2011 Catalog, William R. Talbot Fine Art, Antique Maps & Prints Home

2011 Catalog > 6. Ila McAfee. “Friend or Foe?”

6. Ila McAfee. “Friend or Foe?” c. 1950. Lithograph. Image: 17 3/4 x 13 1/4." Sheet: 20 3/4 x 17." Titled in pencil, l.l. Signed in pencil, l.r. Deep-bevel archival mat. Larson-Juhl frame finished in black lacquer over a red rub: 28 3/4 x 23 3/4." Excellent.


This dramatic lithograph by Taos artist Ila McAfee (1897–1995) shows three Indians high in the Sangre de Cristo mountains peering into the distance below where a tiny figure on horseback approaches them. McAfee’s title Friend or Foe? offers the hint of a narrative but provides no resolution to the question. We will never know the identity of the mysterious rider.

The narrative quality of this print and its compositional flatness suggest that it may have been a study for or a vignette from one of McAfee’s mural paintings, for which she frequently received commissions. Although the individual elements of the print—particularly the horses and their riders—are realistically drawn, the overall quality of the composition is abstract. McAfee stacks the elements vertically, repeating the pyramidal shapes of the mountain peaks until they form a net of triangles that hold the figures in place. The repetition of shapes is extended to the three horses in the image: both their positions and their colors are rhythmically alternated—left, right, left and black, white, black. This sophisticated abstract interplay of elements reflects the impact of modernism on McAfee’s work after she moved to Taos in the 1920s. Although McAfee would never be called a modernist per se, she nonetheless embarked on bold experiments with color and geometric form after being exposed to its ideas.

McAfee was born near Gunnison, Colorado, in 1897 and grew up on a ranch. From a very early age, she loved horses and began to draw them as soon as she could hold a pencil. She attended classes at the West Lake School of Art in Los Angeles and the Art Institute of Chicago where, writes Robert Parsons, “she studied and worked under the tutelage of Lorado Taft, a noted sculptor, and muralist James McBurney, whose assistant she eventually became. After some years she moved to New York City and attended the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design. While in New York McAfee also worked as an illustrator and painted portraits of horses for wealthy owners and breeders.”

Parsons continues: “It was during this period that she began receiving her first commissions for murals. But while McAfee must have found pleasure in these successes one imagines that the emotional pull of the west continued to exert a profound influence. While in Chicago McAfee had met and married fellow art student Elmer Turner, who also happened to be from Colorado. So when the pair decided where they wanted to pursue their artistic careers it was the west to which they returned, and found lifelong inspiration.” During a trip to California to complete a mural in Los Angeles, the couple stopped in Taos and became so enamored with the beauty of the valley that they moved there soon after. McAfee dedicated her career to capturing the special qualities of the Taos landscape, painting and making prints in that area for 65 years. In 1993, she moved to Pueblo, Colorado, where she died in 1995.

Writes Parsons: “By artistic synthesis McAfee laid claim in an exceptional way to the landscape she had known since childhood. She was distinctive and very much a Westerner. Her long, prolific career exemplifies the trajectory of American art at the time, which was one of moving toward self-discovery, confidence and the delineation of an American aesthetic that embraced American themes. Few accomplished this with more authenticity than Ila McAfee.” This is an exceptionally inventive lithograph by McAfee, well representing the work of a long-time member of the Taos Art Colony.

Refs.: Robert Parsons, “A Colorful Life: The Art of Ila McAfee,” Resource Library, www.tfaoi.com, December 4, 2006; Dean A. Porter et al., Taos Artists and Their Patrons, 1898–1950 (The Snite Museum of Art, 1999), pp. 133–134, 377.

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