Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 12, 2015
Matthew H. Robb and Jill D’Alessandro Lines on the Horizon: Native American Art from the Weisel Family Collection Exh. cat. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2014. 96 pp. Paper $19.95
Exhibition schedule: de Young Museum, San Francisco, California, May 3, 2014–January 4, 2015
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Bowl (human-avian composite) (ca. 1010–1130). Mimbres. Earthenware with pigment. 4 x 9 3/4 in. (10.1 x 24.7 cm). Gift of the Thomas W. Weisel Family to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Lines on the Horizon: Native American Art from the Weisel Family Collection elegantly showcases a recent donation gifted to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It brings Native art into the spotlight alongside the institution’s diverse holdings from its permanent collection, and celebrates the beauty of objects often unknown to both the general art museumgoer and established art connoisseur. The exhibition features a large selection of ceramic works and textiles by Native artists from the southwestern United States, as well as pieces from the Pacific Northwest and the Great Plains.

The title itself evokes images of the Southwest—a landscape that is connected to perspective and form, where flat expanses of space give rise to mesas and canyons along the edge of the horizon. It also speaks to the geometric features that often define traditional Native American art, such as ancient petroglyphs or painted linear motifs on precontact ceramic vessels that eventually translated to woven textiles.

In the opening gallery, black-and-white painted ceramics sit against a backdrop of vibrant Navajo textiles, their colors remarkably preserved for their age. The bright red patterns seemingly leap from the walls, in successful contrast to their muted backgrounds. In Navajo textiles, the use of the color red emerged by the mid-nineteenth century. Red was a particularly difficult color to come by locally. While some early weavers used dye from the cochineal beetle—an ancient technique that originated in Mesoamerica—most red threads were acquired through trade.

A highlight among the ceramic vessels is nineteen Mimbres bowls, a style of pottery produced from approximately 750–1150 CE. The Mimbres people, part of a larger culture group called the Mogollon, occupied the Mimbres Valley in southwestern New Mexico. Spanish settlers bestowed the name Mimbres, which translates to “willows,” upon the people due to the predominance of this type of tree in the valley (J. J. Brody, Steven A. LeBlanc, and Catherine J. Scott, Mimbres Pottery: Ancient Art of the American Southwest, New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1983, 9). The makers of these distinct ceramics painted them with both geometric designs and animal and human figures. Some of the figures are more easily recognizable as animals native to the Southwest, such as deer, rabbits, and a ring-tailed cat. Others are more fantastical and imaginative, including a human figure being swallowed by a large fish, or composite creatures that appear to be half-human, half-animal, whether bird, feline, or antelope. The exhibition casework is designed well to display the Mimbres ceramics; specially constructed mounts allow the bowls to float in their cases while angled toward the viewer, allowing her or him to lean in close to inspect the designs in detail.

Other ceramic highlights include pre- and postcontact ceramics from the pueblos of Arizona and New Mexico, which range in age from 950 CE to the early twentieth century. These vessels were produced for both traditional uses—such as water jars, which were very important in the arid climate—as well as those made for the tourist trade. Designs among the ceramics include geometric patterns, animal representations, and katsina (commonly known as kachina) figures. While some of these patterns draw from earlier precontact traditions, exchange between Native communities and Euro-American settlers also led to new motifs and styles.

Cultural exchange also played a major role in the production of textiles in the Southwest. Several stunning Navajo blankets are displayed, including rare first-phase chief’s blankets, very few of which are extant. These early blankets were intended to be wrapped horizontally around the body, and their linear designs increase in complexity over a period of four phases. First-phase blankets are characterized by indigo-dyed blue stripes on a background of natural white or brown wool. Weavers used wool from the churro sheep, the earliest known sheep introduced to the Southwest by the Spanish—in 1598 (Kathleen Whitaker, Southwest Textiles: Weavings of the Navajo and Pueblo, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002, 332). All of the first-phase chief’s blankets represented in the exhibition are Classic Period (and date from approximately 1800–64), when the Navajo wove functional textiles for personal use and for trade with the Spanish as well as neighboring tribes. These wearing blankets, or serapes, were made to be used by the community as opposed to pieces that emerged later specifically for sale to be displayed as curios. One of the first-phase chief’s blankets dating to 1840 is displayed on a mannequin in the manner it would be worn, providing additional cultural context.

Although presented as art objects, the textiles, along with the other pieces in the exhibition, are not devoid of history and culture. While the interpretive texts describe materials, design motifs, and stylistic changes, they also provide background information on historical factors that influenced Native peoples, such as disease and conflict brought by the Spanish. One label in particular describes how weaving traditions changed after the Navajo were forcibly exiled to the Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation in New Mexico following defeat by Kit Carson’s troops in 1863. As Native American objects in museums are so often devoid of information about their makers, users, or wearers, providing this cultural history gives additional meaning to these items and reminds visitors that were made by individual artists, even if their name or tribe has been forgotten.

Three Yavapai-Apache baskets from Arizona also accompany the vast array of textiles and ceramics, adding to the diversity of art within the exhibition. Native artists from the Southwest were masterful basket weavers in addition to potters and textile weavers, and the three baskets are a testament to that. The Apache in particular are known for their basket ollas, or large, jar-shaped baskets. Weavers originally made them to store grains, but later produced them for the tourist trade as they became increasingly desired by collectors.

