It was a circle of artists who, true to the times, allowed women to sit in on lively discussions but did not welcome female opinions or consider them artistic peers. The shadow of a male-dominated art world in the mid-20th century hung over Bea in Taos as well. But in the spirit of other strong female artists who found their voices in New Mexico — Maria Martínez, Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Martin and Florence Miller Pierce among them — she flourished. In 1935, during the height of the Depression, Bea was hired by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a muralist and then a printmaker in New York. Her art from this period reflects an interest in progressive social and political causes that stayed with her throughout her life, but which primarily remained under the surface except in a series of anti-war-themed collages she created in the 1960s during the Vietnam War. She worked for the WPA until it disbanded in 1942, the year she married painter Louis Ribak. By then her art had been part of important exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
In the 1950s the long arm of McCarthyism reached into another area of their life when an FBI informant attended the Taos Valley Art School, founded and run by Louie and Bea. The school was subsequently forced to close after losing its GI Bill funding, through which many artists studied after World War II. The informant would become notorious for providing false information to the House Un-American Activities Committee and eventually was convicted and jailed. Alexandra Benjamin, executive director of the Mandelman-Ribak Foundation in Taos, believes the FBI experience “left Bea fearful. She didn’t know what trouble could come of talking about it, so she didn’t.”
When Bea and Louie arrived in Taos, Thomas Benrimo and Emil Bisttram (a part-time resident) were among the only local artists working in Modernism, and no Taos galleries were showing Modern art. The Taos Valley Art School became a significant factor in changing that. Along with the town’s low cost of living and its geographic location as a stopping point on the way to Mexico, the school attracted a convergence of New York and San Francisco Bay area artists ready to step out of the mainstream art milieu.
“Outside of New York and San Francisco in the early 1950s, there was probably more interesting Modern art going on in Taos than anywhere else in the country,” notes Witt. These artists did not abandon their urban core, but reworked it aesthetically in response to the stimulating new forces they experienced in New Mexico. Bea’s later impact on younger artists “was not stylistic, but more personal,” observes Joseph Traugott, curator of 20th-century art at the New Mexico Museum of Art. “They didn’t mimic her style but were influenced by her drive, passion and energy.” That passion contained “kaleidoscopic enthusiasms and vaulting international ambitions,” in the words of art critic MaLin Wilson-Powell. It helped produce a prolific body of work over the decades, including paintings, collages and prints.
Surprisingly comfortable in relatively primitive settings, Bea soaked up Spanish-speaking culture in Taos and Mexico. Beginning in 1948, she and Louie spent virtually every winter south of the border escaping the high-altitude, northern New Mexico cold. (Once in the 1940s, Bea and English-born artist Stella Snead hitchhiked from Taos to Mexico.) In 1948 Bea lived in Paris for a year to study with French Modernist Fernand Léger, where she became friends with painter Francis Picabia.
“She realized that all along she really had what she wanted: She had the life of a painter. All she wanted to do was paint,” Benjamin relates. “It was a very complete life. There were a lot of waves along the way, but she ended up on the shore where she wanted to be.” (westernartandarchitecture.com)