This essay is a continuation of a previous entry: Four Small Works Worth Hunting For at SAM.
George Morrison once told Margot Fortunato Galt, “I never played the role of being an Indian artist. I always just stated the fact that I was a painter and I happened to be Indian. I wasn’t exploiting the idea of being Indian at all, or using Indian themes […] But as my work became better known, some critics would pick up on my Indian background, and they’d make something of it. I guess they were looking for a way to understand my work.”
It may seem odd then, to find Morrison’s work displayed in the Native American wing of the art museum. Morrison consistently downplayed his cultural background when it came to talking about his art. He was raised in Chippewa City, Minnesota, in a Native village located near the Grand Portage Reservation. He was one of twelve children and described growing up in a crowded house, often hungry and sickly. Morrison knew his language, and Gerald Vizenor’s essay, “George: Morrison: Anishinaabe Expressionism at Red Rock” in the book Native Modernism: The Art of George Morrison and Allan Houser does a useful bit of unpacking of the complex associations between the parts of speech related to colors in the Anishinnabe language. Vizenor gave as an example “ozhaawzashko, a word that means blue and green, the transcendence of a bruise; ozhaawashko aniibiish, ‘green tea”; and ozhaawashko bineshiinh, ‘bluebird.’” Look back at Painting #10 in the previous post in this series, at the greyish blues and greens and think about ozhaawashko for a moment. I think it takes you to a very different place than the formal analysis I wrote about that piece.
Just about everything that I have written on Morrison here has emphasized his cultural background and has disregarded his stated desire to be considered an artist first and foremost. Everyone who has written about his work has pretty much done the same thing. Why? Doesn’t it come across as disrespectful to the artist’s wishes? I know… most art historians/art critics would say that it doesn’t matter what the artist says. Personally, I think that what an artist has to say about his or her work IS important. I will try to explain what is important about Morrison’s insistence on prioritizing his identity as an artist, and why we acknowledge that statement and then promptly stick him in the category of “Indian Artist.”
You might be tempted to say that Morrison ends up in the Indian artist category because of racism. That assessment is too simplistic. At the time when Morrison was deep into the abstract art movement in Paris and New York, Indian art was a very narrow category. Education reform and changes in Federal Indian policies that came about in the early twentieth cenury led to a fairly standardized set of expectations about what Indian painting should look like. Dorothy Dunn’s Santa Fe Studio School educated young Native artists in a particular style. Market expectations of Indian art limited the work to fairly flat, stylized depictions of traditional scenes devoid of markers of modernity. Regional emphasis was on the traditions of the plains and the southwest, with Dorothy Dunn’s Santa Fe Studio School and Oscar Jacobson’s studio program for Kiowa artists at University of Oklahoma serving as anchors for what the public thought of as Indian painting at the time. The subject matter encouraged by Jacobson and Dunn kept the students connected to their cultural history and values. Creating these easel paintings supported their cultural identity even in the midst of a mostly-assimilationist educational project. The subject matter appealed to a non-Native market because it was inoffensive and fit in with American romantic and nostalgic desires for a primitive utopia, a mental getaway from industrialization and urbanization. Visually, Morrison’s work looked nothing like the Indian art of that period. Harrison Begay, one of Dorothy Dunn’s very successful students, painted Weavers the same year that Morrison created Painting#12, Pacific. Considering the differences in style and content, it makes sense that Morrison did not classify his work as Indian art. He would resist the label Indian artist the same way he would resist being labeled an Impressionist artist. Of course, there is no racial prejudice against Impressionist artists. That’s where the issue of Indian, artist, or Indian artist gets sticky.
This essay isn’t about how Indian artists can’t get a fair shake, though. This essay is about Morrison and the four paintings in the Seattle Art Museum. After explaining Morrison’s success as part of the avant garde art movement and his resistance to being labeled an Indian artist, you might expect me to be up in arms that these four works aren’t hanging over in the modern art section as part of SAM’s exhibition on abstraction. These four works are certainly good enough to hang there. They would fit right in.
