Cliff Franklin Harmon (26 June 1923 – 29 August 2018), was raised in the atmosphere of the art world of Southern California. His father, Artemis Henry Harmon, after being a train brakeman in Maine, moved to Los Angeles and started the Harmon Stationary and Art Supply stores, first in Hollywood where Cliff and his younger brother were born and later in Santa Monica. Many members of the art world came to the Harmon’s store to purchase their art supplies and Cliff grew up helping to prepare stretched canvases and present the various products. The family’s closest friend and mentor to Cliff was Lawton Parker who had lived in France during the Belle Époque. Along with Frederick Frieseke and Theodore Robinson, Lawton lived near and did plein air painting with Monet, and took active part in the art world of Paris during those days.
When he turned 18, the U.S. had already joined the Allies in WWII. Cliff volunteered to join the U.S. Coast Guard and enjoyed telling the story that he just make the minimum weight limit after eating many bananas for days prior to enlisting. He did shore patrol his first year walking up and down the Orange County beaches in California. He then went to San Diego to train as a Sonarman. He served on several ships finishing as a SOG Third Class on the anti-submarine Patrol Frigate, U.S.S. Casper. His experiences formed the foundation of his world view; later in life joining “Veterans for Peace” and several nature conservation organizations.
Right after the war, Harmon began his studies at The Bisttram School of Fine Arts in Los Angeles and summer school in Taos, New Mexico. He settled in Taos in 1948 with his bride Barbara Sayre, also a student at Bisttram’s, daughter of the imminent California desert painter Fred Grayson Sayre.
They began building their adobe home and studios, from which he worked until his final days. Cliff continued his eclectic studies with Louis Ribak in Taos. In the winter of 1949 and 1950, he and Barbara went to Black Mountain College in North Carolina to explore the Bauhaus art design precepts of Walter Gropius, Paul Klee, and Joseph Albers by studying there with Joe Fiore.
His first acceptance in a juried show was at the Second Southwest Exhibition of Prints at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts in 1952. Since then, he has entered and won prizes for many years, in juried exhibits, such as, the New Mexico Museum of Fine Art, the Joslyn Museum of Art, the Oklahoma Art Center, and the Phoenix Art Museum et cetera. In 1951, he was invited to show with the La Fonda Gallery Artist Group, which included most of the surviving members of the Taos Founders, the original artists who discovered Taos for the art world. The gallery had been expanded to include the modern and new traditional painters who arrived in the 1930s and 1940s including Emil Bisttram, Ward Lockwood, Andrew Dasburg, Robert Ellis, and Leon Gaspard. Harmon was elected a permanent member in 1952.
During this early period he also learned fine cabinet making and hand crafted a household full of sculptured furniture still in use today. In the mid 1950’s, having a family, and his wife needing to take care of her Aunts, he moved with them to Southern California and parlayed the woodworking skills into jobs at companies such as Douglas Aircraft, ESCO and Rocketdyne, making wind tunnel test models to one thousandth of an inch accuracy that were used to test the flight characteristics of new aircraft designs – this was in the days before computer simulations. He also created prototype models for movies, most notably The Great Race, a fanciful adventure hit later released in 1965. The actor Tony Curtis rolled Cliff’s prototype car down the table in the movie and is said to have acquired it as a condition for playing his part in the movie. During this period, Cliff and his wife were also active in the Los Angeles and Glendale, California Art Associations. The summer of 1962 found them back in Taos to stay.
They were both elected as exhibiting members of the original Taos Artist’s Association in 1962 where they continued to exhibit for 18 years. For the Bertrand Russell Centenary Celebration held in London, Cliff was chosen to represent the state of New Mexico.
Harmon opened the Torreon Gallery, which had a number of locations over the years: first on Bent Street, then in a pitched cedar-shake roofed building in Placitas that Harmon built, then in Wengert Patio on Kit Carson Road, and finally out of his home studio in recent years. He was represented in many other Taos galleries over the years including the Taos Art Association (TAA) Stables Gallery, Total Arts, the Hulse/Warman, 203 and many others.
Harmon explored many styles of art during his lifetime. Early works are geometric oil abstracts featuring subtle color transitions now known as optical illusions, but which were revolutionary at the time. In oil and other mediums: charcoal, watercolor, pencil and ink, he also created impressionistic landscapes and skyscapes, some including famous Taos landmarks. Later, after returning to Taos in 1962, as a Western history buff, he did numerous exquisite realistic depictions of narrow-gauge Railway trains, as would have been seen in the West and Rocky Mountains.
Harmon’s painting is generally based on the color theories promulgated by Joseph Albers including the concept of color change as demonstrated in Albers’ series, “Homage to the Square.” There is also the visual phenomenon when two colors of opposite hue, but of the same value or chroma are adjacent. Visual effects can appear, such as an illusory black or white phantom line that seems to separate the two colors. Another visual effect that Harmon discovered on his own came from his use of flat areas of color, sans shading or chiaroscuro. When two or more slightly different values of a color are side by side, a modeling from lighter to darker seems to the eye to take place. His personal technique of flat areas of color of different hues placed side by side visually appear as if modeled. These effects have in recent decades been well documented in books about “optical illusions”; their use at the time in the mid-20th century was revolutionary.
An early adopter of the acrylic medium, he created his most popular series, Earth Forms, abstract “horizon” landscapes numbering over 670 pieces. His use of color evolved in this series from bold to subtle and back. His work depicts in an abstract form, the long vistas of the warm desert hues of the Southwest, contrasting with the cool hues and greens along llano and laguna. In this series, serene coloring and luminosity display the sense of tranquility in the landscape that has been his characteristic way. In all his paintings, he used a steady hand rather than using tape to block off sections and layers.
Harmon’s work has evolved into using more saturate colors, and greater dramatic contrasts in the flat areas of color while still using the principles defined above. In parallel in later years, and following a similar style, he created the Three Graces series of abstract figurative pieces. In 1987, after a journey to Thailand, Bali, and Java which he had wanted to make since high school, he was inspired to paint a series based on the Hindu “Gupta” style. This includes, The Apsaris, or tree spirits, consorts of the gods, and dancing girls of Buddha before his enlightenment. These are depicted in the bas reliefs’ of Buddha’s life on the Stupa at Borobudur in Java. In his final years, he returned to doing several charcoal mountain drawings and geometric forms creating abstract representations of mountains, working up to his last days.
Harmon’s art is represented in several thousand private collections as well as in the permanent Governor’s Collection at the New Mexico State Capitol building, the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. The Harwood Museum of Art, Taos Museum of Art and Fechin House, the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, the Oklahoma Art Center, as well as the Ashville Art Museum and the Black Mountain College Museum, the latter two in North Carolina.
In 2011, the Taos Historic Museums held a retrospective exhibition of his work at the E.L. Blumenschein house and Museum, entitled, “Cliff Harmon, 65 Years of Painting in Taos.” Simultaneously, another retrospective of his past and present work was held at the Hulse/Warman Gallery also in Taos. He has received the first of the Charles Strong Lifetime Achievement Awards bestowed at the Taos Fall Arts Festival in 2013. He and his wife were recognized in July of 2015 at the 100th anniversary of the formation of Taos Society of Artists in which a reminiscence he wrote in 1994 about the Founders was also read. In August and September of 2017 he and his wife had a retrospective, “Selections: Seventy Years of Painting in Taos” in Studio 238 at the Harwood Museum of Art. This would prove to be his final living retrospective as he passed away as the last Taos Modern at high noon surrounded by family in his Taos home 29 August 2018. He is survived by his wife, son, grandson and many nephews and nieces.