An often misunderstood American master
In town with a few summer hours to spare? Visit “Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe,” the long-awaited retrospective of a remarkable painter Yanktonai Dakota, who died in 1983, at the age of sixty-eight. The show is presented at the always-exciting New York branch of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, housed in the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House, a 1907 Beaux-Arts architectural marvel by Cass Gilbert, near Battery Park. It’s free. Too few attend. (Some days you can have the place and its spectacular collection of Native American art and artifacts almost to yourself, save for the occasional school group.) Howe is an often misunderstood American master. He bridged the gap between ethnic authenticity and internationalist bravery, though the condescension of establishment institutions and the exclusive homage of some sectarian defenders hampered his recognition as an outright canonical modernist. Really, go see.
In Howe’s 1965 “Sacro-Wi-Dance (Sun Dance)”, self-injured male celebrants are seen from an unlikely vantage point, below and looking up, as they tumble from a rendered foreshortening and serpentine of the noble rite, horizontally striped central pole. The dizzying 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 skin painting and beadwork. But racial identity was not so much asserted as embedded in Howe’s pragmatic appropriation and advancement of a sophisticated aesthetic. In “Bear Dancer” (1962), illustrative details – a bear’s head, a wielding spear – hide discreetly amid abstract shapes distributed in a cubic fashion. Even more peekaboo are character bits in the hovering gallimaufry of “Dance of the Heyoka” (1954). Such paintings embody no purpose other than their own.
Howe owed the blossoming of his genius to the misfortune of his childhood. Born in 1915, as the Mazuha Hokshina tribe, on a poor reservation in South Dakota, he was sent seven years later to one of the federal boarding schools in the United States. At the time, these schools worked hard to suppress the age-old customs of Aboriginal youth. He did not speak English when he arrived. Plagued by eye and skin diseases and, in 1924, traumatized by the announcement of the death, of an illness, of his mother, he considered committing suicide. The school let him recover. He spent about a year on his home reservation with a wise grandmother, Shell Face, whose compelling stories imbued him with a deep knowledge of tribal history and myths. Such questions were foreign to his father, who despised his artistic aspirations. (Manual labor was then the almost obligatory horizon of ambition for most boys brought up on the reservations.) Howe then returned to the school, which in the meantime had undergone humane reforms. After graduating in 1933, he enrolled in an innovative art program at the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico.
Howe quickly became a leader in what was dubbed the Studio Style, which originated at school, elegantly arranging linear tribal patterns in negative space with touches of color spared. A copy of the exhibition, “Blue Antelope” (circa 1934-38), delicately represents the eponymous animal under a floating arch with austere geometry. By the early fifties, after the Studio movement had begun to turn into a gift shop, Howe was onto something more expansive, informed by an avid appreciation of Western modern art, albeit at first only by way of reproduction, while being supported, in South Dakota, teaching jobs and eventually doing commissioned work on public murals.
Howe served in Europe as an army artillery soldier in World War II, almost never speaking of the experience except sardonically. (His unwavering goal, he noted, was to avoid winning a Purple Heart.) Returning to the United States in 1945, he was joined two years later by his fiancée, a German named Heidi Hampel, whom he had met and courted during the war. . She was to be a shrewd and formidable partner for the rest of her life. The couple met in New York and, traveling west by train, married during a stopover in Chicago, to escape an anti-miscegenation law in South Dakota, where they settled . Howe returned to teaching and earned BA and MFA degrees at universities there and in Oklahoma. Their daughter, Inge Dawn, born in 1948, still administers her father’s inheritance.
“Dakota Modern,” carefully curated by Kathleen Ash-Milby, consists almost exclusively of works in tempera, watercolor, gouache, or casein on paper. The execution is phlegmatically deliberate. The photographs of Howe, always well dressed and placidly industrious, usually seated at a table, dovetail oddly with the powerful compositions and aggressive hues of his images. The result is a channeling of the pure and visionary imagination, as if the artist were taking dictation from an invisible demiurge. Do any of the effects seem cartoonish, with figuration that anticipates the popular styles of graphic fiction that took hold in the seventies? Maybe. Yet the generic characters in melodramatic poses strategically depersonalize the subjects in favor of thematic punch and decorative finesse. The results exalt audacity and exude beauty. Howe rarely repeated himself. Each work may seem unique, fulfilling a special mission to a farewell. If a quality is constant, it is suddenness.
Howe’s subjects are rarely historical or overtly political, with the chief and sensational exception of the “Wounded Knee Massacre” gouache (1959-60), which, at twenty-two inches high and twenty-eight inches wide, is small but looks monumental. It depicts a line of soldiers firing along the edge of a ditch, who sift through helpless Lakota men below while, in the distance, bluecoats decimate other groups with weapons that include a sinister-fired Hotchkiss pistol. rapid fire. (A rifleman, neglecting to fire, looks askance with an enigmatically awkward smile. He haunts me.) white conquest.
Another image in the series, “Fleeing a Massacre” (1969), may also allude to this event, if not another in the annals of exterminating violence in the United States. A panicked young woman is seen on a galloping but bloodied and overworked horse, the image framed by lyrical arabesques. Collective tragedy is a given, not a problem, for Howe, who made no effort to outrage or comfort anyone.
His journey was lonely, arousing resistance even from compatriots who regularly greeted him. As late as 1958, he was denied a prize at an annual exhibition of indigenous artists because the new painting he submitted, “Umini Wacipi (Dance of War and Peace)”, was declared “non-Indian”, despite its unmistakable subject matter. . (It’s reproduced in the handsome catalog of “Dakota Modern,” but its current whereabouts are uncertain.) He responded with the only publicized polemic of his career, a letter to a show host who mocked the bait tourist “pretty, stylized images” favored by officially sanctioned authorities. a bunch of sheep, with no right to individualism, dictated as the Indian always was, put on reservations and treated like children…”
Another setback to Howe’s self-reliance, though it increased his fame, occurred in 1960. He traveled to California with “Wounded Knee Massacre”, at the request of actor Vincent Price, who had collected works by him, for an Aboriginal art exhibition in Hollywood. The exhibition took place, but the personal invitation turned out to be a ruse, to entice the artist to appear on the television show “This Is Your Life”, which made a surprising bunch of guest stars with sentimental exhibits of their life stories. Thus ostracized on one side and exotic on the other, Howe was alone.
Howe was as little interested in political dissent as he was in commercial pastiche. But he must have been aware of the drama he had created by frankly embracing his Dakota heritage without parochial restriction or outward resentment, however justifiable that resentment might have been. He proposed, and exemplified, a difficult but open imperative for Native American artists of all stylistic leanings – to look back with fidelity and sideways with candor while moving forward – in a statement he issued in 1959: “It’s our art. . . and here is where we make our last fight. . . . The least we can do is fight this last battle, for Indian culture to live on forever. ♦