Published: November 30, 2004
Accompanied by much fanfare and colorful events, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened on the National Mall on September 21. After 15 years of planning and close collaboration with tribal communities throughout the Western Hemisphere, a shared vision honoring the first Americans has become a reality.
An appropriately outstanding exhibition of modernist art by Native Americans George Morrison and Allan Houser will be a high point for many visitors. While the museum overall has received mixed reviews, this show is both interesting and beautiful.
Museum Director W. Richard West, Jr, is a Stanford-educated lawyer who is a Peace Chief of the Southern Cheyenne and citizen of the Arapaho tribe of Oklahoma. From the start he stressed intense consultations between the Smithsonian and native communities in order to reflect the latters’ views in presenting their cultures to the world. The mission of the new museum is not only to recall the proud but often painful past of Native Americans, but to signal to all that contemporary American Indians represent vibrant cultures that can make significant contributions to the United States and the world.
Most of the NMAI’s permanent collection was assembled by an eccentric New York oil fortune heir, George Gustav Heye (1874-1957), who bought rdf_Descriptions in large numbers during forays to the American West. Heye’s trove, housed in a nondescript building in the Bronx, was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1990. It was moved to the renovated US Custom House at Bowling Green in lower Manhattan. The George Gustav Heye Center will remain open, displaying rdf_Descriptions not on view in Washington.
The largest and, in many ways, the most compelling artwork on view is the new museum building itself. Created by a consortium of native designers and others, the structure and grounds reflect Indian aesthetics and beliefs. Four distinct landscaped areas surround the museum, which faces east toward the rising sun.
The interior, featuring flowing spaces and a soaring central skylight, is awe-inspiring, although somewhat confusing to get around in. The building’s softly undulating exterior, made of golden Kasota limestone from Minnesota, suggests a rock formation sculpted over centuries by wind and water.
Three major themed exhibitions around this museum introduce visitors to the history and culture of Native Americans. They offer useful insights into the relationships of tribal communities to the world around them, historical events that have helped shape contemporary Indian life, and ways in which indigenous people maintain links to their ancestral pasts and evolving cultures.
Inaugurating the museum’s third floor Changing Exhibitions Gallery is “Native Modernism: The Art of George Morrison and Allan Houser.” This rewarding and informative exhibition showcases the work of two fascinating and accomplished – but relatively unknown – Twentieth Century native artists. It will remain on view through September 2005.
The show is organized by Truman T. Lowe (Ho-Chunk Nation), the museum’s curator of contemporary art, who is also a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a sculptor.
Morrison (Grand Portage Band of Chippewa, 1919-2000) utilized modernist art styles to interpret native culture and the natural world in abstract paintings and collages. Houser (Warm Springs Chiricahua Apache, 1914-1994) employed a striking naturalistic style in sculptures of human and natural forms, as well as painting in a realistic manner. Some 200 paintings, drawings and sculptures by Morrison and Houser, most on loan from other public and private collections, are displayed.
Their careers followed quite different paths. Morrison had the benefit of professional training in avant-garde styles, spent some of his career in the New York art world and taught fine arts at universities. While Houser had some education as a painter, he was largely a self-taught sculptor and spent a good part of his adulthood teaching in the West and Southwest. “In spite of his isolation from the world of ‘advanced art,’ he remained tenaciously dedicated to the notion of being a contemporary artist, whose work always mirrored his own integrity,” Houser biographer W. Jackson Rushing III has written.
Although their careers varied, curator Lowe observes in the exhibition catalog that “inwardly they were driven by a simple impulse: influenced by the discourses of modernism as much as by their Indian heritage, both men sought to express a personal vision through a universally understandable visual language.”
Rare pioneers among fellow Indians, “they belonged to a small, disparate group of Native American artists who ushered in a new, modernist era in native art history, in which identification with a uniform aesthetic gave way to greater freedom for personal experimentation and expression,” writes Lowe. In so doing, Houser and Morrison paved the way for following generations in manners that continue to inspire Indian artists today.
