Saint Louis Art Museum Mounts First Exhibit of 20th Century Native American Art

A free celebration today honors its opening

Jun 23, 2023 at 4:33 pm
click to enlarge The exhibit includes 90 works from native artists made following World War II.
Nina Giraldo
The exhibit includes 90 works from native artists made following World War II.

The Saint Louis Art Museum is presenting its first exhibition focusing on modern and contemporary Native American art.

Action/Abstraction Redefined: Modern Native Art, 1940s-1970s uses themes of artistic continuity and student experimentation to reshape narratives of Native American art following World War II. The exhibit opens today with a free, public preview celebration from 4 to 8 pm featuring cocktails, entertainment and guided discussions.

“It’s a thematic look at this really pivotal chapter in the history of Native American art where we broadly see a transition from ancestral forms of media to new modes of expression that are more in line with contemporaneous global art practice,” says Alexander Brier Marr, the Saint Louis Art Museum associate curator of Native American art who put together the St. Louis presentation of the exhibition.

The exhibit was first shown by the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The IAIA is the only art school devoted to native arts in North America and is home to many prominent native artists, including Kay Walkingstick and Lloyd Kiva New.

click to enlarge Neil Parsons’ Untitled (Pueblo Forms).
IAIA Museum of Contemporary Arts
Neil Parsons’ Untitled (Pueblo Forms).

The St. Louis exhibit features works primarily from the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts at IAIA alongside work borrowed from other national lenders and from SLAM’s own collection. It is currently the only expanded presentation of the exhibition in the country. Organized chronologically, the show features 90 works by about 40 different artists.

When Marr first saw the IAIA’s collection of postwar native art in 2018, he was blown away and knew he wanted to bring some of it to St. Louis.

“It’s a really fascinating story, where native artists are very strategically engaging with multiple sources,” Marr said. “So they’re creating really new pathways for artistic production, while still retaining an anchor in their communities and their heritage.”

The Saint Louis Art Museum was one of the first museums in the country, if not the first outside of the southwest, to collect contemporary Native American work in the early 1930s, according to Marr. The current museum collection, however, has a gap in the 20th century that this new exhibition will fill.

The exhibit expands and responds to the museum’s 2008 Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976 exhibition with an array of Native American art including paintings, sculptures and literary works. The influence of ancestral indigenous art on prominent American artists, including Jackson Pollock and Adolph Gottlieb, is also showcased in the presentation.

One featured artist is Fritz Scholder, a former instructor at IAIA, whose New Mexico Number 1 series depict the state’s landscapes and terrain through colorful abstraction. In this period, many native artists were inspired by modern art movements that freed them from stereotypical expectations of Native American art.

click to enlarge Fritz Scholder’s painting New Mexico Number 1 (center) depict the state’s landscapes and terrain through abstraction.
Nina Giraldo
Fritz Scholder’s painting New Mexico Number 1 (center) depict the state’s landscapes and terrain through abstraction.

Native artists are helping to surface the colonial histories and experiences of native people, but they’re also just creating great work, Marr says with a chuckle.

“There’s this sense of a real movement taking place and of achievement and competence and success among native artists, which is really coming through,” he says.

To accompany and build upon its art, the exhibition includes printed and audio exhibition guides, catalogs, books and even a media wall with direct thoughts and quotes from the artists.

The exhibit will be on display through September 3 in the Mae W. Whittaker Gallery 212 at the Saint Louis Art Museum (One Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park, 314-721-0072, Ticket prices are $6 to $12, with free entry on Fridays. Upcoming exhibition-related events at SLAM include an artist panel conversation at 6 p.m. on Friday, as well as a Family Sunday event from 1 to 4 pm that features dancing and art projects for children. In late July, the Saint Louis Art Museum will collaborate with the MFA Creative Writing program at IAIA for a native literary festival with author readings and writing workshops.

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