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I wonder how many Americans know that 42,000 Native Americans were members of the US Armed Forces during the Vietnam War (1964–75), or that one in 65 soldiers who fought in the war was Native American. This fact leapt out at me while I was reading the wall texts in the exhibition T. C. Cannon: At the Edge of America at the National Museum of the American Indian New York. Originating at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and movingly organized by Karen Kramer, the Peabody’s curator of Native American and Oceanic Art, it is an extensive survey of the work of a wildly prolific, diverse, and brilliantly adventuresome artist who died in a car accident at the age of 31.
In addition to a large number of paintings — many of which should be better known than they are — the exhibition includes drawings, sketchbooks, prints, tapes of Cannon singing his favorite songs as well as ones he wrote, poems, letters, film clips, and much else. With this range of materials, Kramer attempts to get at the often-contradictory and complex strands that wove through Cannon’s brief life.
T. C. Cannon (or Tommy Wayne Cannon, 1946-1978, Caddo/Kiowa) belongs to that category of doomed artists who died young. Other such artists include Frédéric Bazile (1841–1870), Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Franz Marc (1880–1916), and, closer to home, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988). All of them left us with an unquenchable desire for more.
Cannon was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, located in the state’s southwest corner less than 100 miles from Oklahoma City. Founded at the turn of the 20th century, on the former reservation lands of the Kiowa, Commanche, and Apache Indians, Lawton is close to Fort Sill, an army base built in the mid-19th century, during the American Indian Wars, and still active today. Instead of trying to assimilate or deny his heritage, Cannon registered himself with his father’s tribe as a Kiowa with the name Pai-doung-u-day, which translates as “one who stands in the sun.”
In 1964, he enrolled in the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he studied with, and soon influenced, Fritz Scholder, who refused to address his own American Indian identity until he met Cannon. Scholder subsequently gained attention for his expressionist portraits, which undermine stereotypes by portraying men in feathered headdress drinking a beer or sitting with an American flag in the background.
Cannon was not interested in replicating stereotypes, but in pursuing the possibilities of self-representation; he was determined to address the complexities and conflicts of being a member of a proud, persecuted people, whose traditions were systematically misunderstood, parodied, and outlawed during his lifetime. He wanted to make art that pushed back against the relentless displacement that Americans Indians have endured in the US, a society that — unable to recognize them as individuals — simultaneously mythologizes and debases them.
In 1967, Cannon dropped out of the San Francisco Art Institute and became a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division. Two years later, having completed one tour and received many commendations and medals, including two Bronze Stars, he returned to civilian life. What makes Cannon’s decision to join the combat especially confounding is that his favorite musician at the time was Bob Dylan, whose lyrics inspired him to write his own. Think about this for a moment: Cannon, a young man with immense artistic talent, who plays a guitar and writes songs and poems, decides to become a paratrooper for a country that destroyed his culture. This isn’t just ironic. It’s tragic on a grand scale.
In the painting “Soldier” (1970), done before he was 25, Cannon depicts a figure with arms outstretched, in a pose that evokes a crucifixion, against a white background. The left side of the figure is red-skinned and dressed in Native American garb, while the right side is blonde and fair, and is dressed in a blue cavalry uniform.
The words “Minnesota Sioux” appear at the top of an ink drawing dating from the 1970s. Below, Cannon has drawn a noose with the phrase “Insert Here” beside it. As the wall text states:
In December 1862, President Abraham Lincoln approved the executions of thirty-eight [men] in a quickly moving, unfair trial. The Dakotas were hanged a week before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed African American slaves.
“John Wayne’s Bullet” (1973) is an ink drawing of an American Indian man lying horizontally. His head raised, he looks down at his body. A fountain of blood, painted in bright red watercolor, erupts from his torso. This matter-of-fact view of Hollywood’s characterization of an Indian is stinging. It recalls that oft-repeat movie line: “the only good injun is a dead one.”
Cannon’s greatest achievements are his painted portraits. The painting, “Indian with Beaded Headdress” (1978), done the year of his death, depicts a man in ceremonial regalia. Seated sideways in an aluminum chair, with his head turned, he stares sternly and reticently at the viewer. In these and other paintings done during the 1970s, Cannon hits his stride. His subject is the dilemma that American Indians have long faced: Which customs do you hold onto and which do you relinquish? This is not a matter of identity politics but of the layers and contradictions of self-representation in a society that valorizes assimilation and whiteness.
Highly conscious of the representation of American Indians by Edward S. Curtis, whose staged photographs ignore the sanctioned genocidal destruction that killed off more than 4/5 of all Native peoples, starting in 1492, Cannon restates the pose of a well-known sepia photograph by Curtis in his painting “Small Catcher” (1973-78). This painting exemplifies his directed engagement with history and representation, which is where he reaches something powerful and all his own. The paintings from this decade form a singular body of work that needs to be far better known.
And then — like a bright candle — he was extinguished, leaving us with the unmistakable sense that even more commanding greatness awaited him.
T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America continues at the National Museum of the American Indian New York (Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, One Bowling Green, Manhattan) through September 16.