Born and raised in Minnesota, Morrison studied at the Minneapolis School of Art and the Art Students League. Melding influences of Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism into his own style, he was for a time better known in eastern art circles than by Native Americans. He lived for years in Greenwich Village, Provincetown and Paris.
Morrison’s early work reflected his exposure to the New York art scene, where he communed with the likes of Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, frequented The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, and was awed by the art of Pablo Picasso.
He continued to paint while teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design and University of Minnesota. After retiring, he added complex three-dimensional art to his output, incorporating weathered wood and other found materials in abstract collage compositions.
Throughout his career, Morrison sought acceptance in the wide world of art. “He asserted his individualism,” writes Lowe, “maintaining he was not an Indian artist, but an artist who happens to be an Indian.”
The exhibition documents the manner in which Morrison, for more than a half century, exercised his unique artistic vision through landscapes and abstractions; colors and moods; expression and spirituality; and formality and spontaneity. Working with oils, tempera, acrylic, watercolor, crayon, pencil, ink and wood, he created art that ranged from small to monumental.
Several of Morrison’s best paintings from the late 1950s into the 1960s reflect the Abstract Expressionist manner that dominated New York during that time. In these large, vividly hued abstractions, such as “Passage,” 1959-60, untitled, 1962, and “Group,” 1964, he focused on spontaneous application of pure, undiluted colors rather than on representation. They literally glow.
After he began teaching at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s, Morrison began constructing wall reliefs out of found pieces of wood. He used carefully selected, varied-shaped and hued scraps of driftwood found on the shores of Cape Cod and Lake Superior to fashion intriguing wood collages.
“Cumulated Landscape,” 1976, “Landscape,” circa 1977, and untitled, 1978, suggest Morrison’s interest in the histories embodied in the wood. He called these surprisingly compelling, monumental collages, which resemble expansive landscapes, “Paintings in Wood.”
Along with his trailblazing abstractions, Morrison’s wood collages constitute a legacy of experimentation and beauty for native artists to follow.
An important, if somewhat neglected, figure in Twentieth Century American art, Houser is known as the patriarch of Native American contemporary art. He was born on a small, government-grant farm in Oklahoma into a Chiricahus Apache family. His birth name was Haozous.
While growing up in the Apache tradition, he nurtured an inquisitive and independent mind. At the age of 20, Houser enrolled in the Santa Fe Indian School, where he studied with a remarkable non-Indian teacher, Dorothy Dunn, who offered fine art training to native students.
Having become fascinated by art from all over the world, Houser resisted efforts to guide him to work in what was considered the proper, “traditional Indian style” of bright colors, flat forms and so-called “Indian subjects.” Instead, he mastered a diversity of styles, ranging from straightforward representation to abstraction.
At the age of 25, he exhibited realistic paintings at the World’s Fair in New York and painted murals at the Department of the Interior building in Washington. In the early 1950s, Houser took up sculpture, in which, he said, “I found my soul.”
He started out creating small wood carvings, but by 1948 he completed for the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kan., a monumental marble sculpture, “Comrade in Mourning,” honoring Native American military killed in World War II. A version in the current exhibition, an aesthetically pleasing combination of grace and power, is an astonishing achievement for a neophyte sculptor.
For three decades after World War II, while teaching in Utah and New Mexico, he created three-dimensional works that combined modern motifs with Indian subjects. After retiring from teaching in 1975, he devoted himself full-time to his art. He worked tirelessly until his death in 1994.
He was the subject of numerous solo exhibitions, is represented in museums and galleries around the United States and the world, and was the recipient of many honors. In 1992, he became the first Native American to receive the National Medal of Arts.
Recurring themes in Houser’s art are displayed in the exhibition: heroic survival, oral history, individualized men, female beauty, mother and child, and biomorphic modernism.
