August 8, 2022

A Frequently Misunderstood American Master

In town with some summer hours to spare? Visit “Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe,” the overdue retrospective of a remarkable Yanktonai Dakota painter, who died in 1983, at the age of sixty-eight. The show graces the always enthralling New York branch of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, housed in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House—a prodigy of Beaux-Arts architecture by Cass Gilbert, from 1907—hard by Battery Park. It’s admission-free. Too few attend. (Some days, you may have the place and its spectacular collection of Native American art and artifacts almost to yourself, except for the occasional school group.) Howe is a frequently misunderstood American master. He bridged ethnic authenticity and internationalist derring-do, though condescension from establishment institutions and proprietary tribute from some sectarian advocates have hindered his recognition as a straight-up canonical modernist. Really, go see.

In Howe’s “Sacro-Wi-Dance (Sun Dance),” from 1965, sacrificially self-wounded male celebrants are seen from an improbable viewing point, below and looking up, as they tumble from a foreshortened, serpentine rendering of the rite’s lofty, horizontally striped central pole. The vertiginous composition incorporates tropes of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, which, having become second nature to Howe, hardly vitiate the intensity of this particular religious rapture. A palette of russet, yellow, and black has precedents in the Lakota and Dakota crafts of hide painting and beadwork. But racial identity wasn’t so much asserted as baked into Howe’s pragmatic appropriation, and advancement, of sophisticated aesthetics. In “Bear Dancer” (1962), illustrative details—a bear’s head, a wielded spear—lurk unobtrusively amid cubistically distributed abstract forms. Yet more peekaboo are bits of figures in the plangent gallimaufry of “Dance of the Heyoka” (1954). Such paintings embody no rationale except their own.

Howe owed the flowering of his genius to silver-lined childhood bad luck. Born in 1915, with the tribal name Mazuha Hokshina, on an impoverished reservation in South Dakota, he was shipped off, seven years later, to one of the United States’ federally run boarding schools. At the time, these schools harshly endeavored to suppress Native youths’ ancestral ways. He spoke no English when he arrived. Beset by eye and skin diseases and, in 1924, traumatized by news of the death, from an illness, of his mother, he contemplated suicide. The school let him leave to convalesce. He spent roughly a year back on his home reservation with a sage grandmother, Shell Face, whose exciting stories imbued him with a profound knowledge of tribal history and myth. Such matters were alien to his father, who scorned his artistic aspirations. (Manual labor was then the all but obligatory horizon of ambition for most reservation-raised boys.) Howe subsequently returned to the school, which, in the interim, had undergone humane reforms. After graduating, in 1933, he enrolled in a trailblazing art program at the Santa Fe Indian School, in New Mexico.

Oscar Howe poses in front of a selection of his paintings hanging on a wall.

Howe quickly became a leading light in what was dubbed the Studio Style, which originated at the school, elegantly arraying linear tribal motifs in negative space with sparing touches of color. One example in the show, “Blue Antelope” (circa 1934-38), delicately represents the eponymous animal beneath a floating, austerely geometric arch. By the early fifties, after the Studio movement had begun to devolve into gift-shop fare, Howe was onto something rangier, informed by an avid appreciation of Western modern art, if at first only by way of reproduction, while being sustained, in South Dakota, by teaching jobs and, eventually, by commissioned work on public murals.

Howe served in Europe as an Army artillery soldier during the Second World War, almost never speaking of the experience except sardonically. (His unflagging goal, he remarked, was to avoid earning a Purple Heart.) Returning to the U.S. in 1945, he was joined two years later by his fiancée, a German woman named Heidi Hampel, whom he had met and courted during the war. She was to be an astute and redoubtable partner for the rest of his life. The couple reunited in New York and, travelling west by train, married during a stopover in Chicago, to elude a law against miscegenation in South Dakota, where they settled. Howe resumed teaching and achieved B.A. and M.F.A. degrees at universities there and in Oklahoma. Their daughter, Inge Dawn, who was born in 1948, still administers her father’s legacy.

“Dakota Modern,” crisply curated by Kathleen Ash-Milby, consists almost exclusively of works in tempera, watercolor, gouache, or casein on paper. The execution is phlegmatically deliberate. Photographs of Howe, always neatly dressed and placidly industrious, usually seated at a table, consort oddly with the power-packed compositions and aggressive hues of his pictures. The upshot is a channelling of sheer, visionary imagination, as if the artist were taking dictation from an unseen demiurge. Do some of the effects seem cartoonish, with figuration that anticipated popular styles of graphic fiction which took hold in the nineteen-seventies? Perhaps. Still, generic characters in melodramatic poses strategically depersonalize subjects to the benefit of thematic punch and decorative finesse. The results exalt audacity and breathe beauty. Howe seldom repeated himself. Each work can feel one-off, fulfilling a special mission to a fare-thee-well. If any quality is consistent, it’s suddenness.

Howe’s topics are rarely historical or patently political, with the main, sensational exception of the gouache “Wounded Knee Massacre” (1959-60), which, at twenty-two inches high and twenty-eight inches wide, is smallish but feels monumental. It depicts a firing line of soldiers along the edge of a ditch, who are riddling defenseless Lakota men below while, in the distance, bluecoats decimate other groups with weaponry that includes a sinister rapid-fire Hotchkiss gun. (One rifleman, neglecting to shoot, gazes askance with an enigmatically goofy grin. He haunts me.) Howe said that his intention here was strictly reportorial, born of an urge to acknowledge the atrocity that, in 1890, effectively ended Native military resistance to white conquest.

Fleeing a Massacre by Oscar Howe.

One other picture in the show, “Fleeing a Massacre” (1969), may also allude to that event, if not to some other in the United States’ annals of exterminatory violence. A panicked young woman is seen on a galloping but bloodied and overstrained horse, the image framed in lyrical arabesques. Collective tragedy is a given, not an issue, for Howe, who strove neither to outrage nor to comfort anyone.

His was a lonely course, incurring resistance even from compatriots who routinely hailed him. As late as 1958, he was denied consideration for a prize in an annual show of Native artists because the new painting that he submitted, “Umini Wacipi (War and Peace Dance),” was declared “not Indian,” despite its indubitable subject matter. (It is reproduced in the fine catalogue of “Dakota Modern,” but its present whereabouts are uncertain.) He responded with the sole publicized polemic of his career, a letter to an organizer of the show which mocked the tourist-bait “pretty, stylized pictures” favored by the officially sanctioned authorities. “Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting, that is the most common way?” he wrote. “We are to be herded like a bunch of sheep, with no right for individualism, dictated as the Indian has always been, put on reservations and treated like a child . . .”

Another setback to Howe’s autonomy, though it increased his fame, occurred in 1960. He travelled to California with “Wounded Knee Massacre,” at the urging of the actor Vincent Price, who had collected work by him, for a show of Native art in Hollywood. The exhibition took place, but the personal invitation proved to be a ruse, to trick the artist into appearing on the television show “This Is Your Life,” which made a shtick of surprising featured guests with sentimental exposures of their life stories. Having thus been ostracized on the one hand and then exoticized on the other, Howe stood alone.

Howe took as little interest in political contestation as he did in commercial pastiche. But he had to be conscious of the drama that he enacted through his forthright embrace of his Dakota heritage without either parochial constriction or outward rancor, however justifiable that rancor might have been. He proposed, and exemplified, a tough but open-ended imperative for Native American artists of all stylistic stripes—looking back with fealty and sideways with candor while forging ahead—in a statement that he published in 1959: “This is our art . . . and here is where we are making our last stand. . . . The least we can do is to fight this last battle, that Indian Culture may live forever.” ♦

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