The Museum of Modern Art’s 1941 exhibition Indian Art of the United States pioneered the movement to liberate Native American art from natural history museums, where it was displayed alongside taxidermied animals and dinosaur bones. By the 1960s, Native American art history was an academic discipline. Yet today, curators and scholars are still teaching the public to see Native American objects as art, not ethnological artifact.
One recent pedagogical effort is the traveling exhibition Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection, an audaciously broad and captivating survey of Native American art now on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art through May 30. From a tiny “prehistoric” Ipuitak (Eskimo) ivory polar bear effigy that would grab Brancusi’s attention to an exquisitely beaded late-1980s Lakota martingale and medicine bag, each of the show’s 120 objects (plus 15 from CMA’s collection) delivers a visual thrill.
It’s no surprise the objects are now part of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art, housed in its own wing at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York. An expert on Great Master drawings and Jackson Pollock, Eugene Thaw, one of the most influential art dealers of the second half of the 20th century, began collecting Native American art in 1987, the year after he retired. As he told Architectural Digest in 2008: “I began to look for a project where I could continue to exercise my eye.” Not surprisingly, Euro-American motifs initially drew Thaw to Native material culture. The project’s early focus was narrow — objects with representations of the U.S. flag — but quickly grew into a wildly ambitious 850-piece collection that samples 2,000 years of extraordinary First American art.
A pair of Northwest Coast cedar-wood house posts flank the exhibition’s entrance. Carved between 1820 and 1840 by an unknown Tongass-Tlingit woodworker from southeast Alaska, the posts recount a creation story about Raven, a culture-hero who stole the sun and brought daylight to the people. With the sun in his beak, Raven nosedives to earth. Outstretched wings at the post’s top contrast with a large, heavy sculptural head at its bottom, creating the sensation of descent. This symphony of formal balance, and the brilliant synthesis of multiple events into one image, is a singular achievement, opening the show with a big bang.
While the objects’aesthetic impact is instant, a long look is even more rewarding. An 18th century Northwest Coast bentwood box, its outer surface covered with carved formline design, becomes a serving dish still shiny with oils from the food it held during potlatches. A pulsating battle scene painted on horsehide around 1880 by one or more Lakota warriors reveals a unique way to record acts of bravery.