When Walter Ufer arrived in Taos in 1914, fresh from his studies in Germany, he brought with him a European manner of painting and an active social conscience. With these tools he fashioned an art that was rooted in tradition and nurtured by an extraordinary physical and artistic climate. From this combination of factors flowed an energetic personal style which was firmly descriptive, yet by its scale and dramatic scope brought the viewer into a direct confrontation with the subject.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1876, Ufer was encouraged by his father from a young age to develop his drawing talents and was apprenticed to a commercial lithographer following grammar school. A former employee of that firm subsequently invited Ufer to come to Germany to join a firm of lithographers there, and Walter traveled to Hamburg in 1893. He remained there for a year before settling in Dresden where he studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Ufer would return to Europe frequently over the next several years but set up a more permanent residence in Chicago in 1900 where he was an instructor at the J. Francis Smith School and later was employed by the advertising department of Armour & Co. During this time Ufer was commissioned to paint many portraits of prominent members of Chicago society, including Mayor Carter H. Harrison, who would become Ufer's chief patron. It was Harrison who encouraged the artist to go to New Mexico to paint.
"Ufer was a mature, disciplined painter by the time he arrived in New Mexico. The new environment wrought one almost immediate change in his style: the extraordinary, much-celebrated light had a revolutionary effect on his dark Munich-derived palette. Munich in its classic phase had stood for rich, somber tones that harked back to Courbet and before him to the Spanish and Dutch masters...most of Ufer's pre-Southwest portraits are muted and restrained in their coloration. Ufer's very first works in New Mexico, created in the summer of 1914 convey a sense of excited discovery in their use of bright greens, purples, blues and reds, and a sensuous enjoyment of the almost violent Southwestern contrasts of sunlight and shade which became a lasting characteristic of his work." (S.L. Good in Pioneer Artists of Taos, Denver, Colorado, 1983, pp. 127-28)
Ufer, in his struggle to find a compelling personal style while respecting the academic tradition, found a sympathetic subject in the Taos Indian gravely pursuing his chores. Whether engaged in time-honored activities like farming or in the new jobs of house servant or assistant to the auto mechanic, his figures move through the landscape at a measured pace, sharing the inevitability and authority of the surrounding environment. Behind the matter-of-fact quality of Ufer's canvases, such as Callers (circa 1926, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., fig. 1) and Making Ready, lies a passionate commitment to both the Indian cause and the cause of American artistic independence and contemporary aesthetic theories.
At his best, Ufer is a modern painter, and there are ready reminders of the lessons of Manet and Cézanne in his emphasis on the picture surface which unites the discontinuous and separately observed details of the visual world into a cohesive image. In describing his working method, Ufer noted: "I choose my motifs and take my models to my motifs. I design the painting there. I do not make any small sketches of my models first (the traditional academic approach) but put my full vitality and enthusiasm into the one and original painting." (as quoted in P.J. Broder, Taos: A Painter's Dream, New York, 1980, p. 225)
Making Ready tells of an intensely felt and closely observed world. Ufer reveals this intensity through the vigor of his brushstroke, the saturation of color and the rejection of easily decorative effects. The composition is pared down to minimal planes of light and shadow, with broad areas composed in animated washes of color that saturate the canvas with luminosity and texture. Ufer's fluid curvilinear draftsmanship unites the scene and stimulates the eye with a constant current of energy in an otherwise static snapshot of everyday life. Ufer understood the importance and interest in paint surface and the picture plane that derived from exposure to the 1913 Armory Show. He had, in effect, one foot in the nineteenth century and one foot in the twentieth.
Adamant about working en plein air, Ufer was known to have said that "studio work dulls the mind and the artist's palette." (El Palacio 8, Nos, 7-8: 235, July 1920, as quoted in Pioneer Artists of Taos, p. 151) In addition to his adept use of light, Ufer has conscientiously detailed the figures and setting, paying careful attention to the natural everyday dress and appearance of the Taos Indians in their environment. Sensitively aware of how his predecessors had rendered similar scenes, Ufer felt he was in a unique position to capture an authentic contemporary glimpse of an evolving life of the Taos Indian. In so doing, he reveals a drama in the ordinary and creates a monumental composition from the seemingly mundane. Ufer commented, "I paint the Indian as he is. In the garden digging--in the field working--riding amongst the sage--meeting his woman in the desert--angling for trout--in meditation...the Indian is not a fantastic figure...He resents being regarded as a curiosity." (as quoted in Pioneer Artists of Taos, pp. 128-29)
Ufer has rendered the present work with a mastery of light and accuracy that both plays tribute to the customs of his American Indian subjects and expresses a reverence for the land where that artist and subject both live. The distinctly southwestern desert light that pervades the scene lends a sense of overall calm. Ufer has skillfully highlighted the contours of each figure with fluid strokes of light and color and thoughtfully rendered the long shadows of the horses and the adobe wall to lend immediacy to the narrative. Walter Ufer was a modern painter in a realist mode. Those qualities of modernity and realism have characterized much of the best of American painting from Homer to Hopper. The 1923 Corcoran Gallery exhibition introduction commented: "It is important to the country that this work be produced and seen. It is more important that America has again produced an artist."