Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native Painting – National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center, New York City

For centuries, the American public has been used to thinking of Native arts as either part of the ethnographic record of the original peoples of the United States or as craft to be marketed as an expression of a tribe’s traditions. Anything different would not be considered truly Native by these arbitrary guidelines, and in fact, would not have been accepted as an authentic work. By the 20th century, US government programs for the arts were designed to keep indigenous aesthetics in a sterile environment for so-called authenticity’s sake, with a subtext of outsiders controlling the narrative of conquered peoples. The idea that anyone of Native descent would want to make fine art using the ideas and forms of modern theories while still referencing the touchstones of their background was very difficult for educators and others to accept. It wasn’t until after World War II and the educational opportunities provided by the G I Bill, that Native artists could afford to learn and work outside of the government-run arts schools. This newfound freedom led to dynamic works that could be anything from pure abstraction to biting social satire, where being an American Indian was simply one part of a person’s identity. Today’s artists, using their background and professional training, continue to expand and redefine Native art for the 21st century, adding to the creative spirit of the United States. The exhibit Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native Painting, curated by David Penney, associate director of museum research and scholarship, and curators Kathleen Ash-Milby, Ann McMullen, Paul Chaat Smith and Rebecca Trautmann, trace this little known aspect of American art history using works from the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) collection.

Starting with the idea of ‘Grand Ambitions’, the show makes the overarching statement that modern Native paintings encompass a multitude of styles, themes, and subject matter, making them impossible to categorize. Using works from the 1950’s to the present, the only theme is freedom of expression, whether that is content or technique. Some fine examples include Blanket by James Lavadour, Walking to the Next Bar by Fritz Scholder, Trade Canoe: Adrift by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and Deer Dancer for Hyacinth by Rick Bartow. Each of these works has a connection to ideas or concerns within Native communities, but expresses the artist’s feelings in a contemporary way, reaching out to a wider audience. Other paintings have no overt reference to Native themes, such as the beautifully balanced Spatial Whorl by Dick West, a triumph of Modernist Abstraction; and Reflexive Contemplation (wants-needs) by Duane Slick, with its delicate layers of paint over two faint silhouettes.

Following this introduction, the exhibition goes back in time, to explore the history of Native artists within the context of US government control of their education and restrictions on acceptable working techniques. A small passageway labelled ‘Training Ground: Oklahoma’ and ‘Training Ground: New Mexico’ showcases examples of drawings made with gouache, watercolor and tempera done by Native students attending art schools in Oklahoma and New Mexico. These idealized images are done in a relatively strict illustration style, with little modelling or perspective, and set the accepted standard of Native art practices for decades. By doing this, US government schools kept these students and educators from joining the national conversation regarding art theory and practice, all but ensuring the only market these artists could sell in was the limited one of ethnographic images.

Further on in the show, three sections show the rapid changes in Native art in the post-war era, thanks to benefits provided by the G I Bill as well as new ideas in federal policy and philanthropic activity. Given the freedom to attend colleges and universities with modern art courses and training, students embraced current methods to express age-old concerns and subjects, with many later becoming educators to the new generation. The ‘Reclaiming the Abstract’ segment shows American Indian artists beginning to move non-representational shapes from traditional areas of weaving and pottery onto the canvas, playing with positive/negative space, breaking down form, and using colors to influence mood and meaning. Three examples of this style, which is still very popular, are shown by Helen Hardin, Joe Hilario Herrera and Pablita Velarde.

After this area, the ‘Cosmopolitan’ section displays mid-20th and early 21st century work that advances further into modern abstraction, keeping pace with the current trends of American art. No 2 by George Morrison, with its strong gestural brushwork and assertive palette, is a classic example of abstract expressionism equal to any artist of that genre. In Homage to Chief Joseph (Chief Joseph #1) by Kay WalkingStick, the artist subtly links the old with the new, using the outline shape of an animal hide to contain and display her masterful painting technique. Contemporary abstraction is ably represented in Standing Water by Emmi Whitehorse, with its nuanced tones and floating shapes.

Finally, the ‘Indian Pop’ area gives viewers the heritage/modern mashup that is Native life, with tribal customs and rituals observed in a contemporary setting, as in Dance Break by Harry Fonseca with its four characters wearing ceremonial masks but dressed in jeans and high-tops. No longer viewed as primitive, sentimental, or naïve, these subjects are simply people engaging in their multi-faceted culture, the same as anyone else might do.

