“Affinities and Influences: Native American Art and American Modernism” at the Montclair Art Museum

Sioux shirt Plains circa 1890 Hide hair pigment and glass beads

Unknown Plains Artisan, Sioux shirt (ca. 1890), hide, hair, pigment and glass beads; courtesy The Montclair Art Museum

* * *

Non-Western art played a pivotal role in the making of modernist painting and sculpture. Indeed, without non-Western influences the art of this century is unimaginable. What would the oeuvres of Picasso and Brancusi, to name just two prominent examples, look like had these artists never seen African art?

The relationship between modern and non-Western art was largely predicated on matters of form, and Western artists used motifs from such art with relish and respect. It would be no exaggeration to claim that for some modern artists their affinity with their non-Western counterparts bordered on kinship. Admittedly, such kinship may have been fostered on romantic (and condescending) notions about the enchantments of “primitive” societies; and, in the end, some artists may have been indifferent to the cultures from which the artifacts they admired had originated. This has become, in recent years, a contentious subject.

But isn’t an artist’s responsibility art and not anthropology? Given the ideological nature of much contemporary art, such a question may be moot. Yet, one of the noteworthy aspects of the Western artists featured in the recent exhibition Affinities and Influences: Native American Art and American Modernism was their attempt at creating a uniquely American modern art by fusing, sometimes promiscuously, European and non-Western sources. It could be said that in doing so they were celebrating cultural diversity. But it should also be said that, above all else, they were pursuing an art of universal appeal.

Universality is an idea (and an ideal) regarded with disdain in some quarters of the art world, and it is politic to be leery of a concept that lends itself so easily to a shaggy sentimentality. Having said that, however, there is a lot in art that is universal, as Gail Stavitsky and Twig Johnson, co-curators of Affinities and Influences, understand. Stavitsky, curator of collections and exhibitions at the Montclair Art Museum, and Johnson, the museum’s curator of education and Native American art, locate the affinities between American modernism and Native American art in “the common aesthetic values which transcend differences in time and origin.” This may seem an obvious trope, but given the fractious culture in which it is framed, it is also a brave one and to be applauded.

The exhibition succeeded in detecting these “common aesthetic values” more by influence than by actuality, however, and in a manner less thorough than one would hope. “Affinities and Influences” was a modest show that felt like a trial run for a more comprehensive exhibition. All the work on view was drawn from the holdings of the Montclair Art Museum, and one imagines that the curators made do with a somewhat limited collection. Consequently, Stavitsky and Johnson at times forced the issue. It is well known, for instance, that Jackson Pollock valued and emulated Indian art, but one would never know it from Untitled (1951), a splatter drawing that owes more to the Surrealism of Miró and Masson than to Father Sky and Mother Earth (c. 1980), the Navajo sand painting to which the curators compared it. In fact, all of the modernist work shown here owes as much to European painting—Surrealism and Cubism, in particular—as to anything else. One could have removed the Indian art on view, retitled the exhibit Affinities and Influences: European and American Modernism, and nobody would have blinked twice.

Well, maybe a few gallery goers would have blinked; and to deny the importance of Native American art to the painters in this exhibition (there were no sculptors included) would be to truck in falsehoods. Aside from Pollock, the other major names in “Affinities and Influences” were William Baziotes, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko; also here were lesser-known artists such as Will Barnet, Peter Busa, Betty Parsons, Theodoros Stamos, Jay Van Everen, and Steve Wheeler. Their paintings were contrasted with a variety of Indian objects: pottery, basketry, blankets, masks, and totems. The curators set up agreeable rhythms between crosscurrents of form, and these correspondences were, at the very least, interesting. When Stavitsky and Johnson hit the right notes —as they did when comparing Gottlieb’s Specter of the Sea (1947) with a Tlingit Chilkat blanket (c. 1880–90)—the correspondences were illuminating.

But they weren’t necessarily illuminating in a way that casts favorable light on the manner in which modernist painters used Indian motifs. With few exceptions, most of the painters here used Native American art in a literal manner. As resistant as I am to using the word “appropriation”—redolent, as it is, of the shake-and-bake school of picture making typified by David Salle—it does go some way in explaining why so much of the work here seemed secondhand, patchy, even a bit phony. It was all very earnest, even reverent toward its American Indian sources, but this reverence rarely translated into paintings one could believe in.

