Native American Art Term Paper

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Native American Art

Post-War Native American Art

To evaluate the impact that Native American art has had on the evolution of late Modernism - and vice versa - is not an easy task. It was only in the 1930s that art critics and historians began paying attention to Native American art and that it began to be exhibited in respectable galleries, and it was not until the 1960s that trained art historians began teaching Native American art in American universities. Yet, despite its historical slandering by the art historical canon, art has played a vital role in documenting the Native American experience. While art inarguably has served different purposes for various Native American tribes over time, in the 20th century, many Native artists working in a variety of mediums began to appropriate the language of Modernism - the "master narrative" of the colonizers - towards their own ends. This represented a particularly subversive move on the part of the artists, as Modernism was traditionally built on the heels of white European artists who looked towards the "exotic" other for inspiration (the most obvious example being Picasso's interest in African art.)

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This brief essay will look at the work of a select group of Native American artists working in the post-war era who managed to adapt a Modernist language in their own work, while simultaneously subverting that language in filtering it through their own personal experiences as Native artists. While some of the artists discussed here are still active, we will limit our focus on the period immediately after World War II and up to the 1980s.

TOPIC: Term Paper on Native American Art Assignment

Allan Houser is perhaps the most famous example of an artist who managed to combine the unique problems posed by Native American existence in the 20th century with the language of abstract Modernism through his painterly and sculptural output. His first major work, Comrade in Mourning (Figure 1), was completed in 1949. Although Houser would later come to be known primarily for his stone sculptures, this was his first major work in stone, the result of a commission by the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. The work was meant to be a tribute to the students of Haskell who had died fighting for the United States in the Second World War. The work is a large-scale monumental piece that, though fairly straightforward in its execution, gives us some insight into the more abstract style that Houser would later develop in the course of his prolific career. The figure depicted, clearly a Native American Indian male, wears a somber expression on his face. He is staring forward, clearly struck by the immense tragedy of a situation he is barely able to comprehend. He is wrapped in a blanket in an effort to protect himself from the cold harshness of the external world. The sculpture is neither realistic in a monumental sense nor rooted in the traditions of Apache Indian artwork; the style is all Houser's own. The overall shape of the piece is round and smooth. But it is the stunned expression on the Indian's face that ultimately pulls us in, reminding us that there are truths of a more existential nature that cannot be stated so easily, and that it is the task of art to ask such questions.

Another Native American artist from New Mexico, Leslie H. Marmon, has worked in the medium of photography since the late 1940s. His best-known work, White Man's Moccasins, was photographed in 1954. The black-and-white photograph captures 85-year-old tribal elder Jeff Sousea of the Laguna mission relaxing under the late afternoon sun with cigarette in hand. He wears a traditional headband, beaded necklaces - and a pair of "white man's moccasins," as the title sardonically puts it, a pair of Keds high tops that were popular during this period in the United States. The photograph posits a late Native American Modernism that is quite unique in the history of art. The fusion of tradition and the inevitable trends of the West that the Indian adorns on his body show us that the mid-20th century was a time of tradition on Native American pueblos. It captures that moment when tribal traditions and practices would eventually give way to westernization and modernization. The figure captured in the image is suspended between two worlds. Yet, unlike the mournful expression one finds on the face of Houser's sculpture, this man does not seem to be in any pain. Rather, one finds a peaceful serenity in his gaze upwards, as though he has already come to terms with the transitory nature of his position in space and time.

The work of Fritz Scholder in the 1960s and 1970s represents a more aggressive engagement with (or, some would say, interrogation of) the Euro-American painterly tradition. This is perhaps best exemplified in his famous painting from 1970, the End of the Trail (Figure 3). Scholder appropriated the famous statue the End of the Trail by James Earle Fraser as a means of capturing both the romantic view of a European-American of the Native American experience, as well as a Native American's response to European-American Modernism. He renders Fraser's famous statue of a horse and rider - yet alters it significantly. Instead of affirming the sculptor's stereotypical view of a sad "noble savage," Scholder has instead portrayed his Indian as an angry, ravaged, screaming man. References to the work of painter Francis Bacon can be discerned in the figure's slumped, deformed body. Scholder's painting thus represents an angry response to cliche notions of Native American Indian identity by European-American outsiders throughout the course of history. As such, Scholder's work is a product of the anger and social movements that characterized the 1960s in the United States of America. His art from this period represents an important moment in which Native Americans were just beginning to reclaim their identity from the "master narrative," as their colonizers had penned it in the previous centuries. This would make Scholder's art merely interesting. What makes it important, however, is his stylistic prowess. He adapts the language of Abstract Expressionism and uses it towards his own ends, painting subjects that would have never occurred to any of the New York School painters of the previous decades.

Scholder was not the only one to paint virulent subjects during this period. T.C. Cannon was also an important figure in the Native American visual arts scene of the 1960s and 1970s. Sadly, his career was cut short; in 1978, he was killed in an automobile accident. He was only thirty-one years old. In the course of his brief career, however, he left behind a significant body of work. In Self-Portrait in the Studio (1975), we see the artist decked out in distinctly southwestern garb typical of the 1970s: a cowboy hat, trucker sunglasses, blue jeans and cowboy boots. He sits in a chair staring forward at the viewer, his feet resting on a traditional striped carpet. Behind him, it is not apparent whether we are looking at a painting or an actual window out on to the desert - this blurring of actuality with representational illusion was, of course, key to the Modernist project, and one that Cannon readily adapted in his own paintings. The hills are depicted with a swirly line, with a few clouds squirted out across the sky, which depicts the day's slow fade into darkness. It is clearly early evening, as there is more light in the studio then there is outside. The overall painting combines a forceful feeling of the melancholy of nature with the toughness of the artist's pose - half-cowboy, half-Indian, he is far from being a defeated character. He is a symbol of pride that, like the man in Marmon's photograph, has no problem straddling the two worlds he has been born into. Stylistically, Cannon's cartoon like rendering fits in gracefully with the Pop Art aesthetic that was gaining popularity in this era.

The work of the Native American performance artist James Luna brings us into the 1980s. Artifact Piece (Figure 5), a work from 1987, is typical of the artist's confrontational aesthetic. In this piece, Luna laid flat on his back on a bed of sand in a glass museum exhibition case. He was posing ironically as the "dead Indian" - an artifact of America's past. Only the artist was not dead - he was alive, and remained on display for several days, stunning visitors who happened to stumble upon this most confrontational work of living, breathing art. Surrounding the artist's body was a series of labels identifying the artist, while also pointing out several scars on his body, which were attributed to "excessive drinking," thus providing a commentary on the rampant phenomenon of alcoholism among contemporary Native American communities. Most of all, however, the work was meant as a commentary on the traditional presentation of Native American cultures as "dead" cultures. In that the artist had his eyes open for most of the performance, the voyeuristic gaze of the viewer was returned by… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "Native American Art" Term Paper in a Bibliography:

APA Style

Native American Art.  (2008, April 20).  Retrieved August 1, 2021, from

MLA Format

"Native American Art."  20 April 2008.  Web.  1 August 2021. <>.

Chicago Style

"Native American Art."  April 20, 2008.  Accessed August 1, 2021.