An Inclusive Picture of American Modernism

Loans of American Indian Art from the Collection of KC’s Bruce Hartman Broaden the Narrative

Bruce Hartman, an accomplished local museum director and collector, is helping Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, expand the canon of American art history. Hartman’s recent loans of exceptional, if little known, 20th-century Native American works from his personal collection have given Crystal Bridges’ Modern permanent collection galleries a refreshed look while showing the way forward for a more inclusive, nuanced picture of American Modernism.

The origins of 20th-century Modern art in the United States are quite messy in fact. Art critic Roberta Smith has referred to its “vitally mongrel nature.” Artists were experimenting in all directions at once, hybridizing cosmopolitan art movement “isms” with heterogeneous influences like American folk art and Native American art in an elusive search for a national identity under the long shadow of an unwanted World War.

Now separated by a century, art historians and curators are excavating the role of marginalized voices: women, Native American, African American and immigrant artists that were creating Modern art alongside the “usual suspects.” I’m talking about worthy but overexposed artists like Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper or Thomas Hart Benton, whose multi-million dollar works typically line the walls of every American art museum, but hardly tell the whole story.

With the wealth of the Walton family behind it, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has quickly made major waves in assembling its encyclopedic collection. Their “we’ll-have-one-of-everything” approach to building and exhibiting their permanent collection opened up opportunities to reevaluate the canon of American art history and correct some imbalances that have tended to favor white male artists at the expense of almost everyone else.

Jen Padgett, assistant curator at Crystal Bridges, described how the guiding principles of the Museum “to welcome all, to be inclusive, and present a variety of different perspectives” drive its collecting and exhibition making. In other words, Crystal Bridges made the intentional decision to be a Museum for people, not just for the art world.

Revising the Canon

Have you ever heard of Pop Chalee, Quincy Tahoma, Hale Woodruff or Elie Nadelman? How about Yasuo Kuniyoshi or Florine Stettheimer? These diverse artists make up Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection exhibition “New Ways of Seeing: Championing the Modern” alongside textbook artists like Diego Rivera, Joseph Stella and Alfred Stieglitz.

Hartman’s first two Native American loans, vivid gouaches on paper in impeccable period frames, were exhibited together in a section called “Varied Sources for the Modern.” Quincy Tahoma’s (Navajo) “Buffalo Hunt” is a gripping scene of cinematic action painted in the flat pictorial style favored between the wars, practically eliminating the background. Several hunters on horseback fearlessly cleave a herd of stampeding bison with weapons drawn.

The stark white ground enhances the subtle references to the high-desert landscape: a ribbon of earthy pigment, a flowering cactus, a prairie dog diving for cover. The artist concentrates the figures in a dynamic horizontal composition of twisted overlapping bodies careening against one another in frenzied pursuit. Smaller hunting figures visible in the distance extend the scene’s spatial depth but remain visually linked to the central action. The expressive depiction of the buffaloes’ eyes, their two-toned bodies, blue horns and hooves reveal some of Tahoma’s distinct stylistic choices that point to deep respect for the hunted.

Pop Chalee’s (Taos Pueblo) “Enchanted Forest” is a charming scene of imaginative flora and fauna painted in surreal colors against a black background. Her finely painted arc of towering trees enclose the image populated with bounding blue deer, squirrels and skunks, rabbits and porcupines amidst colorful floral forms emerging from the forest floor. As the title indicates, this is no ordinary forest; instead she created a Seussical space of dreams. Chalee became well known for her forest scenes in which she elaborated her signature long-limbed animals in all their feathery, furry detail.

The contrasting works by Tahoma and Chalee were enriched by their proximity to works by Marsden Hartley, Hale Woodruff and Charles Sheeler that similarly emphasize the flatness of the picture plane. Chalee’s work was particularly well matched to three of Hartley’s folksy reverse oil paintings on glass. The floral still-lifes, naïvely rendered on simplified geometric bases with black backgrounds, made for a lively visual conversation with Chalee’s work. They remain palpably Modern in their rejection of illusionistic space and peculiar use of color. When viewed side by side, one senses the common American thread across time and culture.

“Artists in the Americas were drawing on a broad range of sources, not just Europe,” explained Jen Padgett. “Many works by innovative Native American artists were made outside urban art centers and were left out of the central narrative of art history. Our goal is to create a rich, textured picture of the time for our visitors. In bringing diverse artists together we’re asking what different stories we can tell. What kind of conversation could be had? The visual experience is the starting point.”

More paintings from Hartman’s personal collection continue to rotate through Crystal Bridges Modern galleries including works by Ma Pe Wi (Zia Pueblo) and Gerald Nailor (Navajo) in the current rotation and pieces by Awa Tsireh (San Ildefonso Pueblo) later in 2019. To protect these works on paper from the damaging effects of light the museum will exhibit them in four-month cycles. This enables Padgett to mix in additional permanent collection works to expand the dimensions of American Modernism.

For Hartman this approach is long overdue. It’s a problem he’s encountered over most of his curatorial career and one that he still finds shocking. “If you walk into almost any major American art museum it is extremely rare to see Native American artists shown alongside other 20th-century artists. What are they afraid of? Is it just a lack of familiarity?” Hartman asked. The answer, quite possibly, is yes.

Collecting Native American Modernism

Hartman bought his first Native American painting at the age of 13 in Gallup, New Mexico. His mom and dad were avid collectors of Native American art and artifacts, so family vacations often centered on the museums, auctions and Indian Markets of the Southwest. He soaked up what he could from artists, dealers and other collectors. Gradually he developed an eye for quality artwork and an understanding of the rich and varied tribal traditions of indigenous people. Connoisseurship, a prized skill in the art trade, was part of his formation as collector, and later as a curator and executive director of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.

Despite his early exposure to Native American visual and material culture, it wasn’t until 1996 that Hartman focused his collecting on paintings. Like most true collectors, Hartman has an insatiable taste for art and a dogged determination to locate undervalued masterpieces that often turn up in far-flung regional or international auction houses. He most recently acquired two monumental paintings by 20th century artists, Michael Kabotie (Hopi) and Pablita Velarde (Santa Clara Pueblo), at an auction in Wurzburg, Germany.

As a connoisseur collector Hartman recognizes the quality and importance of indigenous Modernists but has noticed how this work is often diminished, misunderstood or ignored by art institutions. “Why aren’t people paying attention to this?” Hartman wondered. “This is one of the great untold stories of American art. What can I do to promote and celebrate this work?” His collection now numbers more than 140 paintings. He would like to collect enough work that someday it could find a home in a museum. But there’s a catch.

“Museums have to play catch up,” explained Hartman. “If Native American work isn’t shown, then it’s not written about by scholars. There is a void of coexistence with Modernism, Regionalism and other 20th-century movements. I want my collection to be in dialogue with the work of its time.”

Too often museums cling to outdated notions that historicize indigenous cultures, relegating them to ethnographic isolation. False ideas about tradition and authenticity, reinforced by a persistent tourist-trade mentality, inhibit the extraordinary ways in which Native American artists have adopted and adapted to modernity. Above all, Hartman wants us to look at the art — to judge it on its own terms.

“We are edging toward a more inclusive art museum,” observed Hartman, “but Native American art is still at the cusp of breaking through at the large encyclopedic museums.”

With the help of collectors like Bruce Hartman, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is doing its part. Its sister institutions, particularly in the largest American cities, would do well to emulate Crystal Bridges’ example. It will take much more intentional effort to indigenize the canon of American art history. To do so will only deepen our common humanity.

Brian Hearn

Brian Hearn is an art advisor, appraiser, curator and writer interested in all things art, cave painting to contemporary.

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