A commonly misunderstood American champion

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In town with a few summer hours left? Visit Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe, the long overdue retrospective of a remarkable Yanktonai Dakota painter who died in 1983 at the age of 68. The exhibition graces the always captivating 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 marvel by Cass Gilbert—just off Battery Park. It is free entry. Too few take part. (Some days you’ll have the site and its spectacular collection of Native American art and artifacts all to yourself, save for the occasional school group.) Howe is an often misunderstood American master. He bridged ethnic authenticity and internationalist derring-do, although condescension from established institutions and the proprietary endorsement of some cult advocates have hampered his recognition as a straight-forward canonical modernist. Really, go check it out.

In Howe’s 1965 Sacro-Wi-Dance (Sun Dance), male celebrants who have self-sacrificingly wounded themselves are seen from an unlikely vantage point below and above, while being guided by a foreshortened, serpentine representation of the sublime overthrow rite. horizontal striped center pole. The dizzying composition contains tropes of surrealism and abstract expressionism that have become Howe’s flesh and blood and do little to detract from the intensity of this particular religious ecstasy. A palette of russet, yellow, and black has precedents in the Lakota and Dakota crafts of fur painting and beadwork. But racial identity was not so much asserted as burned into Howe’s pragmatic appropriation and refinement of sophisticated aesthetics. In “Bear Dancer” (1962) illustrative details – a bear’s head, a swinging spear – lurk unobtrusively between cubist abstract forms. Even more Peekaboo are parts of characters in the plaintive Gallimaufry of “Dance of the Heyoka” (1954). Such paintings embody no justification other than their own.

Howe owed the prime of his genius to the bad luck of his childhood. Born in 1915 under the tribal name Mazuha Hokshina on an impoverished reservation in South Dakota, he was shipped seven years later to one of the United States’ state-run boarding schools. At that time these schools tried hard to suppress the ancestral ways of the native youth. When he arrived he spoke no English. Haunted by eye and skin diseases and traumatized by the news of his mother’s death in 1924, he contemplated suicide. The school let him go to convalescence. About a year ago he stayed on his reservation at home with a wise grandmother named Shell Face, whose exciting stories had infused him with a profound knowledge of tribal history and myths. Such things were alien to his father, who despised his artistic ambitions. (Needlework was then the almost obligatory horizon of ambition for most boys raised on the reservation.) Howe subsequently returned to the school, which had since been humanely reformed. After graduating in 1933, he enrolled in a groundbreaking arts program at the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico.

Howe quickly became a leading figure in the so-called studio style, which had its origins in the school and elegantly arranged linear tribal motifs in negative space with spare color accents. An example in the exhibition, “Blue Antelope” (c. 1934-38), depicts the eponymous animal delicately beneath a soaring, strictly geometric arch. In the early 1950s, after the studio movement had begun to morph into gift shops , Howe was in search of something more sophisticated, imbued with an avid appreciation of western modern art, albeit initially only through reproduction while maintained in the South Dakota, through teaching engagements, and eventually through commissioned work on public murals.

Howe served as an Army artilleryman in Europe during World War II and almost never spoke of the experience except sardonically. (His relentless goal, he noted, was to avoid a Purple Heart.) When he returned to the United States in 1945, he was accompanied two years later by his fiancee, a German woman named Heidi Hampel, whom he met during the war and had courted . She should be a smart and reliable partner for the rest of his life. The couple reunited in New York and traveled west by train, getting married during a stopover in Chicago to avoid an anti-miscegenation law in South Dakota, where they settled. Howe resumed teaching, earning BA and MFA degrees from universities there and in Oklahoma. Their daughter Inge Dawn, born in 1948, still manages her father’s legacy.

Freshly curated by Kathleen Ash-Milby, Dakota Modern consists almost entirely of tempera, watercolor, gouache, or casein works on paper. The execution is phlegmatically considered. Photographs of Howe, always neatly dressed and calmly industrious, usually seated at a table, harmonize oddly with the powerful compositions and aggressive tones of his images. The result is a channeling of pure, visionary imagination, as if the artist were taking the dictates of an invisible demiurge. Do some of the effects appear cartoonish, with figuration anticipating popular styles of graphic fiction that took hold in the 1970s? Maybe. Still, generic characters in melodramatic poses strategically depersonalize the subjects in favor of thematic punch and decorative finesse. The results glorify boldness and breathe beauty. Howe rarely repeated himself. Each work can feel unique and fulfill a special farewell mission. If any quality is consistent, it’s suddenness.

Howe’s subjects are seldom historical or overtly political, with the sensational exception of the gouache Wounded Knee Massacre (1959-60), which is small at 22 inches high and 28 inches wide but appears monumental. It shows a line of fire from soldiers at the edge of a trench, riddled with defenseless Lakota men below, while in the distance Bluecoats decimate other groups with weapons, including a sinister rapid-firing Hotchkiss cannon. (One gunman, who fails to fire, looks askance with an enigmatically stupid grin. He pursues me.) Howe said his intention here was purely reporting, born of an urge to acknowledge the atrocities that the 1890’s native military resistance posed effectively ended White Conquest.

Another painting in the exhibition, Fleeing a Massacre (1969), may also allude to this event, if not another in the annals of American crushing violence. A panicked young woman sits on a galloping but bloodied and overworked horse, the image is framed in lyrical arabesques. Collective tragedy is a matter of course for Howe, not a subject that made no effort to upset or comfort anyone.

His path was lonely, met with resistance even from compatriots who routinely greeted him. As late as 1958 he was denied consideration for a prize in an annual exhibition of local artists because the new painting he submitted, ‘Umini Wacipi (War and Peace Dance)’, despite its undeniable subject matter, was declared ‘non-Indian’. (It’s reproduced in the beautiful Dakota Modern catalogue, but its current whereabouts are uncertain.) He responded with the only publicized polemic of his career, a letter to an organizer of the show, using the tourist lure of “pretty, stylized images” that be preferred by the officially sanctioned authorities. “Shall we refrain forever from a phase of Indian painting, that is the most common kind?” he wrote. “We are to be herded like a flock of sheep, with no right to individualism, dictated as the Indians always have been, subjected to reservations and treated like a child. . .”

Another setback to Howe’s autonomy, even as he increased his fame, occurred in 1960. At the urging of actor Vincent Price, who had collected his work, he traveled to California with Wounded Knee Massacre to exhibit native art in Hollywood. The exhibition took place, but the personal invitation turned out to be a sham to get the artist to appear on the TV show This Is Your Life, which surprised the celebrity guests with sentimental revelations of their life stories. Outlawed and exoticized in this way, Howe stood alone.

Howe was just as uninterested in political arguments as he was in commercial pastiche. But he had to be aware of the drama he was staging through his outspoken embrace of his Dakota heritage without narrow-minded restraint or outward resentment, however justified those resentments may have been. In a statement he published in 1959, he proposed a harsh but open-ended imperative for Native American artists of all styles and exemplified it – with loyal hindsight and honest sidelong glance while pressing forward – in a statement he published in 1959: ” This is our art. . . and here we make our last stand. . . . The least we can do is fight this last fight so Indian culture can live forever.” ♦

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