Although the majority of objects are from the southwestern United States, the exhibition also includes several stellar items from the Pacific Northwest. An impressive wooden Haida bear effigy stands watch from a platform in the center of the gallery, an eye-catching figure that draws in visitors. Northwest Coast artworks come from a specific tradition of visual display—human and animal figures adorned clothing, house posts, jewelry, and more. These images were associated with clan crests, which were part of the strict hierarchical social structure of Northwest Coast communities. Clans were made up of lineages, which in turn consisted of several communal households. Each lineage had a distinct crest (Lois Sherr Dubin, North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: From Prehistory to Present, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999, 385).

The exhibition explains how the practice of shamanism played a vital role in Northwest Coast culture. Shamans represented both the secular and supernatural worlds, and their material culture reflects that balance. One case in the exhibition contains a mask, dagger, and rattle from the Tlingit and Tsimshian tribes, all of which are types of objects used by shamans. However, since the mid-nineteenth century, Northwest Coast art has been intertwined with influence from the tourist trade. Native artists made both utilitarian and ceremonial objects such as masks and copper rattles for sale along with traditional use, so not all of these items were used for actual shamanic practices (Mary Jane Lenz, “No Tourist Material: George Heye and his Golden Rule,” American Indian Art Magazine 29, no. 4 (2004): 92).

The Northwest Coast items align nicely with the title and theme of the exhibition as art from this region is based on linear, two-dimensional compositions known as “formlines.” As originally stated by scholar Bill Holm, even three-dimensional objects—such as the Haida bear effigy—stem from linear designs conceived in two dimensions that are then carved out in relief (Janet Catherine Berlo and Ruth B. Phillips, Native North American Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Despite these formline compositions, however, the lines in Northwest Coast designs are never truly parallel or concentric.

The Great Plains ledger drawings featured in the exhibition also embody the concept of “lines on the horizon.” The pencil-drawn pages are from a book of drawings known as the “Old White Woman Ledger,” most likely drawn by multiple Cheyenne artists circa 1880, and is the first ledger art to enter the collection of the Fine Arts Museums. Upon first glance, the graphite lines appear to be simple sketches. However, these drawings have a complex history central to Plains culture. Prior to the emergence of ledger drawings, Plains artists created pictorial imagery through the form of rock art and hide paintings. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, male artists began to sketch images with pencil in bound ledger books introduced by Euro-Americans. These pictorial histories documented warfare, hunting exploits, and scenes of domestic life (Jane M. Szabo, Imprisoned Art, Complex Patronage: Plains Drawings by Howling Wolf and Zotom at the Autry National Center, Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research, 2011: 3) (click here for review).

The interpretive text is also respectfully presented; in addition to including cultural information, the object labels also list preferred tribal names when applicable, such as the Tsistsistas (Cheyenne), or Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl). While some visitors may only be familiar with the older names conferred upon Native peoples by Euro-Americans, the inclusion of the tribally preferred spelling first respectfully acknowledges the makers and their communities. However, visitors unfamiliar with Native American art and culture may wish for more extensive didactics in a few areas. For example, the labels do not explain the intentional holes in the center of many Mimbres bowls that make the pottery so distinctive and unique. Known to scholars as “kill holes” or “spirit holes,” Mimbres peoples would intentionally puncture the centers of vessels and place them over the faces of the deceased in order to allow the spirit to travel to the afterlife. The representation of these vessels in many museum collections, particularly from older institutions, can be somewhat skewed as many early collectors filled in the holes in an attempt to repair them. An explanation of the holes in Mimbres ceramics could not only educate visitors about these early repairs—as well as museum conservation efforts—but also provide more cultural context to their makers.

Another case contains three ceramics attributed to Nampeyo, the iconic Hopi-Tewa potter, yet does not include any biographical information or background to describe her significance as one of the most well-known Native artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Nampeyo developed her signature style by using designs from ancient Hopi pottery. She visited the ruins of Sikyatki, an ancient village on First Mesa at Hopi, which had been excavated by archaeologist Jesse Walter Fewkes of the Smithsonian Institution in 1895. She drew inspiration from Sikyatki wares to create her revival pottery style. Her family members assisted her once her eyesight began to fail, and continued on themselves as accomplished potters, creating a legacy that has lasted for four generations (Barbara Kramer, Nampeyo and Her Pottery, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003: 154).

However, as including too much text is a challenge for all museum exhibitions, the absence of a few interpretive points is made up through the accompanying publication. Visitors interested in learning more detail about topics such as Mimbres ceramics or Nampeyo can consult the catalogue, which features essays by de Young Museum curators Matthew H. Robb and Jill D’Alessandro and is as aesthetically presented as the exhibition.

The carefully selected objects in Lines on the Horizon convey the diversity of Native art across North America. Whether shaped by hand, woven, carved, or sketched, the objects speak to artistic and cultural traditions that Native artists have practiced for centuries. The donor of the collection is Thomas W. Weisel, who has been collecting Native art for decades. Weisel’s interest in collecting this material is unique; he was originally drawn to first-phase chief’s blankets because of their simple linear composition. A collector of postwar American art in addition to Native art, he draws comparisons between the designs in Navajo textiles and works by Abstract Expressionist artists such as Barnett Newman (Kenneth Baker, “Weisel Foundation Gives American Indian Art to S.F. Museums,” San Francisco Chronicle [April 1, 2014]: http://www.sfgate.com/art/article/Weisel-foundation-gives-American-Indian-art-to-5365314.php). This initial aesthetic interest in first-phase chief’s blankets has led him to amass a strong collection of rare and culturally significant items, which will benefit future researchers and casual museumgoers alike. This recent donation, which has greatly expanded the Fine Arts Museums’ holdings of Native American art, is a true asset to the institution and will hopefully inspire more interest in Native art for further exhibitions.

Paige Bardolph
Associate Curator, Autry National Center

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.