At some point during his illustrious career, the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler began classifying his works with music terminology. Some pieces became known as "arrangements," others became "harmonies," but the term that has perhaps had the most enduring impact on the visual arts has been "nocturne."

Countless artists after Whistler have borrowed the classification. Think
twilight paintings and imagery cast in darkness, a stripped-down palette meant to convey absence of light. It's an evocative time of day for artists to capture, and one that is at turns haunting or unexpected—painting, after all, is more generally concerned with the quality of the light. Why, then, do nocturnes and their focus on the lack thereof enjoy such a noteworthy position in the pantheon of artistry?

A pair of current exhibits at the New Mexico Museum of Art might help answer that.

"The Southwest is so often stereotyped as being this place all about light," the museum's curator of 20th century art, Christian Waguespack, tells SFR. "But we've got this particular kind of darkness. Being in a city where you can see the stars is a big deal, and I found myself paying attention [to nocturnes] when I came across some in the museum's collection—we actually have a fantastic survey of this work."

Waguespack's contribution comes in the form of Wait Until Dark, a scintillating gathering culled from the museum's collection that shows alongside the photographic exhibit Shots in the Dark, curated by Katherine Ware. In Waguespack's show, one finds anything from the New Mexico famous like Will Shuster and Gene Kloss to unexpected woodcuts by Gustave Baumann. Rarely seen Georgia O'Keeffe nighttime studies of Lake George hang alongside more recent pieces by Fritz Scholder or Bobbe Besold; a post-impressionist seascape by Hayley Lever launches a thousand impressions with its borderline ghostly portrayal of distant light dancing on the waves. And we've only just scratched the surface of what's on display.

“Untitled (Red Tree and Adobe House)” by Victor Higgins.
“Untitled (Red Tree and Adobe House)” by Victor Higgins. | Courtesy NEw Mexico Museum of Art

Thematically, many pieces touch upon the ritualistic, with flickering flames casting shadows from mysterious figures or throngs descending upon a pueblo. It seems there is a certain inescapable darkness of mood associated with such nocturnes, and a feeling of emptiness pervades much of the exhibit. This is almost certainly the point, however: mood and challenge.

"Painting in the dark is a really difficult thing to do," Waguespack explains. "If you think about it, we're daytime animals. The dark changes our senses, how we feel—we've been conditioned to think of it like a mystery."

Waguespack hopes to further explore these concepts with a talk this week, "Nocturnes in Art." He says he's still putting together the finishing touches, but in broad strokes he'll begin somewhere around the cave paintings of Lascaux—Waguespack says the painters of Lascaux were deliberately searching out the darkness of a cave—then wind through Rembrandt's darker period, make a stop with Goya and the implications of encroaching blindness and visual impairments for artists (what's up, O'Keeffe?) and talk about the genesis of the term "nocturne."

“October Night” by Gustave Baumann.
“October Night” by Gustave Baumann. | Courtesy New Mexico Museum of Art

Waguespack says he envisions even more content in the lecture as well (Darth Vader, we hear, may make an appearance). It should prove a fascinating look at the show itself as well as the overarching world of artists who create from darkness, an interesting entry in the oldest story of all time: light versus the dark. Though rather than frame it like a rivalry, Waguespack says he hopes to alter our perceptions on the matter.

"No one in their right mind is saying, 'I'm curating an exhibit about art in the daytime,'" he says wryly. "I think of nocturnes more like a genre, something like still lifes; this persistent string throughout art history that has been academic, but also very experimental. Today … you still have artists like Joel-Peter Witkin doing something new with them, but darkness has always been with us."

Nocturnes in Art
1 pm Wednesday Jan. 16. Free.
New Mexico Museum of Art,
107 W Palace Ave.,
476-5072