Kindred Spirits, Native American Influences on 20th Century Art

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

A Native Culture’s Reach, Both Visual and Emotional

New York Times
Roberta Smith
December 23, 2011

 “Kindred Spirits: Native American Influences on 20th Century Art” at the Peter Blum Gallery in SoHo closes out the New York gallery year with a great group show. This superb yet fraught exhibition creates a vortex of history, visual culture, language and ideas that is both heartbreaking and exhilarating. It seems almost impossible to straighten out, but that may be what makes it so valuable.

At the heart of the show is a shatteringly beautiful array of American Indian material, most of it from the Southwest, in which organic and geometric forms mingle effortlessly and with great variety. There are chalky white Mimbres burial bowls, one with an image of a bird catching a fish as it stands on its own elongated beak, and Navajo chief’s blankets, whose combinations of bold and fine bands and patterns in red, black and white seem to capture the very electricity of life.

There are Panamint, Western Apache and Yavapai baskets punctuated with the alert silhouettes of horned animals and stepped, radiating lines suggestive of lightning; Arapaho ledger drawings and a Lakota Sioux box made of hide and decorated with a vivid accordionlike arrangement of reds, yellows, blues and greens. There are Zia, Zuni and Acoma earthenware pots whose decorations — variously geometric, zoomorphic, floral and calligraphic — simply dazzle, and a Navajo drawing for a sand painting and a weaving based on one, dominated by swastikas achieved by adding semi-abstract, postlike figures to the four arms of large plus signs.

Dispersed around these extraordinary works is a varied mass of material — books, prints and photographs and the work of modern and contemporary artists — that attests to several generations of contact between indigenous peoples and government forces, sympathetic observers, trained scholars and aesthetic “kindred spirits.” Hand-colored aquatint engravings by the German artist Karl Bodmer from around 1840 depict Indians hunting bison. Edward Curtis’s turn-of-the-20th-century photographs of weary, wise-looking Indian chiefs give a hint of lost lands, lives and traditions (as do their words, quoted in the show’s excellent catalog). Canyon de Chelly in Arizona is captured in a photograph by Adam Clark Vroman in 1900 and in another by Ansel Adams from around 1947.

As for 20th-century art, Georgia O’Keeffe is represented by a small abstraction, in which a field of blue is divided by a jagged span of black that suggests a horizon line, a flock of birds and a Navajo weaving. Two marvelous drawings from the 1940s by Jackson Pollock suggest his awareness of Indian sand painting and rock petroglyphs. “Arizona Rouge,” a small painting on wood from 1955 by Max Ernst, captures something of the essential abstractness of the Southwestern landscape, as do works by Agnes Martin. The Swiss artist Helmut Federle pays tribute to Navajo weavings with small works in gouache and oil.

More originally, Josef Albers layers together planes of color into reverberating distillations of adobe architecture that also suggest ghostly, distended masks. There is also a video by Bruce Nauman, “Setting a Good Corner (Allegory and Metaphor),” which shows him, working alone, setting three fence posts. In this context his actions suggest an austere and arduous ritual, and the posts evoke abbreviated totems.

One of the most affecting works is one of the tiniest: Paul Strand’s “Ranchos de Taos, Church, New Mexico,” an exquisite vintage photograph from 1931 in which the adobe architecture, a small symphony of graduated grays, has the delicate solidity of flesh. It looks great next to the Ernst, and some of its organic earthiness is bodied forth in a miniature sculpture of a pueblo by Charles Simonds that nestles in a nearby corner upside down, as if protected from gravity by the gods.

The modern and contemporary art in the show struggles to hold its own against the Indian objects. It seems hopelessly romantic to say that it lacks their spiritual connection to nature, although that may be an issue. More urgently, the 20th-century works seem plagued by a kind of physical deficiency, a failure to integrate motif and material into a seamless whole. In the Native American works this integration is always in force, although it is understandably most intense in the woven blankets and baskets, where there is no distinction between image and process, or art and craft, or front and back. The weaving forms a completely efficient, irreducible whole: figure and ground are one and visible to the same degree from both sides. In a seemingly monochromatic Hopi weaving from around 1875, the power of the work comes not just from subtle shifts among tones of black, brown and deep blue, but also from weaving techniques that set off diamond-pattern borders against a field of diagonal twill.

While much of the work by non-Indian artists lacks this kind of physical integrity, Nicholas Galanin, the Alaskan Tlinglit artist who works in various Conceptual Art modes, does muster some of it by wittily appropriating the rock-art technique especially favored by the Native Americans of the Southwest. Into the sidewalk in front of the gallery he has incised the silhouette of a small horned animal like those found on several objects inside, as well as the word “Indians” rendered in the distinctive script used by the Cleveland baseball team, but without the Indian caricature of the logo. Redolent of tattoos and graffiti, these works bring the fuel-efficient unity posed by the Native American works in this show squarely into the present.

“Kindred Spirits: Native American Influences on 20th Century Art” continues through Jan. 28 at the Peter Blum Gallery, 99 Wooster Street, near Spring Street, SoHo; (212) 343-0441, peterblumgallery.com.

 

 Roberta Smith