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Abstract Expressionism still holds a mythic power over art historians, curators, and museum directors as the most “American” style of painting. Critics, notably Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, enshrined the movement’s artists and their canvases covered in pours and drips as expressions of personal freedom and a peculiarly American subjectivity. Action/Abstraction Redefined: Modern Native Art, 1945–1975 provides a welcome disruption. Artists like Jackson Pollock and Adolph Gottlieb are present in the catalog texts and didactic labels, but none of their works hang on the walls. Action/Abstraction Redefined is the first in-depth presentation of how contemporary Native artists intersected with Abstract Expressionism beyond a primitivist framework. The installation, catalog, and website introduce visitors to different schools of postwar abstraction through the work of Native modernists between 1945 and 1975. Curators Manuela Well-Off-Man, PhD, Tatiana Lomaheftawa-Singer (Hopi/Choctaw), and Lara Evans (Cherokee), PhD, group the exhibition by paintings, works on paper, and sculpture that exemplify three styles of abstraction: hard-edge, gestural/action, and Color Field. These range from large Color Field paintings awash in pink and orange to controlled stoneware vessels marked expressively with slip. The installation breathes air into the canon of modern art in the United States while illuminating how relational pedagogy at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) established the school as a catalyst for Native modernism.
The exhibition began as an installation at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA), in Santa Fe, New Mexico, from 2017 to 2019. Subsequent support from the Art Bridges Foundation allowed the exhibition to travel to six different locations beginning in 2022, including the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where I saw it. Sourced entirely from MoCNA’s collection, the exhibition primarily features work by faculty and students at the IAIA as well as other important Native modernists. Established as a high school program in 1962, the IAIA continues to provide a place for pedagogical and artistic experimentation in the present as an accredited art college. Work by early students from the institute make up the majority of works on display in Action/Abstraction Redefined, like the dusky painting The Quiet Land, the Warm Land (ca. 1965) by Linda Lomaheftawa (Hopi/Choctaw b. 1947–) and the rough-hewn clay sculpture by Manuelita Lovato (Santo Domingo Pueblo 1944–1999).
The founding of the IAIA marked an important departure from previous education programs supported by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) that had enforced the cultural assimilation of Native students. As Lloyd H. Kiva New (Cherokee 1916–2002), the founding Art Director and later Director of the IAIA, outlined in a 1968 essay, published by the US Department of the Interior, entitled “Cultural Difference as the Basis for Creative Education,” instructors at the IAIA expected and encouraged students to use their “cultural differences” as a “rich wellspring from which may be drawn new creative forces relevant to contemporary conditions and environments.” Many of the artists in Action/Abstraction Redefined who attended the school during its early years returned after graduation as faculty. At the IAIA, students from Native communities across the United States came together. In the careers of artists in this exhibition and beyond, the immense influence of the institute’s unique cultural environment and pedagogical approach on the development of modern and contemporary Native art comes into view.
In Action/Abstraction Redefined, Abstract Expressionism gives viewers coordinates for triangulating the legacy of the IAIA within orthodox narratives of postwar American art. By stretching the boundaries of what has historically and reductively been termed the “New York School,” Action/Abstraction Redefined destabilizes American modernism’s normative center. Work completed by Native artists active in New York during this time, like George Morrison (Chippewa), have gradually been incorporated into the corpus. But Action/Abstraction Redefined asks the viewer to reconsider Abstract Expressionism: what happens when the New York School appears in Santa Fe? Few art historians now hold the original party line that Abstract Expressionism was apolitical. Scholars like Darby English have called into question the division between abstract art as apathetic and representational art as politically active (1971: A Year in the Life of Color, University of Chicago Press, 2016). Action/Abstraction Redefined adds to these histories, aptly demonstrating that New York did not hold a monopoly on gestural abstract styles and that ideologies of freedom had higher stakes in other contexts.
