballplayer Reggie Jackson. “Mr. October” (so-called for his clutch play during the World Series) had a reputation for hitting a ton of home runs; but he also set a record for strikeouts. Yet whether Jackson parked one in the upper deck or went down swinging on three straight pitches, he was never cheated out of an at-bat; he left everything he had to give at the plate. And so does Tony Abeyta at his easel, though happily his batting average is much higher than Jackson’s.

The morning after the opening of the art fair, Abeyta invited me to join him and the Santa Fe jewelry artisan Cody Sanderson for an early meal in Santa Monica. Over some deluxe breakfast sandwiches, I couldn’t resist asking him about his thoughts on Scholder. Abeyta expressed his admiration for the work and acknowledged his trailblazing efforts, both as an artist and an influential teacher. Interestingly, the painter who had the greatest philosophical influence on him was Agnes Martin. When he lived in Taos he used to take her to lunch approximately once a month, using the opportunity to absorb her wisdom. After Martin passed away, he even briefly rented her studio.

As to whether Tony Abeyta is better than Fritz Scholder or the next Fritz Scholder, that’s ultimately irrelevant. Artists hate labels and comparisons. They simply want to be seen as individual painters. Still only in his forties, Abeyta has a chance to take Southwestern imagery in a new direction. While most artists are content to develop one cohesive body of work, Abeyta continues to successfully spread his energy among the three aforementioned groups of pictures. As someone who lives with one of his landscapes, I’ve learned how looking at it on a daily basis eventually reveals its secrets. As Abeyta continues to deepen the mystery in his paintings, they’re sure to inspire his audience to search for greater truths.

Blue Rain Gallery’s Annual Celebration of Contemporary Native American Art takes place from August 14 to 18, with a reception for Tony Abeyta on Friday, August 16 from 5 to 8 pm.

Richard Polsky is the author of The Art Prophets. Richardpolsky.com