Native peoples have been making art in the Americas for 30,000 years, with each tribe or nation developing their own unique style. For the most part, though not exclusively, indigenous native art (song, dance, sculpture, and painting) has been concerned with ritual worship, the sacred, the elements, warriorship, harvests, and rites of passage. Their idea of color, horizontal and vertical planes, different textures and materials using craft and ritual implements was viewed as simplistic, untutored and “primitive” until the mid twentieth century. Thus, Native practitioners pursuing a Europeanized artform were seen as derivative, not syncretic, and excluded from many of the dialogues occurring in the houses of power — museums, academia, and other cultural institutions.
The New York School of abstract painting is commonly understood to have descended from the more or less grand tradition of European modernism, with a sprinkle of African art thrown in via Cubism, pinches of Russian constructivism and suprematism, and a cascading mix of precolonial influences: Spanish, French, English, Dutch, Portuguese, Scandinavian, Mexican, and Caribbean.
New York itself, needless to say, has a long history with Native Americans, beginning with the pre-Columbian societies that were transformed by the 1626 sale of Manhattan by the Lenape/Algonquin Indians to the Dutch for 60 guilders. After that time, and until around World War II, their art was commonly viewed by mainstream American society as something either tourists saw in fairs or Native American regional centers or as accoutrements to a diorama display in institutions like the American Museum of Natural History. By the 1970s, following the political upheaveal at the end of the previous decade, Lloyd E. Oxendine (Lumbee), supported by the abstract painter Leon Polk Smith, opened the city’s first gallery of Native art, the American Art Gallery in Soho.
“The Old Becomes The New,” a show running through June 2 at Wilmer Jennings Gallery, tackles a particularly overlooked aspect of Native American artistic development — the fertile exchange that took place between the New York abstract expressionists and Native artists. Curated by David Bunn Martine (Chiricahua Apache/Shinnecock/Montauk), a painter, curator and museum director of the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum in Southhampton, New York, the show has the makings of an exhibition that one day belongs at the Smithsonian or other such institution of national heritage.
In New York, there are now two generations of Native artists. The first contains those who were influenced, often on a personal basis, by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Theodoros Stamos, Leon Polk Smith, and Esteban Vincente. The second generation contains those who came after, and are currently active here and abroad. Leon Polk Smith, one of the originators of the “hard edge” technique in painting, was Cherokee, though discreet about it, according to Dore Ashton’s introduction to the show’s catalogue. In Polk’s compositions there is no sense of “other” or “Indians.” He believed in “line, color and the concept of space and its use as a positive force,” and he was a mentor to such hard edge giants as Ellsworth Kelly. Robert Rauschenberg was proudly one-quarter Cherokee, and his upbringing and heritage figured strongly in his artistic output.
In a mixed-media piece like Lorenzo Clayton’s, there is no overt reference to anything other than the contemporary art dialogue. Does this mean he has turned his back on his heritage, or does it mean he has broken free from racial and ethnic stereotypes? Jason Lujan (Chiricahua Apache/Mexican) works with silkscreens that have a global, transcultural feel that can reference either the space age, or abstract tepee structures. Yatika Star Fields uses urban themes and spray paint to make images that apear digital, but are not. Neal Ambrose Smith makes works about zombies and other futuristic supernatural creatures. Is he dealing with native myth or futuristic science fiction?
There are a surprising number of female artists represented for such a compact show. Athena LaTocha uses stick, stones and other non-traditional means to spread pigmented and other materials onto and into the pictorial plane. Jude Norris/Tatakwan a Plains Cree Metis artist from Canada creates sardonic collage photographs of Native Americans mounted on horseback who pop up in a typical Bronx urban landscape, and Melissia Staiger paints colourful, sharp toothed abstractions.
Should all Native art be based upon its relationship to the entire canon of Western art history? If so, then the nation-state, trade, colonialism, slavery, war, economics and finance are dragged into the analysis. Who adopted whose style? How is Native art reactive to colonial influences? Does contemporary Native art — which has adopted global norms and conventions — deny its roots? At this point does it even matter? These are just a few of the questions raised by this important exhibit.
The Old Becomes The New: New York Contemporary Native American Art Movement And The New York School continues at Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba (219 East Second Street, East Village, Manhattan) through June 2.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly included Yatika Star Fields in a paragraph listing female artists. We regret the error.