An example of his skill in creating full-length male figures, “May We Have Peace,” 1992, shows a Plains Indian majestically raising a pipe in prayer. This notable work is now in the collection of the NMAI. A 9-foot-tall bronze, “Morning Prayer,” 1987, immortalizes a towering, dignified Native American. Another realistic bronze, “Sons of the Past,” 1989, depicts a solemn man beating a drum.
“Deeply enamored,” as biographer Rushing puts it, of Henry Moore’s treatment of the mother and child theme, Houser created a number of memorable works using this motif in varying degrees of realism and abstraction. In “Resting at the Spring,” 1986, a small child tugs at the skirt of her tall, dignified – and protective – mother. It is a poignant image.
Works like “Perfect Union,” 1980, and “Reverie,” 1981, in which mother and child literally blend together, underscore his belief in the central role of mothers and families in the life of native peoples. “The figure of mother and child are close, joined often seemingly one” in such pieces, writes author N. Scott Momaday in the catalog.
“Rendezvous,” 1980, a tall, simplified figure of a robed woman, made of Indiana limestone, is elegant and dignified.
As Momaday observes, “The strongest of Houser’s subjects are those that are definitely Apache.” A case in point is the large and impressive “Apache,” 1986. Made of Carrara marble, it is an individualized, evocative portrait that is enlivened by the subject’s animated expression and windblown hair.
Echoes of Jean Arp, Constantine Brancusi, Barbara Hepworth, Isamu Noguchi and especially Moore can be found in numerous Houser works. The complex, subtle and compelling “Next Generation II,” 1989, a bronze described by Rushing as “an abstract essay on two seated figures that curve inward and join in the middle,” is a fine example that puts one in mind especially of Moore’s oeuvre. It is good enough to meet Houser’s aspiration for broader recognition: “It has always been my hope,” he said, “that my work would be acceptable all over the world, not as the work of an Indian artist but of a contemporary American sculptor.”
This splendid display of Houser’s achievements suggests his seminal contribution to Native American and Twentieth Century United States art and reflects his legacy of artwork of immeasurable, timeless beauty.
Many works in the current show are loaned by the Allan Houser Foundation, which maintains his studio, archives, sculpture garden and foundry on a spacious site a few miles south of Santa Fe, N.M. The Allan Houser Compound is open by appointment. To arrange a visit or to obtain additional information, 505-471-1528 or www.allanhouser.com
“Native Modernism” is an excellent exhibition in every way, adding a special dimension to the new museum’s mission of touching the living spirit of native peoples. It augments the grand experience awaiting visitors to the National Museum of the American Indian, where they can immerse themselves in thousands of years of history – and experience the mystery and majesty of Native American cultures brought to life.
The 128-page exhibition catalog, edited by curator Lowe, explores Houser and Morrison’s work in the context of Native American art history and cultural identity and contemporary art. Filled with reproductions and historical photographs, it is published by the NMAI in association with University of Washington Press, and is priced at $29.95 (softcover).
Spirit of a Native Place: Building the National Museum of the American Indian, edited by Duane Blue Spruce (Laguna Pueblo), the museum’s architectural liaison, traces the saga of construction of the structure, including material on architectural design, history of the collection and insights into the move from New York to Washington. Essays by West, Evelyn, George Gustav Heye Center director John Haworth (Cherokee) and others add up to a valuable book. The 192-page tome, co-published by the museum with the National Geographic Society, is $20 (softcover).
For those seeking more information about Houser, art historian Rushing’s Allan Houser: An American Master (Chiricahus) Apache, 1914-1914, released this summer, is highly recommended. A comprehensive, insightful and sympathetic examination of the artist’s entire career, it examines Houser in relation to his Indian roots and in the context of Twentieth Century art. Published by Abrams, this 256-page volume with 270 illustrations, is priced at $60 price (hardcover).
The National Museum of the American Indian is on the National Mall at 4th Street and Independence Avenue SW. For information, 202-633-1000 or www.nmai.si.edu
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