Art That Shaped a Nation: 80 Years of Native American Painting

Sandra Bertrand


Most of us have a passing acquaintance of Native American art, and some of us from an early age—TV and film sagas of cowboys and Indians that led us on family vacations to the iconic treasures of a trading post.  Indian headdresses, tomahawks, colorful drums, turquoise jewelry, maybe even a dream-catcher or two we could add to our collection once back home.

A visit to the National Museum of the American Indian’s current exhibition, “Stretching the Canvas, Eight Decades of Native Painting,” at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in New York City, will at the least challenge those lifelong presumptions.  Better still, it will prove that artistic genius is alive and thriving among the First Americans.  While the rest of us were in thrall of every new artistic movement making waves on the urban scene, these Navajo, Cherokee, Hopi, Crow, Cheyenne (and the list goes on) descendants were working behind the scenes all along to revolutionize our thinking.


A beginning training ground for Oklahoma Native nations was led by Acee Blue Eagle who taught at Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma.  These artists worked in an illustrative style -- The Shalako People by Fred Kabotie (1900-1986) from 1930 is a good example. Self-taught Indian painters educated in government-run schools were discouraged from individual innovation.  A 1930 government feasibility study warned: “Teaching unless properly supervised, is capable of destroying native arts.” But this would soon change.

Quincy Tahoma (1917-1956) was an early member of the Santa Fe Indian School’s Studio program, breaking away from their static style, incorporating narrative and perspective in his works.  In First Furlough 1943, a Navajo family mirrors the nation’s wartime experiences. 

An early abstractionist in this eclectic mix was George Morrison (1919-2000) who gravitated to NYC’s Art Students League after WWII, and quickly embraced abstract expressionism with bold colors and spontaneous strokes.  After all, Native designs on pottery, blankets, and baskets had always been abstract, so some believed they were instinctively ahead of the curve.



This spirit of change in the air did not go unnoticed by Native American women artists, and several of their works on display take center stage for this reviewer. Helen Hardin (1943-1984) gives us Prayers of a Hopi Eagle (1965) utilizing traditions of pottery design in an elegant swirling abstraction.  Kay Walkingstick (b.1935-) presents a brooding and dramatic abstract work, Homage to Chief Joseph I (1975) with colors reminiscent of a dying desert sunset placed inside of what appears to be a black proscenium theatre curtain.  Another later work, New Mexico Desert (2011) is a more expressionistic landscape of ochre buttes and roiling white clouds.  Judith Lowry (b.1948) has created  Her Fortune (1993), an instant draw to the eye with two women—a Madonna-like fortune-teller and sitting opposite her, a gussied-up, modern-day Indian princess who reacts to the fortune-cookie readings in front of her.  There’s a riveting, tongue-in-cheek quality to the work that is unforgettable.


This is an exhibition full of surprises, as the artists shift their perspectives -- rejecting at times a rigid allegiance to their forebearers and accepting the artistic sway of art movements in the wider culture. 



In 1962, the Rockefeller Foundation initiated the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which taught graphic design and painting reflecting Pop Art and modernist abstraction.  A perfect example of this evolution is in the work of Harry Fonseca (1946-2006).  He created an alter-ego, Coyote, in his paintings who appears here in Dance Break (1982) as four Koshare—Pueblo sacred clowns—eating cotton candy and smoking as they rest from feast day dances.  Irreverent and whimsical, this work in pale pinks and charcoals lets loose the artist’s illustrative talents.

Dan Namingha (b. 1950) proves himself a striking colorist with Pueblo at Dusk (1987), a gorgeous display of acrylic washes lighting up an adobe village at the end of day.  Fritz Scholder (1937-2005) startles with his politically charged portrait, The American Indian (1970), wrapped in the American flag.  It’s as if the elderly chief had been asked unwittingly to pose for a TV commercial. 

Tony Abeyta (b.1965) has created a work of majestic complexity in its overall composition.  An honorable testament to its subject, The Grand Canyon (2015) captures the changing moods of that natural wonder by a powerful and kinetic collision of planes.



Arguably, the most haunting work is Deer Dancer for Hyacinth (2001) by Rick Bartow.  (1946-2016).  A Pacific Northwest artist, he fought with addiction and post-traumatic stress that emerges in his dark compositions.  Here, his distorted male figure appears to be in a state of transformation, his head sprouting antlers.  The power of this large pastel, charcoal, and pencil drawing suggests the raw intensity of Austrian painter Egon Schiele’s naked portraits.

It would be remiss not to mention the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, one of the most beautiful examples of Beaux Art architecture in the city.  Designed by Cass Gilbert (who later designed the Woolworth Building), it now houses the George Gustav Heyes Center of the National Museum of the American Indian (the New York branch of the Smithsonian collection in Washington, DC.)  The Custom House is also home to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern district of New York, and since 1912, the National Archives at New York City. 



For those visitors interested in viewing this stunning example of modern and contemporary Native art on view until Fall 2021, I recommend allowing extra time to appreciate the lavish sculptures, paintings and decorations that embellish the façade of the Custom House, the two-story entry portico, the main hall, and especially the second floor rotunda, where you will find a cycle of murals from 1937 by Reginald Marsh, commissioned by the Treasury Relief Art Project and aided by the Works Project Administration (WPA).

And, if you’re so inclined, the gift shop directly opposite the exhibition is chockfull of Native American sculpture, jewelry, pottery, publications, and souvenirs to satisfy any and every budget.  If New York residents and tourists alike would put a visit to this museum on their wish list, these remarkable Native artists would be that much closer to the inclusion in the larger society they deserve.


The free exhibition runs through Fall 2021 at the National Museum of the American Indian New York, One Bowling Green, New York City.


Author Bio:


Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.


For Highbrow Magazine

not popular
All photos courtesy of the Museum of the American Indian
Bottom Slider: 
Out Slider