Author, Harvard professor, and historian Philip J. Deloria describes the era captured in the nearly lost art of his great aunt, Mary Sully, as a “critical moment — sometime in the 1920s, perhaps — when many American Indian people crafted new and different lives for themselves.” Deloria writes this characterization as part of an introduction to Becoming Mary Sully (University of Washington Press), a detailed survey of the extant works of the Dakota Sioux artist. The book underscores her unique position as an American Indian Modernist and examines the wider historical context of her surprising and original work, and the political, social, and aesthetic forces that shaped it.
“Let us return to the moment when many Indian people, like Mary Sully, staked a native claim to modernism,” Deloria writes, placing his great aunt’s work alongside Kiowa artist Stephen Mopope’s “Kiowa Warrior on Horseback” (1928-29) and Pueblo artist Awa Tsireh’s “Mounted Warriors” (1925-30). The latter two works feature detailed depictions of Indian men arrayed with traditional accessories — bows, shields, buckskin, and feathers — on horseback against spare, monochrome backgrounds. By contrast, Sully’s work “Helen Willis” (ca. 1929), which refers to a rising tennis star of the era, does not directly represent either her heritage or her subject, but rather presents a blend of both. An abstract with subtly representational elements, it is rendered in the colored pencils that were Sully’s signature medium. The picture plane is dominated by a kidney bean shape that roughly suggests an old-fashioned painter’s palette, but where one would expect to find blobs of paint there are five tri-colored geometric rosettes. An inset kidney bean shape in the palette’s center contains a field of cross-hatched lines that resemble the mesh of a tennis racket; the background of the image behind the larger bean has the same mesh in larger gauge. Beneath this center point, four intersecting red and brown points frame what looks like a decorative stand or, maybe, a trophy base. Nothing is directly identifiable, but it all alludes to the nature of both the subject and the artist.
“In subject and execution, Sully’s art has almost nothing in common with the works of Mopope or Awa Tsireh,” writes Deloria, “or with that of other contemporaneous American Indian artists.” This, combined with Sully’s tendency to join images into triptych compositions (often connecting them with bits of tape), carves out a space in art and cultural history that is all her own. Deloria considers it exceptional, even in the context of Indigenous modernism.
Selections from Sully’s 134 extant sets of three-panel works are reproduced in the book, and will be included, among the work of some 115 native female artists, in the exhibition Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, which originated at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and is now on view at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa. Sully described these three-part images as “personality prints” meant to convey not only visual complexity, but also narrative tension, in works such as “Three Stages of Indian History” — a particularly evocative triptych to which Deloria devotes an entire chapter.
The top panel of “Three Stages” contains four horizontal strips of figurative images, all mirrored from the center out: the legs of various people; brown figures in silhouette seemingly expressing despair and existential wondering; a frontier wasteland, segmented by fences and littered with broken wagon wheels; and a bucolic scene of native people sitting on grass around fires and near teepees. The middle panel abstracts elements from the first panel into fluid, rolling strips of barbed wire, anguished figures, boots, log cabins, and geometric regalia. The smaller bottom panel is entirely geometric, with a central pillar of colorful diamonds fracturing out into black, browns, and reds — like an earthier take on Mondrian. Deloria charts this progression as loosely representing “a time of goodness, followed by unhappiness, and then uncertainty.” Indeed, Sully’s ability to break daily life into representative objects and gestures, and then further transmute those into dynamic motifs is impressive — reminiscent of artist Diane Simpson’s translation of the personal and domestic into works that can be decorative and universal as well as specific and instructional.
Direction is a crucial element of Sully’s work, with personality prints moving from top to bottom between three panels, but subdivided into many left-to-right subsets, sometimes reading like a contact sheet with assortments of smaller images, or bands of imagery divided into filmic progressions. Her patterned panels can be read as decorative and abstract, but they borrow imagery from the figurative panels above them and the geometric forms below, synthesizing the two and subverting the linear progression of the triptych. The personality prints always have identifiable subjects, name-checking other artists and craftspeople of the time — especially luminaries of the art deco era, who heavily influenced Sully’s aesthetic — as well as celebrities and literary figures. Her work reflects her cultural moment, but it is also as a blueprint for rewriting history to include marginalized perspectives. How lucky and exciting for a scholar of Deloria’s pedigree to discover, stashed among his family archives — at times almost lost permanently — a collection of works so unique, and yet so attuned to art movements of the day. Sully’s sensitivity to her cultural influences and history is acute and visionary, and Deloria’s analysis and scholarship communicates his deep respect for her vision. Emerging from potential obscurity, Sully’s work deepens cultural perceptions of American Indian abstraction.
Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists continues at the Frist Art Museum (919 Broadway, Nashville, TN) through January 12, 2020.