Upcoming Exhibition at Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian Examines Modern Painters Whose Works Broke Boundaries

“Stretching the Canvas” Features Paintings by 30 Artists Working From 1940–Present
June 21, 2019
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spiral art

Dick West (Southern Cheyenne, 1912–1996), “Spatial Whorl”, 1949–1950. Oil on canvas. Gift of Dwight D. Saunders, 2004. (26/5102)

This work will be exhibited in “Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native Painting” opening Nov. 16 at the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York City.

“What is art?” It is a perennial question that can never quite be answered. Perhaps more difficult is “What is Native art?” This is a question many have attempted to define, going so far as to build entire systems of art appreciation and production to control what Native art could and should look like. These systems often place Native artists aside from their non-Native contemporaries or attempt to pigeonhole Native art to a certain style. “Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native Painting” presents works by 30 artists who maneuvered through such systems yet succeeded in creating their own definitions. The exhibition showcases 39 works from the museum’s permanent collection and opens Saturday, Nov. 16, at the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York.

A press preview will take place Thursday, Nov. 14, from 10 a.m. to noon. For more information or to attend, email NMAIPressOffice@si.edu.

“It’s really quite amazing when you think about how stereotypes of Native people and romanticized or even caricatured notions have been imposed upon and controlled so many facets of our artistic expression,” said Kevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the museum. “Ironically, however, these structures of repression are often the impetus for the creation of many artists’ best work, because the desire to exist on their own terms is a potent form of resistance.”

“Stretching the Canvas” is organized around five galleries that explore broad topics at different points in modern art history starting at about 1940 to near present day. The exhibition illustrates how painters of the early 20th century were committing revolutionary acts the moment they picked up paintbrushes and produced work—moving away from basketry and ceramics, the more familiar mediums in the market. This revolution continues to evolve, creating with it modes of expression that refuse myopic interpretation.

Grand Ambitions

The works chosen for the “Grand Ambitions” gallery represent the bulk of the exhibition. They do not fit tidily into categories or serve immediately recognizable styles. They signify each artist’s idiosyncrasies, some referencing Native themes or issues, others offering the viewer expressions completely unrelated. In George Morrison’s “White Environ #5,” the artist’s exploration of layered colors united by an overall white showcases his signature “horizon line” style with no particular subject as focus. Other artists featured include Tony Abeyta, Rick Bartow, Julie Buffalohead, James Lavadour, Judith Lowry, Mario Martinez, America Meredith, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Fritz Scholder, Duane Slick, Kay WalkingStick and Dick West. Later rotations will include “Northern and Brown” by G. Peter Jemison, followed by “Infinite Anomoly #1” by Jeffrey Gibson.

Training Ground

Some of the exhibition’s earliest works are products of Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Many of the artists hailed from western Oklahoma, and after World War I were interested in renewing various aspects of their culture that had become somewhat less fettered by government repression. The style developed by the college, the artists and also Santa Fe’s Studio School would come to establish the “look and feel” of American Indian painting for decades. Artists featured are Woody Crumbo, Acee Blue Eagle, Allan Houser, Fred Kabotie, Stephen Mopope, Tonita Peña, Quincy Tahoma, Jerome Tiger and Dick West.

Reclaiming the Abstract

In the immediate years after World War II, abstract art was revolutionary but also persistent and evolving. Some Native artists became frustrated with the flat style touted by government-run Indian art schools, which fueled new endeavors into abstraction inspired by traditional American Indian designs. Abstract by nature, these designs hitherto found on pottery, blankets and baskets became a refreshed way to express identity. Featured artists include Helen Hardin, Joe Hilario Herrera and Pablita Velarde.


In the mid-20th century, an influx of artists to New York City began to expand and cement its status as the center of the international art world. This burgeoning scene played host to a new generation of Native painters less inclined to focus on cultural subjects and more toward modernist abstraction. In “Homage to Chief Joseph (Chief Joseph #1)”, artist Kay WalkingStick uses encaustic on canvas to honor the famed Nez Perce leader without overt Native references or symbols. Works by Frank LaPeña, George Morrison, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and Emmi Whitehorse are also featured.

Indian Pop

The 1962 founding of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, became a launch pad for artists disenchanted by the growing chasm between government-run art schools and developments in modern art. Young faculty artists such as Fritz Scholder taught graphic design and painting informed by Pop Art and modernist abstraction. His work, along with others by Harry Fonseca, Dan Namingha, Kevin Red Star and Mateo Romero, are featured in the gallery. The works of IAIA artists were, and continue to be, a powerful dissent to the conventions of Indian art.

“Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native Painting” was curated by David Penney, associate director of museum research and scholarship, and curators Kathleen Ash-Milby, Ann McMullen, Paul Chaat Smith and Rebecca Trautmann.


The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian

In partnership with Native peoples and their allies, the National Museum of the American Indian fosters a richer shared human experience through a more informed understanding of Native peoples. The museum strives toward equity and social justice for the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere through education, inspiration and empowerment. The museum’s George Gustav Heye Center is located in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House at One Bowling Green in New York City. For additional information, including hours and directions, visit AmericanIndian.si.edu. Follow the museum via social media on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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