After completing his term of service in the U.S. Coast Guard during WWII, as a Sonarman on the anti-submarine Patrol Frigate, U.S.S. Casper, 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 F. Grayson Sayre.
They began building their adobe home and studios, from which they work today. 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 the 1950s Cliff and Barbara were also active in the Los Angeles and Glendale, California Art Associations. 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 Centennial Celebration held in London, Cliff was chosen to represent the state of New Mexico.
Harmon 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 of the University of New Mexico in Taos, The Taos Historic Museums, the Taos Museum of Art and Fechin House, the Roswell Museum and Art Center, all in New Mexico, the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, the Oklahoma Art Center, as well as the Ashville Art Museum and the Black Mountain College Museum, both of North Carolina.
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. Such as, when a black line or sometimes a white line, seem to separate the two colors and impart an implicit luminosity. 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.
His signature work over the last thirty years, including more than 670 “Earth Forms” series landscapes, has been the imaging of what have been described “horizon” paintings. 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.
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 addition, Harmon has shown over the years an interest in exotic abstract figure compositions, such as his “Three Graces” series. In 1987, after a journey, which he had wanted to make since high school, to Thailand, Bali, and Java, 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, as they are depicted in the bas reliefs’ of Buddha’s life on the Stupa at Borobudur in Java.
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.