A Towering Spirit

Desert Companion

A new museum finally gives Rita Deanin Abbey her due as a visionary Nevada artist and tireless interpreter of the desert


The boggling variety, the dramatic productivity, the cornucopian muchness — that’s the first thing that hits you about the late Rita Deanin Abbey as you move through the new Rita Deanin Abbey Museum: As an artist, she contained multitudes. There’s a lot going on here. In the facility’s 12 galleries you encounter paintings in more distinct modes than you can keep track of, as well as sculptures in half-a-dozen more, as well as an expansive selection of drawings, assemblages, prints, enamels, pounded metal, cast bronze, carved wood, cut Plexiglass, poured resin. Then there are the massive black steel sculptures outside. Unless you’re familiar with Abbey — and odds are you’re not — it might not be easy to collate it all around a legible aesthetic throughline. But trying to do just that is what makes the museum experience fun.

Abbey, who died last year at age 90, was “the most important unknown artist in Southern Nevada,” as arts scene observer Patrick Gaffey said in her Review-Journal obit. If you’ve been to the Summerlin Library, you might’ve seen “Spirit Tower,” her large metalwork guarding the entrance; members of Temple Beth Sholom have long congregated in the light of her 16 extraordinary stained glass windows there. But otherwise, as Gaffey, noted, “she kind of intentionally stayed out of the limelight.” “My energies,” Abbey once said, “have always gone into making art rather than promoting it.”

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So that’s what the museum is here to do. I spent a recent morning wandering its 10,500 perfectly lighted, marble-floored square feet with museum director Laura Sanders, trying to get a bead on Abbey and her work. I knew the barest few biographical details: Professionally, she kept the Abbey surname of her first husband, noted environmental author and desert crank Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire, The Monkey Wrench Gang); early on, she was the only woman on UNLV’s art faculty, teaching until 1987; and that she worked constantly.

“She worked in every medium you can think of,” Sanders says. The 175 works on display are just a portion of what’s on hand — Abbey kept way more art than she sold — and the exhibits will be freshened from time to time.

Our first stop is a room largely devoted to pieces that front Abbey’s deep connection to the desert. One wall is dominated by the 10-by-30-foot painting “Bridge Mountain,” which once hung in UNLV’s Judy Bayley Theatre. Its desert associations emanate from its sere yellows, its nightfall blue, its touch of red, and from the abstracted geology implicit in its forms; it feels desert-like in a way entirely in sync with the intuitive, rather than theory-driven, way that Abbey worked. (Making no preliminary drawings, she just barged into a piece to see what happened.) She often created in series, and some of the pieces in this gallery are from a set titled From Desert to Bible Vistas: gestural abstracts that tint her love of nature with her enduring interest in Jewish spirituality. Nearby hang a set of “crushed landscapes,” rectangles of crumpled dark metal. It’s only when you look at them as if looking down at them that it clicks — they’re abstracted aerial topographies. “If you fly over Nevada or the desert Southwest,” Sanders says, “you’ll see this.” Indeed, the saturating importance of place is the second thing that hits you.

“Nature has had the greatest influence on my work,” Abbey said in 2003. “I have explored desert landscapes and have been deeply affected by rock formations, vistas, sunsets, plant and wild life, rivers, the colors and textures of canyons. These places communicate and resonate with my own nature.” One of her six books was Art and Geology: Expressive Aspects of the Desert (co-authored with scientist G. William Fiero), which paired her artworks with photos of geological features in a harmonic convergence of shared forms.

“Land is not simply a subject for Abbey, but a major fact of her life that she examines daily,” William L. Fox wrote in his 1999 book Mapping the Empty: Eight Artists and Nevada. Its chapter on Abbey is a solid introduction to her work and methods.

By the time we move through a couple more galleries, I’ve also noticed what’s not on display. You will search these walls in vain for encrypted political messaging; there are no socially urgent -isms, no “interrogations,” “critiques,” or “interventions.” Thanks to Abbey’s self-imposed distance from the art world, her work opts out of our screen-optimized culture which so often — subtweeting Jeff Koons/Damien Hirst here — mistakes novelty for distinction. As with a deep-cave fish, her work has evolved in its own way, untainted by the market hustle. And her aversion to hyping what she made means that most of it, of whatever vintage, will be brand new to the rest of us.

*****

The museum itself is as much outside the mainstream as its subject. It’s not located Downtown or in a tony Summerlin commercial district — it’s not in any commercial district. Rather, somewhat improbably, it sits next to the home she shared with her husband, Robert Rock Belliveau, on a large, sculpture-dotted parcel in a rural neighborhood off of Ann Road, one clearly not overseen by a heavy-handed HOA. Visitors began trickling into its nine-space parking lot in January, by appointment only, though Sanders says the museum is pursuing a zoning adjustment that would allow people to visit more freely.

Officially the culmination of 10 years of effort by Abbey, Belliveau, and the family foundation, the museum as an idea goes back as far as the early 2000s, according to Katherine Plake Hough, former chief curator at the Palm Springs Art Museum, a longtime friend of Abbey’s, and co-curator — with the hands-on, perfectionist Abbey herself, of course — of the exhibits inside. (Indeed, she says, Abbey was involved in every aspect of the place, from the architecture to the grounds.)

