The National Museum of the American Indian chronicles the development of Native American modern and contemporary art.
Art has been an integral aspect of Native American cultures for millennia, so there should be no particular difficulty or paradox involved in the idea of a Native American artist. And yet during the 20th century it was extremely difficult for Native artists to establish themselves in that role and to define what Native American art could and should be in the modern age. Nonetheless, they persevered against the odds, and as a result there now exists a vibrant, innovative Native American art world in which artists are equally free to draw upon their heritage and to define themselves independently of it.
How this came to be is chronicled in an ambitious long-term exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York, “Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native Painting” (on view through Fall 2021). Assembled from the museum’s permanent collection, “Stretching the Canvas” tells its story though 39 works by 30 artists spanning the period from just before World War II through today.
Modern Native American art was born in government-run art schools established on or near reservations in order to provide artists with a means to support themselves. The idea was that they would create works closely based on American Indian traditional imagery that would appeal to white collectors. The difference, though—and this is key to the present exhibition—is that the main medium would be painting, which was either nonexistent or marginal in traditional Native American art. Painting, however, was the medium par excellence of modern Euro-American art, and the medium most likely to be appreciated and collected by white patrons and art buyers. Teachers at these schools—most notably the Studio School in Santa Fe and Bacone College in Muskogee, Okla.—encouraged students to model their works on Plains Indian ledger-book colored-pencil drawings or Navajo sand paintings. The results are known as the “flat style,” referring to their lack of shading, perspective, and foreground-background distinction.
Among the representatives of the flat style in the NMAI’s show is Woody Crumbo’s gouache on paper Three Eagle Dancers (circa 1935). Crumbo, a member of the Potowatomi tribe of Oklahoma, gives us a precisely delineated, colorful view of a ceremonial dance, the feather-clad participants posing gracefully against a plain sand-colored background, suspended in a fictive space that is no space. Julie Buffalohead’s (Ponca) The Confirmation (2009) updates this style with a group of figures that suggest both Native American iconography and fantasy comics.
Dick West (Cheyenne-Arapaho), who was a prominent teacher at Bacone College, was also an apostle of the flat style, but he was capable of excellent work in other styles, including the pure abstraction of Spatial Whorl (1950), submitted for the completion of his MFA at the University of Oklahoma. The rotating, intersecting bands of color and the eye-like whorls within echo Native American symbolism while also tracking closely with the canons of European “non-objective” abstraction. Of course the fact that plenty of white abstractionists drew on American Indian motifs in their work will not be lost on the attentive viewer of this painting and others in the exhibition. The banner of abstraction has been carried forward into our own time by Native American painters such as Mario Martinez (Pascua Yaqui) and Jeffrey Gibson (Mississippi Choctaw/Cherokee). Martinez’s Brooklyn (2004) is a complex weaving together of biomorphic and gestural strands, while Gibson’s Infinite Anomaly #1 (2003) is a candy-colored brain teaser that takes a deep dive into the mysteries of matter and perception.
In the 1960s, a new kind of art school gave rise to a new kind of Native American painting, more self-aware, ironic, and possessed of a sense of mission. As the Pop Art revolution got underway, the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, founded in 1962, became a laboratory for experimentation in which time-honored stereotypes of the American Indian were cut up, rearranged, and critically examined.
The Pop sense of irony sat particularly well with Fritz Scholder (Luiseño), an artist who achieved great success in the contemporary art market as well as legendary status as a teacher at IAIA. Scholder’s 1970 painting The American Indian depicts a traditional-looking Plains man with feathers in his hair and an elk-tooth choker, but the blanket in which he is wrapped is the Stars and Stripes. The symbolic repurposing of the American flag, common among American Pop artists of all backgrounds, from Jasper Johns to Tom Wesselmann to Andy Warhol, here bespeaks the combination of cooptation and rejection with which the mainstream America has treated Native America. The Indian has a crooked grin on his face, expressing the gentle but biting humor that is typical not only of Scholder but of much of the Native American art that came after.
Today’s Native American artists definitely stand on the shoulders of giants, in the sense that the dauntless courage of the previous generations made it possible for an Indian artist to be fully him- or herself, at home in more than one world, drawing on tradition without being defined by it. Native artists such as Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma), James Lavadour (Walla Walla), Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Salish-Cree-Shoshone), and Tony Abeyta (Navajo) are full-fledged members of the American contemporary art scene, without erasing their Native identity or becoming artists who simply happen to be Indian. WalkingStick’s diptych New Mexico Desert (2011) features a landscape that is highly redolent of Native American history, in which one panel is pure landscape while the other superimposes on the scene a geometric abstraction based on Southwestern Indian graphic motifs. In The Grand Canyon (2015), Abeyta renders the rugged landscape in a dramatic, virtuosic style that includes elements of Post-Impressionism and Futurism. In Blanket (2005), Lavadour gives the landscape genre a radically different twist by taking 15 landscapes and assembling them into a colorful grid that evokes a stitched-together quilt. Quick-to-See Smith’s Trade Canoe: Adrift (2015) takes a traditional subject and makes it relevant to current events; her overstuffed canoe contains Northwest Coast masks and symbolically resonant totemic fish, but most of the occupants are suffering human beings crammed together on a journey to an uncertain future—refugees.
By John Dorfman