To put an exhibit of fine art in a museum known more for ethnographic content is a bold leap of imagination by the curators and the NMAI. Making the case for this little known aspect of US history and doing it in one of the art capitals of the world, sends a powerful message to Native and non-Native alike that this work has validity. However, the force of this argument is weakened by several inconsistencies in the presentation, something that would not have happened in an art institution setting.

The main problem with this exhibition is the uneven amount of information regarding the artists, historical context, and the paintings themselves. Some paintings have explanatory text linking the work to contemporary issues or artistic ideas, others have nothing. As an example, Tewa, Tiwa, Towa by Mateo Romero has no information attached to it. The title refers to either an ethnic group or a subgroup of Tanoan languages; either way, there should be something explaining which meaning the artist intended. The image itself is neutral enough that the viewer is left wondering how to interpret the scene. On the other hand, historical information for the early years of Native peoples’ artistic training is well expressed and encourages visitors to think about the methods and reasoning behind them.

The layout of the exhibit is also somewhat confusing. Oddly enough, the conclusion of the theme ‘stretching the canvas’ begins its narrative with late 20th century and early 21st century works, then switches to 20th century examples to illustrate US government approved art educational methods for Native people, influence of philanthropic organizations, and gaining opportunities to learn fine art techniques based on current art trends. Topics are linked to a timeline, as in abstraction and the 1950s, but the paintings in those areas are not consistently of the era referenced. Abstract ideas have changed radically in the last 60-plus years and the differences are very noticeable between period pieces and works from the last 10 years.

Using only paintings from NMAI’s own collection is a powerful way to draw attention to the lack of interest in modern and contemporary fine art from Native artists. Unfortunately for the organization, not all these pieces are the best available, making the show a little weaker than if they decided to include outside collections. (We’re assuming, correctly or not, that few mainstream institutions have much work from these artists. Indeed, the current rehanging of MoMA’s galleries don’t seem to have a single Native artist’s work on display, something that should be considered in future curatorial decisions. The Met has at least begun to address the issue with its new series The Great Hall Commission, currently showcasing mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) by Kent Monkman.) Admittedly by keeping the focus on their own holdings, the NMAI is making several points about the makers, the paintings, and the outside world’s view/acceptance of these works, not to mention the sensitive subject of funding purchases of art for the nation. However, the selection on view has a much better gender balance than the majority of group shows in NYC: out of the 37 paintings, 9 are by women, but by percentages, women are about 25% of the total participants. Although not parity, it’s clear that the curators have made a conscious effort to bring forward names that deserve to be better known. Given the national and international audience that visits the NMAI, it’s more than possible this collection may influence future exhibitions in unlikely places, although it may take years. It will be interesting to see if public interest, along with curators and scholars, can help break down the art world’s resistance to including artists of Native descent in permanent and special exhibit galleries.

On view November 16, 2019 – Fall 2020

National Museum of the American Indian New York, Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, One Bowling Green, Hours: Fri – Wed: 10-5, Thur: 10-8, Admission: Free

Opening Shot from Spring 2012 Photograph by Thomas Lau Courtesy of Anna Sui

The World of Anna Sui – Museum of Arts and Design

More than most designers, Anna Sui is a complete experience. Her boutiques, clothing, accessories, collaborations and licensing agreements are all stamped with her unmistakable combinations of color, pattern, and whimsy, making her work instantly recognizable in the crowded world of fashion. In the mini retrospective The World of Anna Sui at The Museum of Arts and Design, we see how she began her career, the influence of New York City’s culture on her work, and her impact on American fashion over the last thirty-eight years.

Anna Sui Official Portrait Photograph by Jerry Schatzberg. Courtesy of Jerry Schatzberg

The exhibit has two sections: the fifth floor showcasing her youth in Detroit, education at Parsons School of Design, inspirations and heroes in fashion and beyond, and the start of her company. The fourth floor has displays of clothes, and a section devoted to her collaborators in accessories and licensed products. The show doesn’t give much information about actual dates, but essentially Anna Sui was not an overnight success. She worked many jobs through her twenties and thirties, and when she began her own line, she continued doing that for some time. Her focus was phenomenal: experimenting with cut and fabric, learning how to communicate her point of view while building a devoted client base, and staying consistent to her ideas regardless of fashion’s trends allowed her business to grow slowly and sensibly.