The two met when Hough curated a 1988 Abbey retrospective in Palm Springs — Abbey wasn’t wholly opposed to putting her work out there, of course, and over time participated in many group shows and 50 solo exhibits — and they became friends.

Sanders, too, had a long history with Abbey, serving as her archivist from 1990-2006. “I feel like I got a master’s degree in abstract art,” she says with a laugh. This brings to mind a story from artist Michael McCollum, who joined the UNLV art staff in 1969, fresh from the MFA program at the University of California, Berkeley. Knowing he needed to brush up on color theory, he sat in on one of her classes. “I learned so much and got so excited by it,” he recalls, “I asked if I could take her class. It changed my life.” In part, he says, that was because of her skill at interacting with students; don’t take her preference for solitary time in the studio to mean she had no people skills. “She was absolutely approachable,” McCollum says. Formidable, too, Fox adds: “I knew if we were going to have a conversation, we were going to have a serious conversation.”

She was in some ways a path-breaker, for a while the lone female on UNLV’s art faculty. “And then,” Fox notes, “she picks up a welding torch.” Steel sculptures of such brute physicality (“Hidden Pass,” right, for example, weighs 22 tons), especially given Abbey’s small stature, must’ve been somewhat incongruous at a time when large-scale metalworks were mostly a guy thing. (Fox writes that she had to assemble her pieces in the school’s engineering workshops, the art department not being set up for such work.) She didn’t make a big deal of it, though, or sublimate feminist point-making into her art.

“Rita spoke about it with me,” says Fox, now director of The Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art. “She was very aware of it, but didn’t talk about it a lot; she didn’t want to create more obstacles for herself.”

Says Sanders, “She just wanted to get on to the next exploration.”

*****

The museum contains separate galleries devoted to Abbey’s early landscape abstractions, to works that center her Jewish heritage (including her original stained glass windows for Temple Beth Sholom), to figure drawings, to her late work — large organic abstracts that revel in bold lines and an exuberant precision — and much more. But not nearly all.

“We weren’t able to represent every series she’s ever done,” Hough says. The two spent 2017-2020 editing Abbey’s vast trove toward a usable selection. “I tried to get her to pick her favorites, on a scale of 1-10. Give me your eights, nines, and 10s.” Hough laughs. “To her, all of them were nines or 10s; she didn’t have any specific favorites.” Hough made the final cut herself.

Built into the museum’s flow are moments of bracing juxtaposition: As you leave the dim gallery devoted to The Black Series — works that, in a nod to volcanic geology, completely eschew color — it’s a trippy vibe shift to encounter “Celebration,” a pop-bright assemblage of cut Plexiglass that looks like the cover of the grooviest album the Grateful Dead never recorded.

McCollum proclaims himself a fan of her early landscape abstractions, and the room devoted to them is compelling. “Taos Mountain,” for example, oscillates between visually suggesting an actual New Mexico landscape and capturing an emotional response to it. Part of your enjoyment as a viewer comes from your brain’s disorientation as it works out the dissonance between those visual and limbic responses.

Or, as Hough puts it, “She doesn’t paint the river. She paints what it feels like to be in the river.”

But then the museum serves up oddball moments like “Centaurus,” a life-size bronze humanoid figure, roped with strange musculature and wearing a horse skull (“I get to dust him,” Sanders says with a smile). It’s not easy to square the big fella with, say, the pensive acrylic washes of “Gathering” (from her Desert Space series) or the frantic jabbing oils of “Summer Lightning” (from the Arches National Monument series) or even to link those with the formal gravitas of the big steel “Holocaust” (right) in the sculpture garden. What, finally, are you to make of all this variousness?

Let’s let Abbey field that one:

“I strive to discover these forces through deeply felt distinctive images rather than consistency of style,” she’s quoted as saying on one of the many wall cards that bring her voice into these galleries. “My love of color, texture, and form, my curiosities, intuition, observations, and need for discovery keeps me from repeating what no longer seems challenging.”

From some angles, the Rita Deanin Abbey Museum probably looks like a beautifully realized vanity project, conceived by the artist and completed by her family in loving homage to its matriarch. I ask Hough what she thinks gives it a wider import than that.

Her answer: It’s the reintroduction of a serious, one-of-a-kind artist who spent so many productive years off the grid. “She hasn’t really been discovered. The museum showcases an artist whose body of work is unbelievably creative, distinct, and imaginative. It’s not derived from anyone else’s work. And this will be discovered.”

In addition to serving as the legacy of one creative life, her art — with its full embrace of nature, its fluid adaptability, its multichannel curiosity, its restless creativity, its insistence on doing everything her way — furthermore proposes an enviable way of being in the world, whether you’re artist or not. That, for what it’s worth, is my takeaway.

Our tour ends with a peek into Abbey’s studio, maintained largely as she left it; I don’t know if its sense of bustling Abbeyian productivity is something they’ve actually managed to preserve, or if that’s just the impression I lug in from the galleries. But it’s not a stretch to imagine her strolling in, removing her signature sunglasses, and picking up a paintbrush — or a clay-sculpting wire, or a hammer, or a carving knife, or a welding torch — and getting to work on something new. Φ


Rita Deanin Abbey Museum, 5850 N. Park St., ritadeaninabbeymuseum.org
To arrange a visit: 702-658-5097 or 702-600-0838

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