Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 9, 2009
Bill Anthes Native Moderns: American Indian Painting, 1940–1960 Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. 304 pp.; 28 color ills.; 6 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (9780822338505)

In the opening pages of Native Moderns: American Indian Painting, 1940–1960, Bill Anthes describes in no uncertain terms the contribution he expects the book to make to the field of twentieth-century art scholarship: he asserts that, though the study focuses on American Indian painting in the immediate postwar period, his is “not merely a recovery project with the goal of adding a few neglected figures to the canon of American modernism.” Rather, he insists that “bringing Native American modernism to the foreground rewrites the canon and the key terms of American modernism” (xiii). Over the course of six chapters and a postscript, Anthes substantiates this claim, demonstrating that the major concerns and characteristic themes of postwar art and culture—the shaping of individual and national identities, the expansion and contraction of geopolitical realms, tensions between representational and abstract forms, between the traditional and the avant-garde, and between urban and rural existence, as well as an ongoing fascination with primitivism, authenticity, and (self-)invention—are inextricably entwined with the very real circumstances of Native American lives and cultures in transition at mid-century.

Despite its title, Anthes’s work is not a survey; it is a series of case studies. This will be a disappointment to some readers, particularly those who hope to use the text in undergraduate teaching. Teachers of Native American art history may expect the book to pick up where J. J. Brody’s seminal work, Indian Painters and White Patrons (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971), left off, tracing the profound changes in both formal qualities and subject matter of Native American painting in the period following the dissolution of the Santa Fe Studio (see also J. J. Brody, Pueblo Indian Painting: Tradition and Modernism in New Mexico, 1900–1930, Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1997; and Bruce Bernstein and W. Jackson Rushing, Modern By Tradition: American Indian Painting in the Studio Style, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1995). In fact, Anthes’s book contributes much to the field of Native American art history, revisiting familiar territory with an excellent overview of “Modern Indian Policy” (both governmental and non-governmental institutions such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, and the Museum of Modern Art), and devoting chapters to the lives and works of Patrick DesJarlait, George Morrison, Oscar Howe, and Dick West. Anthes’s retelling of episodes such as the rejection of DesJarlait’s and Howe’s paintings (on the grounds that they were not “traditional” enough) from the Philbrook Indian Annuals is enriched with details from difficult-to-access sources such as contemporaneous first-person narratives, interviews, and correspondence. Anthes takes great pains to establish both the broad and the very particular historical and cultural contexts in which the works under discussion were produced, and received. A concise yet illuminating history of the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation accompanies Anthes’s discussion of DesJarlait’s work, for example, and these details contribute a great deal to the reader’s appreciation of his paintings.

Nevertheless, and much to his credit, Anthes is not content to simply flesh out historical vignettes; each case study is underscored by a body of cultural theory that, while varying from chapter to chapter, weaves disparate materials into a coherent narrative that convincingly refigures the history of American modernism. In a chapter entitled “The Culture Brokers”—centered on Pueblo artists Jose Lente and Jimmie Byrnes, who provided to anthropologists (in the 1930s and 1950s, respectively) illustrations of Pueblo religious practices—Anthes employs the language of postmodern theory to cast the artists as border crossers, as thoroughly modern individuals who moved between urban spaces and traditional reservation communities. This is a generous reading to be sure: Lente’s transmission to outsiders of cultural secrets was a serious transgression of community protocol, and the artist frequently reminded his patroness Elsie Clews Parsons that revelation of his identity could result in his death. Anthes’s postmodern writing of this history is not apologist, and he is careful to avoid either condemning or condoning Lente’s actions; however, his decision not to illustrate Lente’s or Byrnes’s paintings in the volume raises as many ethical questions as it resolves. While directing the reader to previously published sources for these illustrations, Anthes describes sacred imagery in great detail.

In Anthes’s view, Lente’s story marks a “paradigmatic moment of modernity and an emerging Native American modernism.” He writes:

It is Lente’s reimagining of cultural property as portable that is most significant. Lente made a modern leap when he imagined that his drawings of sacred events could have secular significance. Alienated socially and spiritually, Lente sought recognition and status not through traditional Pueblo means but rather through his relationship to an outside audience for whom he transformed images of embedded religious practices into autonomous aesthetic objects—artworks—for circulation in the wider world. (35–36)

With this passage, Anthes reveals—and reinscribes—some of the foundational myths of modernism, namely that modernism is opposed to tradition, that true “artworks” are essentially aesthetic rather than utilitarian or even sacred, and that the modern artist is an alienated, autonomous, and frequently troubled individual.

Were Anthes’s study to end here, his conclusions would be somewhat disconcerting. In chapters that follow, however, the author interrogates each of these assumptions, arguing for example that Howe regarded the fractured planes and abstract forms of his paintings as derived from traditional Sioux symbolism rather than from the Cubist paintings he had encountered while serving in Europe during World War II. To complicate the issues of artistic individualism, alienation, and autonomy, Anthes draws on the examples of the lives and careers of Howe, Morrison, and DesJarlait; he traces their trajectories first out of, and ultimately back to, their traditional communities and homelands. Comparing and contrasting the varied experiences of these men, while also carefully analyzing the form and subject matter of their paintings, Anthes guides the reader to a fuller appreciation of the complexities of both Native American art and modernism.

