Kindred Spirits, Native American Influences on 20th Century Art

October 29, 2011 – January 28, 2012
at Peter Blum SoHo


The Villager
Stephanie Buhmann
November 17, 2011

Much has been written about the impact of African sculptures and Japanese printmaking on Western 19th century and 20th century art. Meanwhile, American art of the period is usually examined in relation to concurrent European movements. In particular, the influence of Cubism and Surrealism on Abstract Expressionism is a well-covered subject. But as much as scholars have focused on far away influences, they have overlooked the inspirational potential this continent’s cultural heritage has to offer.

“Kindred Spirits” is a rare and overdue attempt to examine how Native American cultures of the Southwest and the surrounding desert landscape have resonated with Western (and especially American) artists for decades.

The exhibition features works of indigenous peoples from the Southwest region of the United States — including funerary vessels, paintings, pottery, weavings and baskets from 14 tribes (among them, the Apache, Hopi, Mimbres, Navajo and Zuni).

Arranged in elegant display cases or installed on the wall, these precious objects are shown alongside modern and contemporary works by artists such as Josef Albers, Max Ernst, Helmut Federle, Agnes Martin, Bruce Nauman and Charles Simonds.

Particular treasures include a Sioux parfleche box from circa 1900, two works on paper by Jackson Pollock and a stunning canvas by Georgia O’Keeffe. The latter’s “Blue, Black, and White Abstraction # 12”  (1959) — which translates as an abstraction of a large black bird sweeping skyward — finds a beautiful counterpart in a Navajo drawing made in the early 20th century.

Meanwhile, a collection of iconic landscape and portrait photographs by Ansel Adams, Edward Curtis, Sumner Matteson, Paul Strand and Adam Clark Vroman establish an appropriate sense of grandeur. It is when viewing the six-volume set of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s legendary “Historical and Statistical Information, Respecting the History, Conditions and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States” (published between 1847 and 1857) that one gets to ponder how Western civilization has viewed and analyzed Native American cultures in the past.

In art, scientific analysis and the reliance on statistics are void. Instead, while browsing the examples of Western works assembled here, we witness how personal and diverse the emotional and aesthetic impact of Native American art can be (and has been). A different voice is offered through works by the contemporary artist Nicolas Galanin (a Tlingit Aleut  who comes from a long line of Northwest Coast artists). When entering the gallery, one has to step over his “Indians” — a sidewalk carving of the Cleveland Indians baseball team logo. Aiming to balance his origins with his contemporary practice, Galanin has noted: “In the business of this ‘Indian Art World,’ I have become impatient with the institutional prescription and its monolithic attempt to define culture as it unfolds.”

Culture is unfolding constantly, but “Kindred Spirits” is an avid reminder that inspiration is without boundaries and therefore timeless.

Through Jan. 14, at Peter Blum SoHo (99 Wooster St., btw. Prince & Spring Sts.). Call 212-343-0441 or visit


By Stephanie Buhmann