EMIL JAMES BISTTRAM
"Penetration," c. 1938
oil on canvas, signed "Bisttram" lower right.
42 x 27 inches
Born in Hungary, in 1895, Emil Bisttram came to New York City at age 11. He received his artistic training in New York at the National Academy of Design, Cooper Union, and the Art Students League. After being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1932, Bisttram travelled to Mexico to work with Diego Rivera, after which he relocated to Taos, New Mexico where he opened the Bisttram School of Fine Art.
Like his New York contemporaries who were centered around Hilla Rebay and the Guggenheim, Bisttram sought a new art for a new world order, and he wrote of universalism and "the essential Oneness of all things" as replacing the mechanistic, dualistic concepts of the past.(1)
While Bisttram first went to Taos as a representational painter, portraying Native American dancers, portraits of natives and Mexicans, as well as depictions of local architecture, he soon began to experiment with non-objective forms in his paintings. He became heavily influenced by the work and philosophy of Russian born Wassily Kandinsky which is evident in the bright colors, and abstract forms that he began to employ.
In the current work “Penetration” Kandinsky’s influence is evident in the Bisttram’s careful placement of each geometrical shapes and lines. The piece, although created on a flat plane, has a remarkable sense of movement and color.
In 1938 Bisttram, along with Raymond Johnson and several other painters, founded the Transcendental Painting Group in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The aim of this group was to work to bring painting beyond the appearance of the physical world. Work of this type had begun in Europe at least two decades prior but was something new to America. Through his membership in the Transcendental Painting Group, Bisttram’s work came to the attention of Hilla Rebay, who included him in a number of group exhibitions at the Museum of Non-Objective Art, now the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Throughout his life in Taos, Bisttram was an active member and promoter of the growing artistic community in New Mexico. In 1975, his birthday, April 7, was declared "Emil Bisttram Day," a New Mexico state holiday. Bisttram is still recognized today as one of the most important modernists of the Southwest.
1. Emil Bisttram, "The New Vision in Art," Tomorrow 1, no.1 (September 1941): 35.