Taken as a whole, the chapters of Anthes’s book aptly support his assertion that the terms “Native” and “Modern” are neither mutually exclusive nor even binary. To the degree that the book does pick up where earlier scholarship on Native American art in the first decades of the twentieth century left off, this might be its principal contribution to the field. Anthes deftly exposes the opposition of the two categories as a pernicious trope of neocolonialism—a false dichotomy that has overshadowed Native American art scholarship since the publication of Edwin Wade’s The Arts of the North American Indian: Native Traditions in Evolution (Manchester, VT: Hudson Hills Press, 1986). Critically, Anthes’s book is informed by a decidedly post-1980s academic perspective, one that attributes a greater degree of agency to the artist than was afforded by earlier scholars. Basing much of his argument on Marshall Berman’s definition of modernism as inclusive of any and all attempts on the part of “modern men and women to become subjects as well as objects of modernization, to get a grip on the modern world and make themselves home in it” (Berman quoted in Anthes, xx–xxi), Anthes grants the precondition of the subjectivity of the artist while devoting much of the book to an investigation of literal and figurative spaces.

Implicit in Anthes’s discussion of Lente and Byrnes, DesJarlait and Morrison, Howe, and West is a criticism of postmodernist theory’s insistence on the “estrangement of modern individuals from the specificities of local experience” (114). In respectful contradiction of Fredric Jameson’s framing of the modern as an “annihilation of space”; Arjun Appadurai’s evocation of “the unyoking of imagination from place”; and even Terry Smith’s assertion that the city is the primary site of modernism, Anthes argues convincingly that the innovative, abstract, hybrid compositions of the Native modernists were in fact firmly emplaced—grounded in the local:

For both DesJarlait and Morrison, a deeply felt connection to place defined their modernist art as different from the work of their non-Indian peers. . . . [T]heir work did not share [Barnett] Newman’s dream of a modernist utopia of dissolved borders or an ‘inter-American consciousness,’ nor did it partake of Newman’s disdain for the local and the provincial. Indeed, DesJarlait continued to practice a kind of Regionalism—a celebration of the particular qualities and virtues of the specific place of Red Lake—well after that style had fallen out of critical favor. And Morrison, whose Abstract Expressionist paintings of the 1950s and 1960s expunged all reference to specific places and subject matter, began to reintroduce specific landscapes into his work when he returned to Minnesota and reclaimed a connection to the landscape of Grand Portage. (114)

Anthes’s invocation of Newman in this passage is not at all incidental. In fact, Newman is a pivotal figure in Native Moderns, and Anthes devotes an entire, brilliantly written chapter to the Abstract Expressionist’s “romance with Native American art” (61) and his efforts to develop a universal visual language based in Primitivism. While other scholars of Native American art, notably Gerald McMaster and Robert Houle, have praised Newman for “opening fissures in the master narrative” (McMaster, quoted in Anthes, 60), Anthes’s deeper analysis of the period reveals much more about the positioning of Native American art in the public imagination. He concludes that, even as the space opened up for Native American artists was “modest and conflicted” (88), it was nevertheless a space readily claimed by Native modernists. While some readers may find problematic the insertion of this chapter on Newman into a study of American Indian Painting—especially given that Newman’s vision of Primitivism rendered living Native artists invisible—the chapter clearly establishes Anthes’s study to be something greater than a survey text. Not only does he craft a broader, truer vision of American modernism, but he employs Newman here to open a dialogue about cultural appropriation, authenticity, and, ultimately, identity politics.

These issues come to the fore in a chapter addressing the work of another non-Native artist, Yeffe Kimball. Kimball was a Primitivist active in New York City and Provincetown, who gained considerable recognition for her art while passing as an American Indian from the 1940s until her death in 1978. Blatantly fabricating her Osage heritage, Kimball took Primitivism to its logical extremes, appropriating not only an artistic teleology, aesthetic, and full catalogue of subject matter, but an entire “identity” as well. As in his discussion of Lente, Anthes avoids a simple condemnation of Kimball’s charade, probing beyond it to question instead whether the conditions of modernism itself had encouraged Kimball to fake her Indian identity. Anthes suggests that Kimball constructed an identity that enabled her to carve out a territory of acceptable difference (as opposed to the difference of her gender) in an art world wholly dominated by white males, and this brings the identity politics of American modernism into sharp focus (see also Ann Gibson, Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

Read side by side, the case studies presented by Anthes in Native Moderns: American Indian Painting, 1940–1960 attest to multiple modernities, and in this respect Anthes joins the ranks of a growing number of scholars who stress the plural form of the term modernism (e.g., Kobena Mercer, Cosmopolitan Modernisms, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005; and Elizabeth Kennedy, ed., The Eight and American Modernisms, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). Nevertheless, the noun that Anthes compounds is “moderns,” and the success of the book is owed to the author’s ability to fix our attention on the real, complex lives of the men and women who forever altered the landscape of Native American art.

Kate Morris
Vice-President, Native American Art Studies Association; Associate Professor of Art History, Santa Clara University