While in Berlin between 1923 and 1924, Marsden Hartley painted a powerful series of works that recall his sojourn of several years before in the American Southwest. New Mexico Landscape is one of these twenty-five works collectively referred to as The New Mexico Recollections, in which the artist simplified his compositions to capture a dreamlike impression of the place. "In contradistinction to the earlier New Mexico works executed either in situ or while in New York, these paintings exude a brute force and dramatic vigor heretofore not encountered in Hartley's artistic vocabulary." (J. Hokin, Pinnacles and Pyramids: The Art of Marsden Hartley, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1993, p. 48)
Hartley first arrived in New Mexico in June of 1918. Although Taos and Santa Fe were meccas for avant-garde artists and writers, it was from the surrounding environs that he instantly drew inspiration, "He immediately became entranced by the landscape, its colors, the clarity of the light." (T. Ludington, Seeking the Spiritual: The Paintings of Marsden Hartley, exhibition catalogue, Ithaca, New York, 1998, p. 38) Hartley first approached the landscape with pastels, making numerous sketches, before moving on to oil. He regarded the landscape as sacred and mysterious writing that, "any one of these beautiful arroyos and canyons is a living example of the splendour of the ages...and I am bewitched with their magnificence and their austerity; as for the colour, it is of course the only place in America where true colour exists, excepting the short autumnal season in New England." (as quoted in B. Haskell, Marsden Hartley, New York, 1980, p. 58) Despite his prolific production in New Mexico, Hartley did not feel that he had truly captured the essence of the place and subsequently revisited the subject while in New York in 1920. It was not, however, until almost three years later in Berlin that he was able to reconcile his relationship with the American Southwest.
On May 17, 1921 Hartley sold 117 paintings through the Anderson Galleries to fund a return trip to Europe. Forced to leave his beloved Germany in December 1915 due to pressures from the war, Hartley felt unsettled in his native country and had been yearning to return ever since. "Although he had not, in fact, had any financial success whatsoever in Europe, Hartley always associated Paris, and especially Berlin, with a general artistic acceptance and a period of emotional well being." (Pinnacles and Pyramids: The Art of Marsden Hartley, p. 46) The auction proved successful earning him almost $4,000 and he left for Berlin shortly thereafter.
After 18 months in Berlin, however, Hartley felt that he had exhausted the available metropolitan subject matter and began to seek a more rural setting. He hoped to dispell his urban ennui with a return to landscape and the solace that his immersion in it provided. While considering trips to the French and Italian countryside, Hartley told Alfred Steiglitz that he "revisited his memories of the vast New Mexican landscape in preparations for his pending change of scenery." (K. Wilson in E.M. Kornhauser, ed., Marsden Hartley, New Haven, Connecticut, 2002, p. 302)
The resulting works, which include New Mexico Landscape, are simplified, abstracted compositions. As noted by Jeanne Hokin, "With a simplistic, almost abstract idiom, he eliminated all extraneous detail and reduced the New Mexico landscape to elemental, inchoate forms to convey the 'natural wave rhythms' of the primordial landscape of the American West." (Pinnacles and Pyramids: The Art of Marsden Hartley, p. 48) Other art historians have likewise amplified the uniqueness of these works. The palette and execution of the "recollections" differ greatly from those that Hartley painted in the Southwest and subsequently in New York, which "depict a dense, well-sculpted landscape of sunbleached orange and green under a vibrant blue sky." (Marsden Hartley, 2002, p. 303)
While the original New Mexico landscapes are welcoming celebrations of the place, the later works are often denser and more powerful realizations. New Mexico Landscape is a powerful composition that depicts a stark, primordial landscape with flesh toned, undulating mounds thickly outlined to suggest volume and sculptural presence. Hartley has compressed the pictorial space and abstracted the elements using thick swathes of green to indicate desert sage and sculptural cloud forms in the sky that echo those of the mountains. This creates a composition that is at once ominous and oppressive and filled with a pervasive loneliness. Hartley further emphasizes the windswept desolation of the place with thinly applied, horizontal brushstrokes. These strokes are virile and expressive, the embodiment of an anguished intellect. "Transformed by both memory and imagination, these expressionist 'landscape inventions' clearly reflect Hartley's own emotional dissonance as he recalled the powerful grandeur and magnificence of the American West." (Pinnacles and Pyramids: The Art of Marsden Hartley, pp. 49-50)
These dreamlike New Mexico Recollections proved to be cathartic for Hartley, who wrote to Steiglitz that, "I have calmed down generally in composition & general effects--I think you'll like the 'simplicity' of the new work--and a certain coming toward repose & thank heaven at least no intervention of private states of personal existence. I think they are for the first time in my life--almost without me in them." (Marsden Hartley, 2002, p. 304)