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Native Moderns: American Indian Painting, 1940-1960

by Bill Anthes
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2006
304 pp., illus. 6 b/w, 28 col. Trade, $84.95; paper, $23.95

ISBN: 0-8223-3850-5; ISBN: 0-8223-3866-1.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg

Native Moderns is a fascinating study of the changing nature and reception of modern American Indian art in relation to the history of modern art, American society and government policy. Herein Bill Anthes significantly expands the canon of modern art history while exploring the all important notion of identity and authenticity in terms of how particular artists, from both within the Indian community and without, have been inspired by native American heritages. This always lucid book will be of tremendous value to art historians and anthropologists interested in the constraints modern Indian artists faced before the 1960’s in terms of the empowering and disempowering legacies of invented tribal traditions and how they responded to the contradictory individualist and innovative expectations of modernism.

The key symbolic focus of the book is the exclusion of Oscar Howe’s (1915-1983) Umine Wacipe: War and Peace Dance (1958) from the second Philbrook Indian Annual wherein it was rejected as "a fine painting . . . but not Indian." Through beginning and ending with this early Sioux modernist’s career and this instance, the book refutes the previously reigning idea that modern Indian art began in the 1960’s. In doing so, Anthes selectively focuses on the very different careers of Howe and the Pueblo painters Jose Lente and Jimmy Byrnes, the Ojibwe modernists Patrick DesJarlait and George Morrison, the Cheyenne artist Dick West and the faux Indian Yeffe Kimball. He weaves together a fascinating web of relations showing how the modernist conventions in these artists’ works connect to pre-conquest native traditions and how artists like Howe and West engaged modernism and modernized native American painting in very different ways.

Native Moderns is a powerful warhorse connecting these artists into modern American art history. It is equally compelling in terms of revealing how Barnett Newman drew on local traditions to develop his notion of the "Inter-American Consciousness" and the "Primitive Universal" with which he sought to define a unique American aesthetic while simultaneously rescuing it from European modernism. Ever the modernist, Anthes rescues tribal identities from a post-modernist sense of invention and self-invention as in the case of Yeffe Kimball, the iconic instance of a non-Indian claiming to be Indian. Herein Anthes and the American Indian Movement (AIM) understand authenticity and identity as primordial and genealogical essences and not at all as invented constructs. In this, Anthes manages to very successfully reveal the innately hybrid identities of these artists and the cultural struggles between "tradition," tradition and modernity that make this book particularly compelling.

Native Moderns does the important of work of opening the canon of modern Western art to "non-Western" modern art in its broadest global dimension, appropriately advancing this project in the American Fourth World, that is, in terms of the ultimate colonized Other - those within the First World. Besides two other studies in the same series Objects/Histories, namely Painting Culture (2002) and In Senghor’s Shadow (2004), this next study adds substantial weight to these prior studies by even more extensively delving into the intriguing history of non-European artists previously excluded from canonical modernism. Hence we learn here about the crisis situation out of which new native traditions emerged, how abstract expressionism and modernism deeply informed some of these artists’ careers and how in cases they and their descendants’ struggled to disavow any such influences believing that it made their work somehow less authentic. We also gain fascinating insight into how non-Indian American modernists spiritually and conceptually drew on an inter-American heritage adding an important element to the by now somewhat threadbare debate over modern arts inspiration in "primitivism" which usually focuses on the early 20th century Parisian sources of inspiration in African, Polynesian and other Orientalist traditions.

Native Moderns is a deft example of contemporary scholarship that is entirely accessible to the lay educated reader. Anthes bridges discussions on changing government cultural policies and the arts with how artists’ successes depend on their skills as culture brokers to mediate Western and non-Western worlds, on how educators and patrons are key agents in the emergence of new forms of modernism, as well as on the importance of place and experience in an artists’ evolving corpus and consciousness. All of the artists considered here had highly ambiguous identities and in fact, as the author describes, their art can be seen as conscious attempts to mediate their experience so as to make themselves in the modern world. In the case of Jose Lente and Jimmy Byrnes, this was more limited to their Pueblo heritage and their lives and labor in the Southwest, whereas DesJarlait, Morrison, How and West had far more cosmopolitan life experiences. Yet Anthes manages to show how place and tradition continue to inform their work and consciousness, that is, how modernism does not necessarily preclude tradition. For example, he details how the modernist nature of their works in the simple planar and uni-dimensional treatment of form is not so much evidence of the influence of modernism but of an affinity which expressly refers to continuities with their personal tribal heritages and evidence of the multicultural heritage within modernism. It is of note however, unfortunately, or fortunately, that Anthes presents an explicit critique of "traditional art" as being degenerate tourist art which for some might leave it on an arguably lame horse on modernist high desert plains as perhaps best exemplified with the final figure The End of the Trail (1970) by Fritz Scholder.

To conclude, Native Moderns is an intensely rich study best instanced in the epochal story of Howe’s origins as an artist in which his grandmother healed him through song and story after he had suffered a debilitating depression and illness brought on by the experience of detribalizing military education. As Howe relates through Anthes: "She would tell these stories, true ones, about culture and life and everything that was fine and good about the Dakota culture . . . . The language she used was so poetic and beautiful that I now try to equal them by giving the visual form." Blind, she traced her memories in sand, healed he made them modern.



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