Emil James Bisttram

American, 1895 - 1976
Emil James Bisttram
Born Hungary, 1895
Died New Mexico, 1976

Emil Bisttram grew up in the tenements of New York City after his family emigrated from Hungary when he was a young boy. Bisttram studied at Cooper Union, the National Academy of Design, and at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art. During his training, Emil studied under Ivan Olinsky, Leon Kroll, Howard Giles, and Jay Hambidge. Bisttram later taught at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, Parson's School of Design, and at the Master Institute of the Roerich Museum in New York.

Bisttram opened the nation's first freelance advertising art agency by the age of twenty-one. However, he soon abandoned the business in pursuit of a career in Fine Art.

In 1930, the artist made his first visit to Taos, New Mexico, where he reportedly found himself "blocked" by the open spaces, intense light, and color that define the region. In 1931, he traveled to Mexico where he studied mural painting with Diego Rivera on a Guggenheim Fellowship. While Emil was in Mexico, his wife lived in Taos where the couple established permanent residence upon his return.

In Taos, Bisttram opened the area's first commercial art gallery, the Heptagon Gallery. He also founded the avante-garde Taos School of Art, later known as the Bisttram School of Fine Art.

In 1934, Bisttram was among artists selected to paint murals for the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.). While commissioned by the W.P.A., Bisttram worked on murals in the County Courthouse in Taos and he completed a mural in the Justice Department Building in Washington, D.C.

Although he continued with representational painting, much of Bisttram's work in the late 1930's became increasingly abstract. Along with Raymond Jonson and seven other artists, Bisttram founded the Transcendental Painting Group in 1938. The group's goal was to "carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world." Exhibited: Philadelphia Watercolor Club, 1926 (prize), 1931 (medal); Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1926-28, 1933, 1941, 1954; American Watercolor Society, 1927 (prize), 1930 (prize), 1931 (prize); Art Institute of Chicago; Corcoran Gallery, 1932, 1935; Whitney Museum of American Art, 1951; Martin Diamond Fine Art, 1984.
Works held: Roerich Museum, New York; Albright Art Gallery; Taos County Courthouse; Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. (mural); United States Post Office, Ranger, Texas (mural).

Further Reading: Art in New Mexico, 1900-1945: Paths to Taos and Santa Fe, Charles C. Eldredge, Julie Schimmel & William H. Truettner, published by Abbeville Press, New York for the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1986.; The Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West, Peggy and Harold Samuels, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1976.; Modernist Themes in New Mexico: Works by Early Modernist Painters, Barbara G. Bell, Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1989.; Taos Artists and Their Patrons, 1898-1950, Dean A. Porter, Tessa Hayes Ebie and Suzan Campbell, Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, 1999.; Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975: 400 Years of Artists in America, Vol. 1. Peter Hastings Falk, Georgia Kuchen and Veronica Roessler, eds., Sound View Press, Madison, Connecticut, 1999. 3 Vols.

Biography courtesy of David Cook Galleries, www.antiquesandfineart.com/davidcook
A leader in the development of modern art in America, Emil Bisttram pioneered its introduction in the Southwest, moving from New York to Taos, New Mexico, in 1931. Before this date, the Hungarian-born artist was exposed to advanced painting and art theory through several sources. These included a close association with the Russian emigrant Nicholas Roerich, whose exploration of the relationship between art and the occult contributed to the evolution of abstraction in this country. Roerich's ideas paralleled those of his famous compatriot Wassily Kandinsky, whose art and writing also influenced Bisttram.

Bisttram opened his Taos School of Art (also called the Bisttram School of Fine Arts) in 1938. In 1938, along with Raymond Jonson, he founded the Transcendentalist Painting Group, whose members sought to convey the "cosmic" and "universal" by means of a nonobjective aesthetic. Yet despite his commitment to non-objective painting, Bisttram continued to employ a range of styles throughout his career. In addition to his hard-edged, geometric abstractions, he explored Cubism, Expressionism, and representational realism.

Biography courtesy of Roughton Galleries, www.antiquesandfineart.com/roughton
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