Larry Frank Collection: Devout Art

Exhibit Features Master Santeros€™ Exemplary Pieces

Date July 12, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Categories Local News & Sports


Larry Frank€™s galaxy of bultos, retablos, cristos and tinwork €” after a couple of years of controversy €” is ready for its public debut.

€œTreasures of Devotion/Tesoros de Devoción€ opens July 20 in the Palace of the Governors/New Mexico History Museum on the Santa Fe Plaza.

The exhibit encompasses 263 examples of Spanish Colonial artwork from the late Arroyo Hondo collector.

The state paid $3 million for the collection last year amid questions about the origins of some of the works. Critics in New Mexico€™s art community raised suspicions about the ownership history of the pieces and how Frank, who died in 2006, had acquired them.

There was even a political twist, as one activist suggested a connection between Gov. Bill Richardson€™s support for the purchase and a sizable contribution by Frank€™s widow to the governor€™s unsuccessful campaign for president. And some Museum of New Mexico officials warned that using state money to buy a private collection could dampen enthusiasm for donat- ing art to state museums.

But the purchase went forward after an independent appraiser valued the pieces at more than $5 million, calling Frank€™s collection €œstunning€ and €œthe last great collection of New Mexican santos in private hands.€ The appraisal also rejected the allegations about origins of the pieces, finding that their provenance was well-documented. Prominent santero and author Charlie Carillo called the purchase €œthe most important thing the state has done for my Hispanic heritage.€

Now, museum-goers can decide for themselves.

The exhibition opening next weekend includes pieces by well-known artists such as A.J. Santero, José Aragón and José Rafael Aragón, considered the grandmaster of santeros, as well as Jose Benito Ortega. Santos are images of saints. Bultos are three-dimensional figures. Retablos are two-dimensional santos painted on pine panels or animal skins.

Frank was drawn to religious sculpture while he was living in France after graduating from college. After moving to Los Angeles with his wife, Alyce, he visited New Mexico and grew fascinated by the state and its cultures. The family moved to Arroyo Hondo in 1962, where they bought an abandoned morada €” a private chapel -€” and converted it into their home (another aspect of Frank€™s history that, in some quarters, was controversial). Frank spent the next four decades building his collection.

New Mexico€™s earliest Hispanic residents found themselves isolated from the church, living in remote villages. The devout hungered for the traditions of their homeland to fill their spiritual needs.

Local santeros responded, evolving the art form from the Spanish baroque imagery popular in Mexico City into their own unique hybrid. These artists took the materials of their new home and adapted them to European traditions.

An original fusion

€œWe have a lot of early prints from books from the early 1800s and late 1700s that a lot of these pieces were based on,€ Josef Diaz, the museum€™s curator of Southwest and Mexican Colonial collections, said.

The books and oil paintings snaked up the Camino Real into New Mexico and into the hands of the santeros. The artists carved and painted their own pieces using pine, aspen and cottonwood roots and natural pigments similar to those already used by Americans Indians. The santeros also adapted the native practice of using tanned buckskin as a canvas. The result was an original fusion.

€œWe were an extension of Mexico, and the Franciscan friars started establishing the missions,€ Diaz continued. €œThey were trying to convert the local population, and there was a need to adorn churches.€

Santos, retablos and bultos functioned similarly to rosaries: Devout believers prayed to them.

Some pieces also served as items of personal devotion. A small traveling retablo of €œOur Lady of Sorrows€ by Pedro Frequis came with its own portable leather case. Dating from the late 1800s, the piece is rare because of the fragility of the leather, Diaz said.

José Aragón€™s €œOur Lady of Guadalupe€ from about 1830 still features much of its original natural pigment. Gold spray paint virtually smothered the bulto when Frank discovered it. His wife, Alyce, carefully removed the gold coating with acetone, Diaz said.

€œYou could tell it was a bulto underneath, so Mrs. Frank started removing it. It was like this protective covering.€

The collection also includes €œNuestra Señora de la Guadalupe,€ a hide painting, also by José Aragón.

€œIt€™s probably one of the prized pieces of the exhibit,€ Diaz added. €œThere€™s only a handful of museums that have hide paintings.€

Aragón ran a workshop with apprentices.

€œFrom what we understand, it was just down the street from the Cathedral (Basilica of St. Francis in Santa Fe),€ Diaz said. €œWe say €˜the workshop€™ because they€™re just not as fine as the master artisan.€

A painted cloth by Antonio Molleno features three faces of Christ. The cotton textile was most likely used in a church, Diaz said.

Mysterious santero

One of the earliest santeros of New Mexican descent, the Laguna santero created the main altar screen of the mission church at Laguna Pueblo during the early 1800s. The collection features a nicho with a rare buffalo hide backing and delicate scroll work.

The mysterious santero known only as A.J., from how he signed his work, created bultos and retablos. His interpretation of €œThe Visitation€ comprises one of the largest pieces in the collection, Diaz said. The piece depicts Zachary, the husband of Elizabeth, and Joseph, the husband of Mary. The pregnant Mary embraces Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist.

The piece, from around the 1820s, was valued at $85,000 in last year€™s appraisal.

€œWe don€™t know who he was,€ Diaz said of A.J. €œWe just have his initials. His work is just as fine as the others; he uses a lot of browns and some clearer reds. If you look at chipped carving €” it€™s a much more subtle version of that.€

Around the 1840s, Jose Manuel Benavides created his bulto of San Miguel, complete with scales and a sword. The scales weighed men€™s souls as they entered heaven.

€œThe scales represent the truth; the sword €“ he was also the slayer of a dragon,€ Diaz said. €œIt€™s a gorgeous piece with a lot of the original pigment. It€™s intricate, with this wonderful deep-carved hair.€

A cristo, also by Benavides , features an articulated (jointed) head with strings. The piece may have been used to illustrate stories on religious holidays.

Traditional santeros were respected figures in New Mexico society. They were expected to be exemplary citizens who were deeply committed to their faith. The sacred images they carved carried the divine power of the saint or figure portrayed.

The santero tradition remains vibrant in New Mexico today, with dozens of artists producing works based on centuries of cultural tradition and their own innovation.

If You Go

WHAT: €œTreasures of Devotion/ Tesoros de Devoción€
WHERE: Palace of the Governors/New Mexico History Museum, 105 W. Palace Ave.
WHEN: Opening reception 2-4 p.m. Sunday, July 20; museum hours 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Sunday.
COST: $6 New Mexico residents; $8 nonresidents. School groups free. Children 16 and under free. New Mexico seniors (60+) with ID free. Museum Foundation members free. Students with ID $1 discount.
CONTACT: 476-5100 or