The reason I’m fine with these four paintings by Morrison being displayed in the Hauberg Galleries of Native Art for the Americas is because I’ve been thinking a lot about an essay by Alfred Young Man in [Re]inventing the Wheel: Advancing the Dialogue on Contemporary American Indian Art. Yes, this book was published in 2006, but I’m a slow thinker. Young Man’s chapter, “Segregation of Native Art by Ethnicity: Is it Self-imposed or Superimposed?” covers a lot of ground, mostly using examples from situations that have arisen in relationship to exhibitions in Canada. It’s good (controversial) reading and definitely worth a long think. Young Man argues that ending the segregation of contemporary Native artists, basically enfolding them seamlessly into mainstream, would provide equity to Native artists, but would have some unintended consequences. Young Man makes a call for the development of a history of Native art based on Native perspectives. If we take the works out of the Indian gallery, then we lose the ability to see associations, links, patterns, in our artistic practices over time and geography. There is a lot of inter-tribal and inter-cultural relations that are negotiated in the realm of art. We lose the ability to craft our own narrative of where are art-making has been and where it might be going if we only see our work in relationship to Brancusi, Picasso, Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keefe. I don’t think limiting Native art to the Indian wing is a good idea, either. Ideally, works should move back and forth between the Modern wing and the Indian wing (or any dang wing). There are reasons for displaying in multiple categories. I still agree that it is a problem if we never get our work into the Modern, the contemporary, or the “hot new thing” gallery.
For Morrison’s work, I think it is important at this moment (and this moment has been decades long) to display his work in the context of Native art precisely because his work in the 50s and 60s was so far outside of the realm of what people at the time thought Indian art could or should be. A handful of Native artists, Morrison, Allan Houser, Oscar Howe, Helen Hardin, Patrick Desjarlait, for example, found some degree of success making work that did not fit with the prevailing market pressures that attempted to narrowly define Native art. Their work encouraged other Native artists to make their work in any style, on any subject they chose. This is why we consistently talk about Morrison as an Indian artist, and also talk about his resistance to that label. His insistence on being an artist first is an important political statement for the time-period in which he began his career. That statement is still important, but it is also important to still include him in the Indian category because his groundbreaking work influences Native art today. Morrison is part of our developing narrative of a Native art history.
Sure, I’d like to sneak any of these four works into the modern abstraction gallery. I wouldn’t want it to live there forever, though. Morrison’s work could (and should) visit a number of different galleries within the museum, but the home for it that has the most potential to change peoples’ lives is a room full of Native American art.
Displaying a variety of Native American all together isn’t what will make a Native sense of Native art history develop. That will require us to talk about the works, to talk about how the works are displayed, and to write about all those conversations. As more Native people find work in museums, make our own museums, curate our own work, write essays, books, art criticism, exhibition reviews, and yes, blog entries, we will slowly build our own history of art. It’s happening, but like any consensus project, it will take a long time, and the process will never end. This doesn’t mean that only Native artists, writers, thinkers should do this work. We don’t live in a Native-only world. Influence can and should go both ways. I love Paul Chaat Smith’s blunt way of putting things:
The prevailing code of how Indian contemporary art should be presented…strongly advises that Indian artists should be in a group exhibition with other Indians. The code also advises that only Indians have authority to speak on Indian issues…The proper role of a white curator is to facilitate the neutral presentation of Indian artists and their work, and to have no real opinion on the content…The code has been in effect for a couple decades now and to state things bluntly, it feels deader than disco.
It’s time to have an opinion, even if we change our minds later.
 Gerald Vizenor, “George Morrison: Anishinnabe Expressionism at Red Rock,” from Native Modernism: The Art of George Morrison and Allan Houser, edited by Truman Lowe, (Washington, DC: Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, 2004) p. 44.
 Vizenor, p. 40.
 To unpack the contents of this paragraph would really take about 10 footnotes with and about twenty different sources. These topics have been written about in many good publications. I made a quick poke around for one book that sort of hits all these points in a way that is accessible for a general audience is Bill Anthes book Native Moderns: American Indian Painting, 1940-1960, published in 2006 by Duke University Press. This book will lead you to a host of other sources.
 Paul Chaat Smith, “Americans Without Tears,” from Everything you Know about Indians is Wrong, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009) p. 73.