One of the more intriguing and underappreciated of American art movements is the group called the Indian Space Painters. Seeking an innately American response to Cubism and Surrealism, artists such as Steve Wheeler, Peter Busa, and Robert Barrell began in the late 1930s to combine elements of Native American and pre-Columbian art in mosaic-like abstractions. Their pulsating compositions, often laden with symbols, melded object and space, subject and myth. The Indian Space Painters shared with their contemporary Abstract Expressionists a number of interests — in all-over design and so-called “primitive” symbols, for instance — but, as history tells us, the visceral gestures and enveloping expanses of Ab-Ex were soon to win out.
From our pluralistic vantage point, the near-total eclipse of the Indian Space Painters may seem just a bit too complete. David Findlay Jr.’s small but handsome installation of works by Wheeler, Busa, Barrell, and Howard Daum — a later member of the group who in 1946 coined its now decidedly un-PC name — offers a too-rare reminder of their achievement.
Installed within the gallery’s smaller space, the fifteen works could be a study in the mutability of forms. Five paintings in tempera by Barrell (1912–95) range in style from jagged, meandering patterns to loose, complex grids of splintering forms. A sense of surreal multiplicity presides: in one painting, birds’ heads and bodies arise here and there, rendered with an angular fierceness reminiscent of Northwestern Native American art. In another, a diving or somersaulting man emerges after prolonged viewing, captured in a fantastically articulated patchwork of ochres and blues.
The two canvases by Daum (1918–88), the largest in the exhibition, are also the most decorative in tone. In “Caprice” (c. 1965), small, geometric shapes pop and sizzle in lively but even-handed sequences of color. Cartouche-like ovals and a stylized animal head hint at the archaic in “Red, White and Black” (1960), but the relaxed rhythms summon the playful as much as the preternatural.
Busa (1914–85), unfortunately, is represented by only a single painting and drawing. But the accumulating pressures of colors — tart yellows, reds, and olive green against a retiring beige — lend the two figures in the Cubistic ”Mythic Dancers” (1947) an eerily convincingly presence.
Most compelling, however, are the six works by Wheeler (1912–92). A brilliant but sometimes temperamental artist, Wheeler declined official membership in the Indian Space Painters, even though his work best exemplifies the movement. Though fastidious in technique and mostly constrained to a style of tight, faceted loops and patterned planes, his paintings give shape to wild roamings of thought; it’s as if their hectic rhythms were lived rather than simply pictured. An urgent whimsy suffuses “Untitled W37” (c. 1950s). Charged by vivid lime and forest greens, as well as scarlets and magentas set against various blues, the fragments of a face emerge, at first in its details: concentric loops for eyes, commas for nostrils. In a moment, it becomes apparent that these are connected by the arcing contours of a head that emerges from and then returns into the pulsing tapestry of colors. Turn back to the details and you’re drawn into the depths: in an abrupt leap of scale, one eye contains a tiny new face of its own.
Even with its more subdued palette, the watercolor-and-ink “Untitled (Head)” (1942) has a pictorial force equal to the artist’s fertile imagination. Again, a face appears, this time with indulgently up-twisted nose and goofy, gaping grin. Surrounding them are pressing planes of tiny, obsessively arrayed squares, diamonds and circles. As often seems the case the artist’s work, the festive and the fearsome are only moments apart: glimmering within one eye socket is a tiny human skull.
There’s nothing else quite like Wheeler’s paintings. One encounters the same pressured intricacy, perhaps, in a painting by Bosch, or even early still lifes by Juan Gris, but the rhythms of both of these masters seem tempered by a wise, ennobling hierarchy of form. Wheeler’s work is different, and indeed unique, restlessly surging against his own relentless control. It’s the vision of a modern-age shaman, made palpable in color and form.
Indian Space Painters continues at David Findlay Jr. Gallery (724 Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through March 8.
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