American contemporary artist John Nieto (1936-2018) focused on Western and Native American subject matter during his successful and illustrious career, which was jump-started by his grandmother, Maria Gonzales.
The story Nieto frequently told — and enjoyed telling — was that on the way home from a trip he and his grandmother took to watch a ceremonial dance on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in the early 1960s, his grandmother asked him to do her a favor. She turned to her grandson, who was about twenty-six at the time, and said, “Johnny, would you paint my people?”
It was a favor that would change his life. “It was what set me on painting Native American subject matter,” Nieto recalled. “I made it my business to be an authority on the Indian part of my heritage. In a serendipitous way, I was being told that color, my color, was really okay. In retrospect, it was what psychologists call a ‘peak moment,’ when the world is at peace, and you are at peace within it. It was like being born again.”
Nieto’s family history in New Mexico, which includes both Native and Hispanic roots, goes back more than 300 years. Born in Denver in 1936, Nieto grew up in several towns in Texas and New Mexico since his father, a Methodist minister, frequently moved around for his job. When Nieto headed off to Dallas to study at Southern Methodist University, he already knew that art would be his calling. After graduating in 1959, Nieto, like so many American artists throughout the twentieth century, decided he needed to travel to Europe to see the works of the great masters.
Nieto stopped in Paris, where he contemplated the direction of his career. While in the City of Light, he viewed the color-soaked works of Henri Matisse and André Derain, who were associated with the painters known as les Fauves (“the Wild Beasts”). Their works greatly appealed to Nieto and had a long-lasting impact on his oeuvre, which features portraits of people and animals created with saturated, vivid colors applied with bold brushwork.
During his career, Nieto had many supporters in the art community, but one of the most important was Seth Hopkins, the executive director and chief curator of the Booth Museum of Western Art in Georgia and one of the leading experts in contemporary Southwestern art. In 2008, Hopkins decided to mount a retrospective exhibition of Nieto’s work at the Booth Museum.
Hopkins drove to Nieto’s home, which at the time was in Dallas, to discuss the upcoming exhibition with the artist. Hopkins recalls that Nieto turned to him and asked him what he liked about the work. Hopkins quickly responded that he enjoyed Nieto’s linear techniques, which seemed effortless, and the way he could deconstruct his subjects and then bring the parts together in a way that made them seem like facets of a jewel.
Nieto, Hopkins says, was so pleased with his response that the short meeting they planned turned into a two-hour discussion of Nieto’s art, life and career.
“It was a pretty magical moment,” says Hopkins, “to be behind the scenes with someone like that who was ordinarily so reclusive. You just don’t get opportunities like that very often.” He adds, “But it exemplifies something I found very important about Nieto: He was known to keep to himself, but the moment someone engaged with his painting, he just lit up. And that enthusiasm for his work really has stuck with me since then. It’s that spirit of enthusiasm he put into his work. Matisse was his hero, and he embraced what Matisse was trying to do in his work as well.”
When it comes to Hopkins’ favorite works by Nieto, he chooses the fancy dancers. “They are so free-moving, you can almost hear the music in the background,” he says. “And they are filled with the color and Cubist angles that Nieto is so well known for. They really put you in that moment.”
Before the Booth Museum’s exhibition opened, Hopkins had the opportunity to sit down with Nieto and record his oral history. “The moment with his grandmother has been told many times, but it was a very important moment for him,” says Hopkins. “He was tremendously impacted by his grandmother and the stories she told. He felt a kinship with her and her people.”
In 2020, Santa Fe’s LewAllen Galleries put together an exhibition titled The Legacy Paintings, which featured paintings that Nieto set aside during his heyday in the 1980s and 1990s and intended to be shown after his death. Carefully curated and displayed, the exhibition presented these rarely seen paintings, ones considered by many to have been created at the pinnacle of Nieto’s career and among the artist’s finest works. Nieto himself thought they were some of his best paintings and put them away for decades. The LewAllen show, the first major exhibition of the artist’s work since his death in 2018, included paintings that represent all of Nieto’s subject matter: chiefs, braves, archers, artisans, wildlife, historical icons and, of course, fancy dancers.
For Nieto, art was not simply technical representation but a way to communicate feelings, emotions, values and color. The artist’s legacy is a body of work with vibrancy and power, whose strength is still apparent today, some sixty years after his grandmother asked him to paint her people.
John Nieto: An American Spirit Walk
John Nieto’s son, Anaya Nieto, and Reggie Thomas have written and directed John Nieto: An American Spirit Walk, a documentary chronicling the artist’s life and work. The film, which will be streamed, is slated for spring or summer release.
Anaya Nieto says his father’s story is a hero’s story, the story of a man who came from a large, poor family, but never conceded to obstacles or disappointment, and who ultimately became a renowned artist whose work was exhibited worldwide. Of his father, Anaya Nieto says, “He taught me to never give up and to be a good person. He taught me to be proud of where I come from.” His admiration for his father is deep, and deservedly so. He sums him up this way: “His light burned so brightly because of the darkness that he went through and the things he overcame.”
The documentary takes the form of a spirit walk that tells the story of John Nieto’s “journey between worlds.” Anaya Nieto explains that it is structured so that each of the four elements — earth, water, fire and wind — encompasses one part of his father’s life and artistic evolution. The filmmakers drew on interviews with the artist’s family, friends, teachers and collectors to reveal the story of the artist finding his voice.
“Earth,” the first segment, tells of the artist’s early life as one of twelve children born to a minister and his wife. It tracks his life into early adulthood, his commitment to doing the “favor” his grandmother asked of him and his subsequent formal education and travels.
“Water” focuses on his move to Santa Fe, where he embarks on his most productive years. Now an acclaimed artist at the pinnacle of his powers, he is toppled by a stroke, his talents seemingly gone.
In “Fire,” he instructs his family to give away his treasured brushes and paints. Once “empty,” though, he is transfigured, and “[f]illed with new strength, he rises like a phoenix from the ashes of the past. Back from another world, Nieto mines a rich new vein that defines his legacy.” Anaya Nieto says, “For almost two decades after his stroke, he produced some of his most mature and powerful art — masterworks that are a testament to his spirit.”
In “Wind,” the later and final stages of John Nieto’s life unfold. Says his son, “Content with his accomplishments, John Nieto finally stands before the great chief who will guide him to the spirit world, the place where all men must go. Life is a circle. Each ending is also a new beginning.”
Anticipated release on streaming devices in spring/summer 2021.
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Joshua Rose is currently a Senior Vice President at the Santa Fe Art Auction, responsible for Native Art and Fine Art. Previously, he spent the last 15 years as the editor of American Art Collector, Western Art Collector, Native American Art Magazine and American Fine Art Magazine. He currently resides in Santa Fe and Phoenix, Arizona.