Native Moderns: American Indian Painting, 1940-1960. Bill Anthes, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. 235 pp.
Reviewed by Laura E. Smith
Bill Anthes’ book, Native Moderns: American Indian Painting, 1940-1960,
offers a welcome contribution to the field of scholarship on
twentieth-century Native American art. Not just a bravura display of a
few little known artists, Anthes instead pulls together the biographies
and careers of six Indian and two non-Indian painters to tackle one of
the main impediments to the scholarly recognition of a modern Native
American art: the perceived disparity between Indians and modernity.
Long envisioned and romanticized as the antithesis to progress, most
white Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
thought Native Americans incapable of producing innovative or
individualized works of art. Rather, they saw Indian artists working
solely in a collective manner and passively perpetuating static,
ancient traditions. When Native artists stepped away from their past
aesthetic practices and used Western materials or pictorial
conventions, many critics, scholars, and collectors judged their work
to not be “authentically Indian.” Using recent writings on hybrid
modernities in which modernism is envisioned as an intercultural
encounter and Mary Louise Pratt’s vision of a “contact zone” where
colonial Others are mutually transformed by each others’ ideas and
aesthetics even amidst an imbalance of power, Anthes proposes to
challenge the boundaries constructed between art made by Indians and
that created by the European and American modernists. Thus, the author
intends to not just rewrite Indian artists into “the modernist canon,”
but to deconstruct the prevailing exclusivist understandings of
modernism which have perpetuated racial and gender barriers in the art
an overview of the shifts in modern U.S. Indian policies and the
changing perception of Native Americans and their art from roughly 1880
up to 1960, Anthes sets up the next five chapters as case studies. Each
of these features one or two artists who all demonstrate Anthes’ vision
of either a modern Indian artist identity or a non-Indian who
challenged the singular notion and superior position of Western modern
art and culture. The individuals are in one way or another a “cultural
hybrid.” They all are painters who developed as artists in the 1930s
through the 1950s and all but one are men. The Native artists including
José Lente (Isleta Pueblo), Jimmy Byrnes (Lakota/Acoma-Laguna), George
Morrison (Ojibwe), Patrick Desjarlait (Ojibwe), Oscar Howe (Sioux), and
Richard West (Cheyenne) largely grew up as marginal figures to their
indigenous communities and/or lived extended periods away from them in
large urban centers, sometimes in Europe. Most served in World War II.
Four of the six received art degrees from Western academies. Because of
their unique intermediate position between Indian and Western worlds,
many of them acted as “cultural brokers,” translating indigenous
knowledge and values to outsiders.
the two non-Indian artists portray marginal or dual cultural positions.
American modernist Barnett Newman is the focus of chapter three. As the
son of Jewish immigrants and an anarchist, he is someone who lived and
worked on the borders of the American mainstream. Newman believed in
the relevancy of Native American art to the transcendance of European
and American racial nationalisms. Despite his restricted view of Native
art as primitive, Newman gave new authority to the aesthetics of
cultural and political outsiders. Yeffe Kimball constructed a mixed
white/Indian identity for herself. Her personae and her paintings were
observed by critics to be the perfect hybrid of primitive/Indian and
modern/Western. Anthes also uses her biography to speculate on the
permeable boundaries for defining Indianness in the postwar period,
since she passed as an Indian for forty years. Each of these painters
clearly demonstrates the author’s view of modern individuals as global,
not locally isolated, and versed in the values and visual expressions
of at least two worlds.
further develops his argument on the intercultural nature of modernism
by examining how each of these artists fuse American Indian and Western
art conventions in their paintings. He locates Native aesthetic
traditions in each of the artists’ works through motifs that reference
longstanding cultural knowledge or practices, sometimes ceremonial
information, or the long-lived geographic locations of their particular
communities. The paintings reveal the characteristics of Western
modernism when they become innovative, individualistic, and abstract.
Except for Lente, Anthes shows how all of the painters moved from
painting in flat-style, realism, regionalism, or an illustrational
style to a rejection of what they felt to be those restrictive
aesthetic practices. Each then developed an abstract and/or more
personal expression, but entangled it with Native traditions. The
hybrid nature of these artists’ paintings is the primary basis for the
author’s definition of Native American modernism and his vision for the
nature of modernism itself.
insightfully demonstrates the benefits of using a model of cultural or
aesthetic hybridity or of the “contact zone;” it creates a dynamic
third space of creative possibilities in between two previously
imagined irreconcilably distinct cultures, individuals, or aesthetic
conventions. The problem is that the distinctness of two original
worlds does not get challenged and ends up reinforcing the defining
characteristics that made them allegedly distinct in the first place.
Most of Anthes’ case studies reinforce the dichotomy between
Indian/tradition and Western/modern rather than dismantling it. He
convincingly fuses the two worlds together in all of these artists’
works, but generally stops short of diffusing the twoness of the
worlds. Surely, Ruth Bunzel’s 1929 study of Pueblo potters is one
example of Native painting where the values of innovation and
individualism are shown to be a Pueblo tradition, not an incorporation
of modern Western values.
In Native Moderns,
Indian painters only become more modern when they incorporate those
designated qualities of Western modernism into their work. Indian
artists themselves become modern when they act more like Western
individuals, leave the reservations, and/or get mixed with the other
world. In the cases of Richard West and Oscar Howe where the author
shows most convincingly how they challenged the ‘westernness’ of
aesthetic practices such as abstraction by pointing to the abstract
qualities of much Sioux and Cheyenne art of the past, the author still
finds a distinction between what is Indian and what is modern in Howe’s
paintings. “Thus Howe’s innovative, abstract paintings… were at once
authentically Indian (in the sense that they represented a traditional
and collective expression) and fully modern (in that they were Howe’s
innovative, individual creations)” (p. 166). Why is modernity never
‘authentically Indian?’ And, if an indigenous abstract artist, like
George Morrison’s work before 1970, does not specifically reference a
‘Native traditional and collective expression,’ then is his work
modernist, but not Native?
thesis leaves his readers with these unresolved issues and a few other
problems. The hybridity model for defining Native modernism apparently
leaves some indigenous artists out of the picture. First, most
glaringly absent are Native American women painters, as is made evident
by the single paragraph devoted to Santa Clara Pueblo painter Pablita
Velarde (p. 8). Secondly, shoved to the side, are the painters who
happily continued using the modern flat-style throughout their career.
Thus, while Anthes opens the door for a few male indigenous artists to
take their place in the modernist canon, he maintains the exclusivity
of Western modernist gender and stylistic conventions that continue to
write many Indian artists out of the art world. This provocative study
will hopefully inspire further evaluations of modernism and Indian art
in the twentieth century.
1. Ruth Bunzel, The Pueblo Potter: A Study of Creative Imagination in Primitive Art. (New York: Dover, 1972 ).
E. Smith is a doctoral candidate in art history at Indiana University.
Her writings on aspects of Native American art have appeared in American Indian Art Magazine and Third Text. Her
dissertation project examines the work of Kiowa photographer Horace
Poolaw (1906-1986) within the broader contexts of American photography
and the early twentieth-century American Indian cultural renaissance.