What You Never Knew About Abstraction in Native American Art

What You Never Knew About Abstraction in Native American Art

If you don’t live in the Southwest we bet you’d find it very difficult to name several significant Native American abstract artists.  Go back to those years immediately following World War II and you may really be stymied. Can you name those Native American painters who moved easily among their peers in the first-generation of Abstract Expressionists?

Action/Abstraction Redefined (MoCNA)

Fortunately, you can be absolved of your embarrassment by seeing a unique exhibition in downtown Santa Fe at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) running through July 7, 2019. The museum, which is part of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), has mounted a major exhibition, Action/Abstraction Redefined. If you can’t see this show buy its eponymous book because it challenges the stereotypical expectations of Indian art.  Drawn from the museum’s 7,500-work collection, which began in 1962, it illustrates works by Native Americans from numerous tribes, including Alaskans. Clearly, the IAIA has been a driving force in the art education revolution for Native Americans — a role it continues to fulfill.

Any history of the development of modern art in America would be woefully incomplete without including the intriguing role played by Native Americans.

In searching for the most significant artists, we tend to reach back only a few decades into contemporary art and recall several who were successful and received wide critical recognition. R.C. Gorman [1931–2005] opened the Navajo Gallery, the first Native American-owned gallery, and became a Taos legend.  He was welcomed in New York by Warhol, and together they mounted a successful show. Fritz Scholder [1937–2005] taught at IAIA for five years before establishing his own studio and becoming wildly successful with his unique style that combined Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, and Pop Art in expressing the Native experience of the Southwest. Allan Houser [1914–1994] was another of the Southwest’s famous artists — and likely the most financially successful.  His abstract sculptures of Indians can be found in the IAIA’s sculpture garden created in his honor.

George Morrison, White Painting No.1, 1965, 50.5 x 50.5 inches (MoCNA collection)

Action/Abstraction Redefined contains five excellent essays that go even deeper in illuminating the cultural milieu and spiritual legacy that Native Americans tapped in developing innovative approaches to painting, sculpture, and printmaking. This cross-cultural dialogue continues to bring vigor to the art of Native Americans. In the essay, “The New York Native American Art Movement,” Manuela Well-Off-Man points out that as early as 1933 and 1941 the Museum of Modern Art mounted exhibitions “which actually challenged common definitions and preconceptions of Indian art.” Even earlier was Bonita Wa Wa Calachaw Nunez [1888–1966], a young woman who briefly studied with Albert Pinkham Ryder and exhibited in New York in the 1920s — but today she is virtually forgotten.

Edna Massey, Untitled, c.1950, 5.25×7, woodcut (MoCNA Collection)

In regard to the first-generation of Abstract Expressionists painters who exploded on the scene in New York on the 1940s–50s, the most readily recognizable names of Native Americans are those of Leon Polk-Smith [1906–1996] and George Morrison [1919–2000].  Both matured during a time when the pervading zeitgeist was one of soul-searching for an authenticity of vision. For Polk-Smith and Morrison that meant finding inspiration by delving into worlds that were already part of their culture: the spirit, the unconscious, and native mythology.  For those members of the New York School who would later become ensconced in the pantheon of great American masters — such as Rothko, Reinhardt, Kline, de Kooning, and Pollock — there was an imperative to rediscover the art of Native American culture. While these masters’ mature styles varied significantly, the inspiration they drew from native art proved a catalyst in their respective breakaways from objective representation, realistic perspectives, and narrative conventions.

Henry Gobin, Northwest Design, 1966, casein and pen on paper, 18 x 22 inches (MoCNA Collection)

Jackson Pollock is certainly the best-known example among the masters whose style was transformed by Native American influences. It is well documented that ever since his childhood in Arizona he held an appreciation for Indian art and customs. As a young man he frequently visited the Southwest Museum of the American Indian — the oldest museum in Los Angeles. Once he established himself in New York he continued to carry with him what he learned from his time at the Southwest Museum. Alfonso Ossorio, a fellow artist and friend, recalled, “I remember being very surprised to see some twenty volumes of the proceedings of the Smithsonian Reports, obviously a battered old set he’d picked up somewhere, which was full of 19th century renditions of American Indian art, everything from buffalo hide, paintings, teepees, and the sand paintings.” The most significant catalyst came in 1941 when Pollock visited the “Indian Art of the United States” exhibition at MoMA and witnessed the method of sand painting. He returned several times to watch medicine men in a trance-like state approach the floor from all sides and pour colored sand to create their geometric designs. Pollock later revealed:  “My painting does not come from the easel. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting. This is akin to the method of the Indian sand painters of the West.” Clearly, Pollock’s approach to the canvas with his famous drip-action method was influenced by the medicine men. In prescient reinforcement, Eleanor Roosevelt declared in her introduction for the catalogue that the exhibition “opens up to us age-old sources of ideas and forms that have never been fully appreciated.” She acknowledged a “cultural debt not only to the Indians of the United States but to the Indians of the Americas.”

Shamans creating a large sand painting at the the 1941 “Indian Art of the United States” exhibition at MoMA

In the book for the MoCNA essay, “Redefining American Abstract Expressionism,” Tatiana Lomahaftewa-Singer makes a sound conclusion: “Unlike Abstract Expressionists from New York, IAIA artists did not have to look far for inspirations for their abstractions: abstract elements were part of native art for thousands of years.” Indeed, the scope of this exhibition continues from the post-war years through the entire range of successive styles, movements, and isms — It includes those IAIA students of the 1960s who are now in their late-careers or have passed on. There are some brilliant paintings by women: strong color woodblock prints by Edna Massey [1913–1977] and Anita Fields, [b.1951], gutsy large drip-action paintings by Alice Loiselle [1949–2003], and hard edge compositions by Redstar Price [b.1948] inspired by parfleche painting. Of the men, it’s a shame that the influential T.C. Cannon [1947–1978] and Earl Biss [1947–1998] died so young as both were innovating new approaches to Abstract Expressionism.

A visit to this museum and its beautiful 140 acre Santa Fe campus will make clear why the IAIA is the premier educational institution for Native arts and cultures and has been named one of the top art institutions by UNESCO and the International Association of Art. Here’s another bonus: Next time you’re asked to name several significant Native American abstract artists you won’t be at a loss.

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading another discovery article in our ongoing
“We Bet You Don’t Know” series!

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