Installation view of The World of Anna Sui at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York. Photo by Jenna Bascom

Each collection’s creation begins with several reference points: famous people associated with the arts, culture, or time periods, archetypes of American culture, patterns and colors linked to various fashion movements, and artistic or historic movements. Sui has a voracious interest in international cultures and nearly all time periods although her favorite influences are rooted in the 20th century, especially the music and fashion culture of 1960’s Britain or those linked to an American region or time period, such as the East Coast preppie or 1940’s Hollywood glamor. She often combines what seems to be opposing interests or aesthetics to provide a contrast or to show a hidden similarity, often using a color palette that works well for all the influences. All her potential ideas and thoughts are pinned to a ‘mood board’, to be examined and discussed with her staff. Several of these boards from previous collections are on view, providing visitors with an extraordinary glimpse into the mind of this creative force.

Anna Sui Fashion Show Spring 1994

One of Sui’s many trademarks is her joie de vivre. She simply can’t be gloomy and sad – even in her punk collection she moved away from safety pins through body parts and distressed fabrics, to focus on lightening the mood with metallic leathers and brighter colors. Fantasy and storylines are another part of the Sui aesthetic. Each collection is linked to a narrative that may go from noir movies to comic books to romantic fairy tales, all mashed together and if not making much sense, at least making unusual connections to entertain her customers.

Installation view of The World of Anna Sui at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York Photo by Jenna Bascom

Another way Sui stands out in the fashion world is her enjoyment of detail. In a world increasingly about surfaces, her work insists on depth, with her clothes referencing multiple influences within pattern, cut, and stitching. By pouring on embellishment with a masterly sense of shape and color, embroidery, feathers, fringe, lace, and ruffles overwhelm the eye but also enhance the garment, to the point that removing anything would ruin the look. In anyone else’s hands it would be a disaster, but for Sui it’s perfectly normal. As for the accessories, her collaborators are completely in tune with her collections’ focus and produce memorable hats, costume jewelry, and shoes.

Installation view of The World of Anna Sui at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York Photo by Jenna Bascom

The gallery color scheme is classic Sui with vibrant jewel-tones in one area and her signature purple and black in another. The general display of the clothes is very well done, with numbered mannequins standing on platforms and arranged for clear sightlines. There are no wall talkers for the clothes: touchpads are located to the side of each group of figures, and visitors can swipe through photos of each outfit and read about the collection, the ideas/inspirations, and a description of the materials used. General descriptions of several archetypes Sui uses in her collections are given near the groupings, such as Fairytale, Victorian, Grunge. There are also video clips of the runway shows so visitors can see how the clothes were presented to the public.

Interestingly, this exhibit originated at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London and curated by Dennis Nothdruft in 2017. It was an excellent subject for the museum since Sui has consistently referenced British music and fashions in her work as well as being a champion of patterned textiles. For MAD, the show was adapted by Barbara Paris Gifford, Assistant Curator with support from Angelik Vizcarrondo-Laboy, Assistant Manager of Curatorial Affairs.

Over 90% of the material on display comes from the designer’s archives but for a more objective show, it would have been better to try and source the clothes from other venues, such as museums or collectors. The few items from other institutions are interesting, such as the Diana Vreeland doll from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, but they don’t add much to the presentation. By essentially raiding the closet of the exhibit subject, the museums have given up a neutral approach to the topic. On the other hand, shows like this aren’t meant to be judgmental, rather they are a general survey of a designer’s career, like a 101 college course. If a visitor doesn’t know the work, it’s an excellent introduction but if they’re knowledgeable, the displays read as a greatest hits collection. Either way, the show is strong enough to appeal to both groups.

Despite these issues, The World of Anna Sui is a perfect match for the Museum of Arts and Design. Sui’s ability to process a huge variety of sources to create beautiful and original objects exemplifies the intellect, skill, and talent needed for successful design work. By choosing to focus on this aspect of the designer’s career, the museum has given visitors a different way to see her clothes and appreciate why she stands out in the fashion world.

On view: September 12, 2019 – February 23, 2020

Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, Hours: Tue-Wed and Fri-Sun: 10-6, Thur: 10-9, General Admission: $16, Seniors: $14, Students: $12, Members: Free, Children aged 18 and under: Free (accompanied by an adult), Persons with disabilities and their caregivers (must show ID): Free. On Thursdays from 6 pm to 9 pm: admission is pay-what-you-wish.

Vera Inc. logo, c. 1960s. Courtesy VNIP Holdings.