Native art has generally been linked to Abstract Expressionism via primitivism, a myth of authenticity imposed by white artists and collectors on Indigenous people. Critical work by scholars Bill Anthes and W. Jackson Rushing III have shown how abstract artists in New York drew inspiration from sources as diverse as Diné (Navajo) sandpainting and Northwest formline designs (Native Moderns American Indian Painting, 1940-1960, Duke University Press, 2008; Native American Art and the New York Avant-Garde: A History of Cultural Primitivism, University of Texas Press, 1995). The artists in Action/Abstraction Redefined show that these relationships of influence were reciprocal rather than one-sided. In their catalog essays, Manuela Well-Off-Man and Tatiana Lomahaftewa-Singer establish that the primary difference between artists at the IAIA and those in the New York School was that they worked with material from within their own cultures of expression. As Lomahaftewa-Singer writes, “IAIA artists did not have to look far for inspirations for their abstractions: abstract elements were part of Native art for thousands of years” (Action/Abstraction Redefined: Modern Native Art, 1940s to 1970s, Santa Fe: IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, 2018). Federally funded arts programs like the IAIA’s predecessor, the Studio School of the Santa Fe Indian School, had previously encouraged students to maintain the value of “authenticity,” or static traditionalism, in their work through romantic representations of Native life. Famously, organizers of the competitive 1958 Philbrook Indian Annual rejected a painting by modernist Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Dakota 1915–1983) for not being “Indian” enough. The IAIA was one of the first institutions that encouraged students to experiment with abstraction. Within this context, the dramatic pours of Untitled (Mole Hole Series) (ca. 1967) by Earl Biss (Crow 1947–1998) and the controlled lines of Don Montileaux’s (Sioux b. 1948–) Four Legs of Life (1968) are political because they participate in a widespread refusal of the art world’s imposition of racist stereotypes. Action/Abstraction Redefined shows how Native modernists both cleared and claimed artistic ground for Native expressive practices past, present, and future.
The catalog and installation emphasize the social and pedagogical networks that informed the artists’ work. In the central gallery dedicated to painting, New Mexico (1965) by Fritz Scholder (Luiseño 1937–2005) hangs on a baffle wall. Soft bands of crimson interspersed with washes of white, orange, purple, and green evoke the New Mexico landscape and resemble the stripes of a Diné blanket, not on view (Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian, National Museum of the American Indian, 2008, 88). Scholder began teaching painting at the IAIA in 1964. As an instructor, he both influenced and drew inspiration from the work of students like T.C. Cannon (Caddo/Kiowa 1946–1978). A painting by Cannon called Firelights, also painted in 1965, hangs on the other side of the wall. While Scholder’s New Mexico series is iconic, the orange and black lines dancing across Cannon’s canvas bear more resemblance to Franz Kline’s calligraphic black and white paintings than to Cannon’s broader practice. Hung together, both paintings point to the early influence of Abstract Expressionism at the school, before Scholder, Cannon, and others began making representational work interrogating Native identity and sovereignty. Alongside faculty mentorship, video interviews with artists on the exhibition website and quotes in labels speak to how students taught one another. One of the artists in the exhibition, Alfred Young Man (Cree b. 1948–), called the students of the IAIA the “United Nations of Indians.” By bringing students together and giving them a place to belong, the IAIA served as a catalyst for social, political, and artistic change.
The paintings, sculptures, and prints on display show artists who brought their stories and communities with them as they searched for ways to thrive in the modern world. Recently, scholars of Indigenous art in North America like Ruth Phillips, Jessica L. Horton, and Heather Igloliorte (Inuk, Nunatsiavut) have developed a relativistic approach to modern art. These frameworks cast “modernisms” as a process that happens again and again along the fault lines of colonial encounters. In the process, heterogeneous aesthetic expressions arise as a way of integrating difference and navigating change. In line with these methods, Action/Abstraction Redefined shows that writing IAIA artists and other Native modernists into the history of American abstraction has a transformative potential. The IAIA is central to understanding American modernism because there was never a single, unifying version of modernity.
That said, the influence of Abstract Expressionism at the IAIA is both the point, and sometimes the problem, of the exhibition. By defining the development of abstraction at the IAIA through its relationship to Abstract Expressionists in New York, the exhibition runs the risk of perpetuating New York as the center and the IAIA as an outpost. But, ultimately, the artists on display hold their own. By centering the revolutionary artistic relationships catalyzed at the IAIA, Action/Abstraction Redefined succeeds in pushing viewers to go beyond the limitations of “Western modernist paradigms,” as Shanna Ketchum-Heap of Birds (Diné/Navajo Nation) proposes in her catalog essay (Action/Abstraction Redefined, 36). The work exhibited in Action/Abstraction Redefined displays a continuation of long held practices of using abstract systems of representation to navigate the world. Each painting, print, and sculpture establishes beyond a doubt that Abstract Expressionism, just like modernism, has never belonged to one place or people.
PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, University of Delaware