Some have attributed the decision to Ribak’s severe asthma, which improved dramatically in the dry New Mexican air. But further research into the couple’s history has led to another, more startling, hypothesis: They wanted to avoid harassment by the FBI. Both Ribak and Mandelman “were really very leftist,” explains Rosenberg, “and we now know that they were considered at the time to be so-called ‘fellow travelers,’ or communist sympathizers. They were being tracked by the FBI. I think this little world of Taos was a real refuge for them, where they felt safe, away from all of that intrusion.”
In fact, the FBI may have been the reason behind the couple’s hasty departure from New York City in the first place. As government documents show, just a few weeks after Ribak and Mendelman left NYC for New Mexico, their apartment was ransacked by FBI agents. And that wasn’t the end of it—several years later, a government informant enrolled in their Taos Valley Art School. In total, the FBI spent thousands of dollars and more than 20 years spying on the artists.
While these discoveries suggest their move was more politically than artistically motivated, it’s impossible to deny the effect it had on Mandelman’s post-1944 work. She began an experimentation with color and form that finally began to coalesce in the 1960s. “She had really matured her abstract art into something that was highly sophisticated and well thought-out,” Rosenberg says. “She wasn’t trying things out anymore. She had found her path, so it is a very complete thought process that she offers us.”