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Review: American Indian Art at the DMA

by Jerome Weeks 20 Apr 2011 10:54 AM

We’ve seen these items before: Native Indian blankets, pottery and masks. But rarely like this. Eugene and Clare Thaw collected Indian artifacts as fine art, not history. So the DMA’s new show has a crafted beauty that makes the familiar feel fresh.


Frontlet of hawk, Tsimshian, Alaska, maple, abalone shell, paint, copper, twine string.

We’ve seen these iconic items plenty of times before: the Native Indian blankets, pottery, buckskin jackets and baskets. In one gallery, there’s an eagle feather bonnet, familiar from the threatening throng of Cheyenne braves mustering along a bluff in a thousand Hollywood westerns; in the next, there’s the kind of pottery you can practically trip over anywhere in New Mexico.

But we’ve mostly seen these objects in movies, history museums or shops — where they can look dusty and faded, irrelevant as old newspapers, or as artificially bright and new as polished plastic.

Which is the most immediate and striking aspect of the 111 samples from the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection that are going on display this weekend at the Dallas Museum of Art: These art works don’t fit such contexts. Many of them are just about flawless. They aren’t damaged relics; they’re high points of native artistry. There’s a purity and simplicity to many of these masks and bowls that modernists and minimalists would envy.

The exhibition, Art of the American Indians, comes by way of the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, NY, where the 850-item Thaw collection has been housed since 1995. This is the first time it has toured — and this is the first native Indian exhibition the DMA has presented in nearly 20 years.

During the press preview Tuesday for Art of the American Indians, both Fenimore curator Eva Fognell (left — in front of a Navajo blanket and Apache basket) and DMA curator Carol Robbins repeatedly referred to items as “jewels” and “gems” — and they are. The stitching and beadwork are incredibly tight and fine on the Lakota girl’s dress and other garments on display from Prairie tribes. The basketry by the Hickox, mother and daughter (Elizabeth and Louise from California’s Karuk) , is unbelievably precise yet warm. As abstract as they are in form and geometric pattern, their baskets sit as calm and natural as toadstools.

Some of the objects have been touched-up or refurbished. As sculptural materials, eagle feathers and wild rye grass do not stand up to time’s ravages quite like cast bronze does. But just about every item — buffalo hide, carved war club, beaded skirt — is almost pristine; many look as though the artisans finished them this morning. A dinner dish from the Tsimshian Indians of the Northwest was made from a single plank of red cedar, steamed and curved into what’s known as a ‘bent corner’ bowl. As the lively Ms. Fognell pointed out, it’s at least 200 years old, yet it still smells of fish. And it still leaks the dipping oil — salmon or whale — that it once held.

These items look so fresh and finely crafted because the Thaws were art dealers who began collecting native Indian artifacts only after they retired and moved to Santa Fe. They started surprisingly late in the field — 1988 — and they did not confine their cherry-picking to particular regional types — High-Plains horse-culture or Northwest fishing tribes. The collection spans much of North America.

Dance Kilt, Tesuque, New Mexico, commercial tanned leather, brass, copper and tin cones

But the Thaws collected entirely with an eye for beauty and skill. Eugene Thaw is quoted in the catalog:

I want to stress that I look at Indian material culture as art. To me, it is co-equal to any of my own highest experiences in pursuing the arts of many nations, both as dealer and collector. It stands rightfully with ancient art, with masterpieces of Asia and Europe, as their equivalent, and I wish it would be looked at this way.

To be blunt, Art of the American Indians has no new historical narrative to tell, no new interpretation or organizing analysis. It pretty much follows the conventional course of empire from East to West. And if it weren’t for the fact that the Alaskan section at the end has some ancient objects (a tiny, carved-ivory polar bear by prehistoric Eskimos, more than 1500 years old), the exhibition would be predictably chronological as well.

Simply put, this is not an exhibition to teach much about ethnography or colonial history — unless you’re taking your children along. Or you slept through basic American history.

This is an exhibition to admire.

Finger mask, Yup’ik Eskimo, Alaska, feather, sinew, pigment