Native American Contemporary Artists Make a Play for the Mainstream

Critics have been reluctant to accept Native American contemporary art in the mainstream market. But scholars and artists say that’s changing.

By Brianna McGurran

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The National Museum of the American Indian in New York displays contemporary art in its permanent collection. Photo by: Brianna McGurran

It’s a classic New York story: small-town boy moves to the big city and tries to make a living as a painter.

But Lorenzo Clayton, 63, was different from most of the artists he met when he came to New York in 1973. He was Navajo. That small town was the Tohajiilee Indian Reservation outside of Albuquerque. And like many young artists in New York, it wasn’t easy to make a name for himself.

“There was no mention of Native American art at the time,” he said in his studio at Cooper Union, where he teaches printmaking. “I think now there’s an awareness. There’s a greater push for it.”

Clayton is one of several Native American contemporary artists gaining prominence in New York. Scholars say the modern art world has been reluctant to accept American Indians’ work – abstract paintings, sculptures, performance art and installations – as fine art. But that is changing. “Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison,” a new exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, features work by George Morrison, one of the first major native contemporary artists. And scholars say that is a step in the right direction.

“It all boils down to the study of what is and isn’t native art,” said David Martine, director of the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum on Long Island.

Non-native critics have historically had little interest in indigenous art that isn’t traditional handiwork, such as basket weaving or woodcarving, he explained. “It was first appreciated as being crafts. They didn’t think of native artists doing fine art at all.”

The contemporary art markets in Canada, Australia and New Zealand have been quicker to embrace indigenous fine art, said Nancy Marie Mithlo, who teaches American Indian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“The reception of native art in the U.S. has really gone at a pace that is incredibly slow,” Mithlo said. “There hasn’t been generations of scholars that are pursuing native arts with an indigenous frame of reference in mind.”

She said there is hope, however, for today’s Native American contemporary artists. Professional organizations for native researchers and archivists have popped up in the last decade, Mithlo said, allowing scholars to work together to promote native artists.

“We’ve had the benefit of the scholarly field beginning to catch up in terms of programs devoted to American Indian art, practitioners who have gotten MFAs,” she said.
Institutions such as the National Museum of the American Indian, which has locations in Washington, D.C. and in New York, have also helped professionalize modern native art, Mithlo said. “If you put art in a museum you instantly have some status.”

“Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison” is doing just that. On display in New York through February 2014 at the National Museum of the American Indian, the retrospective includes Morrison’s line drawings, wood sculptures and abstract expressionist paintings. Morrison, who died in 2000, befriended and exhibited his work alongside art-world superstars Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning, according to the exhibition catalog.

“We felt like his story needed to be told more widely, that he needed a greater degree of recognition as a great American modernist,” said W. Jackson Rushing, curator of the exhibition and an art history professor at the University of Oklahoma.

Rushing said he hopes the retrospective proves to viewers that Native American modern art deserves to be taken seriously.

“Contemporary native art has so much to offer in terms of the intelligence of the work, the visuality of the work, the complexity of the human issues that the work explores,” he said. “If people are not partaking of that, they’re missing out on something that is very valuable.”