Which is also why The Pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb, seen earlier this year at the Brooklyn Museum, was a disappointment. The Pictographs look to Klee and Miró as much as to the Indian and African art Gottlieb loved and collected. But notwithstanding Gottlieb’s prowess as a colorist, they are second-rate pictures. While his symbols may have been invented, they have the quality of imitation and are never fully integrated with the paintings’ structure. One could, presumably, place their inadequacies on the artist’s indifference to the social and cultural meanings of the non-Western art he took off from. But it is more likely that the Pictographs’ failings lie in Gottlieb’s limitations as a painter. Would that he possessed Klee’s compositional acuity or Miró’s linear mastery. For that matter, would that he possessed, in the Montclair’s Specter of the Sea, the design sense of the anonymous artisan whose painting of a bird adorns the museum’s Zia Pueblo olla, or ceramic water jar (c. 1935). This bird is a marvelous bit of pictorial condensation—all pregnant curves and sharp points of emphasis—predicated on a deft wit and, most likely, astute observation. Gottlieb’s swollen do-dads and schematic “masks” seem hokey in comparison.

Admittedly, the Pictographs were the work of an artist in transition, as were the Indian-influenced paintings of Pollock and Rothko. There is nothing half-realized, however, about the work of William Baziotes, whose Toy Animal (1947) was a high point of the exhibition. With its blue and green biomorphs bobbing in an ocher background, it’s a painting with a sense of play to it, not unlike that found in the Zia Pueblo olla. Baziotes is as good an example as any of an artist who swallowed his influences whole—Native American art and Miró, toy figurines and “primitive” fetishes —and made them his own. His forms are at once familiar and mysterious, comical and solemn. Baziotes’s paintings look better every time I see them.

I wish I could say the same of the Indian Space Painters. This group, represented here by Barnet, Busa, and Wheeler, based their work on the flat pictorial space of Northwest Coast Indian art, which they saw, according to Barnet, as “the next step past Cubism.” Needless to say, artists are still trying to figure out the steps inside of Cubism, and it is probably unfair to judge this group based on the selection of pieces seen here (three works-on-paper and a woodcut). But it is unlikely, considering the other Indian Space paintings I’ve seen, that there is significant work to be found among them. Wheeler, in particular, seems little more than a talented amateur whose imagery, distinguished by a peculiarly rote sense of horror vacui, has nevertheless garnered a respectable reputation among smart people. The one exception may be Peter Busa. His untitled gouache of 1942, a lopsided combination of Indian art and Cubism, has the alacrity of someone genuinely coming to terms with the form. It has considerably more vim than, say, Motherwell’s Ulysses (1947–51), and it would be instructive to see more of Busa’s work.

This may be true also of Jay Van Everen (1875–1947). There is apparently little that is known about Van Everen other than that he was an artist, illustrator, and designer of mosaics for the New York City subway system at the turn of the century. There were three Van Everen paintings included in “Affinities and Influences,” each a weird and lively blend of Indian art, Art Deco, Synchronism, and Symbolism. (His use of color and pattern leads me to believe that he was familiar with Marsden Hartley’s paintings as well.) The two figurative paintings, Untitled and Amerindian Theme (none of the Van Everen paintings were dated), were characterized by candy-like colors and the artist’s tendency to couch his admiration for Indian art in cloying terms: the undulating clouds and stylized figure in Untitled had the spacey extravagance of a vintage psychedelic rock poster. Chariot Race, however, was fine and, not coincidentally, abstract. Ironically, the one part of the painting most obviously based on Indian art was also the least compelling: a drab, geometric “frame” whose designs were probably inspired by something like those on the Pawnee/Osage parfleche case (c. 1875) displayed nearby. The center of the canvas, however, was a knockout jumble of jagged geometry and jigsaw shapes knit together by slabs of white space. By placing Chariot Race so that it was framed by the gallery entrance as one walked into the exhibition, the curators proved their acumen by showcasing what they’d got: the best painting in the show.

It was, however, the Native American art on view that carried Affinities and Influences. The Montclair Museum prides itself on its collection of Native American art, and judging from the samples on view here, their pride is well placed. Besides the Chilkat blanket and the Zia Pueblo olla, other notable pieces included a Haida wooden bowl (c. 1875–1900), its black band punctuated by a string of unblinking eyes, and a Haida raven rattle (c. 1900), a bit of three-dimensional derring-do by an artist with an incisive sense of sculptural tension and an adroit sense of humor. Affinities and Influences was but the first of several exhibits to be drawn from the museum’s collection that will juxtapose Western and Native American art, and it will be interesting to see a broader view of both collections. If “Affinities and Influences” proved to be underwhelming, it was also provocative. One got the sense that Stavitsky and Johnson are skeptical of received opinion, a boon no matter how one looks at it, and that they are curious and capable enough to have a few surprises up their sleeves. Let’s see what they bring us next.

© 1995 Mario Naves

Originally published in the October 1995 edition of The New Criterion.

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  • By Native Americans en modernisme | on October 13, 2015 at 2: 18 pm

    […] Naves, in een stuk onder de titel Too much art, is er niet mals over. Hij schrijft: “Niet-westerse kunst speelde [aan het begin van het […]

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