Vera Paints a Scarf: The Art and Design of Vera Neumann – The Museum of Arts and Design

It takes a lot of effort to create a successful business in the fashion industry, with a daunting list of things that need to happen: have a designer who can create fresh looks for each season, a manufacturing partner that stays true to the designer’s vision, a promotional and sales force who sell the products to stores and consumers, and an accounting department to keep the costs low and the profits high.

Vera Neumann, c.1960s

Most entrepreneurs don’t get all these things right, but one who did was Vera Neumann. Starting in 1942, she designed, licensed and sold her artwork on everything from scarves to dresses to home goods. By using a varied color palette, patterns based on natural forms, and a distinctive painting technique (along with a simple two-color trademark on each item) Neumann’s work stood out in the retail environment. Add to this an insistence on a specific price point for all her product, and it’s no wonder the Vera brand was one of the most successful companies in America.

Vera Neumann, Cats and Dogs, 1963. Watercolor on paper, 30 x 30 inches. Courtesy Susan Seid. Photo: Steven Meckler.

In Vera Paints a Scarf: The Art and Design of Vera Neumann, curator Elissa Auther, the Windgate Collections and Curator (with Alida Jekabson, MAD Curatorial Assistant, Rachael Schwabe and George Tiger Liu) present Neumann’s work with an emphasis on its appeal to consumers and place in mid-century design and aesthetics. As a rule, there would be many institutional sources contributing objects but curiously for a museum show, the bulk of the items come from the company archives and Susan Seid, who owns the original artwork of the commercial designs. The reason for this is simple: Vera designs were always so popular that most women or households used the products until they were worn out, making it more difficult for an institution to collect or display objects in good condition. Even now on websites selling vintage goods, it can be difficult to find a favorite pattern in good or excellent condition, even though there were thousands of items made at the time.

Installation view of Vera Paints a Scarf: The Art and Design of Vera Neumann at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York (August 8, 2019–January 26, 2020). Photo by Jenna Bascom

The exhibit space is divided into four viewing areas that allow visitors to move easily from background information about the company to examples of retail product. The gallery is flooded with natural light, complimenting the display and giving a strong sense of how these items looked in real world conditions. It’s easy to see the commercial appeal of these bright, simple designs that were affordable and suited a wide range of people. The scarf displays are especially eye-catching, using a two-sided vitrine to maximize the importance of this accessory to the brand. As a clever touch, visitors can take a brochure reprinted from a 1968 ad campaign exploring the many ways to tie scarves of different sizes. A wall of Neumann’s paintings, along with a film clip showing her working techniques helps in understanding the journey from image to product. Her loose brushstrokes, using the Japanese sumi-e ink painting technique, were as much a part of the Vera look as her color choices and signature ladybug trademark. There is also another excellent film in the exhibit showing the full process of design and manufacturing, providing insight on the company’s success.

Installation view of Vera Paints a Scarf: The Art and Design of Vera Neumann at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York (August 8, 2019–January 26, 2020). Photo by Jenna Bascom

The display area of home goods showcases the many Vera items available to consumers, from place settings to table linens. An iPad display scrolls through scanned pages from old catalogs of F. Schumacher, a home goods design company, with a wonderful range of patterned upholstery and wallpaper selections still in demand by consumers, more than 50 years later. Other objects include sample fabrics and photographs of rooms done with the full Vera treatment from sofas to curtains. It’s impressive to see the range of her influence on popular taste, and even more notable to feel the rooms don’t seem all that dated.

Vera Neumann, Mexican Paisley, 1971. Watercolor on paper, 24 x 24 inches. Courtesy Susan Seid.

One area that seems out of step with the general tone of the exhibit discusses the influence of global cultures on Neumann’s work. Although it was unusual for a designer to openly give credit to non-Western or non-American societies as a source of inspiration, the exhibit frames the artist’s study of other countries’ craftworks as a form of cultural imperialism. This gives a specific 21st century view to the pieces on display and although making a valid point, imposing it seems to detract from the overall message of a company determined to show that art can be sourced from anywhere and from any culture. Neumann’s ethos and the resulting products seem to clearly show her interest and respect for other ways of seeing and expressing beauty, in a way rarely done before or since by a designer. It’s worth remembering that her work, her company, and her customers were better for it.

On view August 8, 2019 – January 26, 2020

Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, Hours: Tue-Wed and Fri-Sun: 10-6, Thur: 10-9, General Admission: $16, Seniors: $14, Students: $12, Members: Free, Children aged 18 and under: Free (accompanied by an adult), Persons with disabilities and their caregivers (must show ID): Free. On Thursdays from 6 pm to 9 pm: admission is pay-what-you-wish