Oscar Howe, the headliner of the exhibition Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe, was a bowler. As in, knocking pins over with a heavy ball, bowling. Oscar Howe was also a painter, known for colorful, swirling paintings that center his Očhéthi Šakówi (Sioux) heritage. Understandably, the exhibit now on view at the Portland Art Museum focuses on the latter rather than the former. Bowling is only mentioned once, and it’s in the catalog.
My latch onto the bowling detail could be explained by anxiety of influence in reviewing this show. Dakota Modern was reviewed by Peter Schjeldahl for The New Yorker when the show was at the National Museum of the American Indian. The review was published in July and Schjeldahl died in October. His eloquence will live on. In discussing Howe’s 1954 Dance of the Heyoka: “peekaboo are bits of figures in the plangent gallimaufry…Such paintings embody no rationale except their own.” Trying to write about this show has sent me into my own phlegmy spiral.
Thankfully, the installation of Dakota Modern in Portland is accompanied by a significant addition, Jeffrey Gibson’s They Come From Fire, that wasn’t part of the show in New York. The addition of Gibson’s work takes the Howe exhibit’s conclusions about the work and critical reception of a singular artist and applies them more broadly to comment on history, community, and individual experience.
Gibson’s project consists of installations on the exterior of the museum and in the Schnitzer Sculpture Court. The locations outside of the main galleries suggest a prelude or an introduction to Howe’s work. This makes sense logistically, but less sense thematically. Gibson made his work in response to exhibition curator and long-time friend Kathleen Ash-Milby’s work on Howe. The title They Come From Fire is taken from Howe’s 1965 painting He Came from Fire. Gibson’s work responds to Howe’s work and legacy more than introduces it. I’ll start with Gibson’s work and then tackle the Howe exhibition.
Suspended, multicolored glass panels dominate the space of the Schnitzer Sculpture Court. Gibson made the panels in collaboration with Portland-based glass studio, Bullseye Glass Co. Cursive script on each of the twelve rectangular panels proclaims different aphorisms – “They Choose Love,” or “They Protect the Land,” for example. All are freighted with meaning, but the one that speaks most directly to the project as a whole is “They rewrite their story.”
Spotlights trained on the glass panels project the glass panels’ multi-colored geometry onto the back wall, which is tiled with black-and-white photographs of people on the empty Park Block sculpture plinths. The photographs were pulled from a photo shoot that Gibson held last May when he invited Indigenouos, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other community members to participate in his larger project vision.
The idea to use empty Park Block pedestals captured Gibson when he came to Portland for an initial site visit with Ash-Milby to determine the scope of the project. The plinths have been empty since 2020, when sculptures of Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and The Promised Land were removed as part of the 2020 protests. Gibson’s photos give new life to the barren plinths, with a cast of individuals and groups, natal and chosen-family groupings. Some portraits came as no surprise given the venue and occasion: Carla Rossi, Lillian Pitt, and Sara Siestreem, for example. Others weren’t people I immediately recognized, but that, too, was part of Gibson’s project vision. A wall tag explains: “I want the overall work to point to narratives that may not be popularly known outside of these local communities and to celebrate the photographed individuals as leaders and innovators in the world today.”
The notion of unsung narratives and their relationship to official historical record features in Gibson’s project on the exterior of the museum building as well. In multi-colored, triangle-patterned panels, Gibson intersperses the events that populate timelines (“1830 The Indian Removal Act signed into law by President Andrew Jackson”) with other events, pivotal but not the kind that make the history books (“October 1998 Bill Ray marries Lawretta Ray”).
Gibson’s work in the Schnitzer Sculpture Court is arresting and effective in its messaging. The exterior timeline, though strong in concept and theoretically well integrated with the ideas of the interior work, isn’t as impeccably executed. Some of the events – the marriages, divorces, births, moves – those seem in line with Gibson’s interest in celebrating individuals and their narratives. The importance given to the museum in the timeline though is curious, especially given the location of the work on the front of the museum. There are only sixty timeline entries. Including the founding of the Portland Art Museum (1892) makes perfect sense but to include the hiring of two PAM Curators of Native American Art, Deana Dartt (January 2012) and Kathleen Ash-Milby (July 1, 2019) as well as the hiring of Erin Grant as the “IMLS Curatorial & Community Partnerships Fellow” (February 2022) seems a bit much. The inauguration of Portland Art Museum’s collaboration with Numberz FM in 2019 is indeed noteworthy but including this and so many other events on this timeline almost ventures into the realm of self-congratulation.
Far more compelling than the institutional milestones are the personal ones: “1996 Gladys Bolton becomes Siletz’s Tribal Whipwoman and maintains this role for many years” or “1917 Lynette Howes’ grandparents move to Tammany, Idaho from the Cherokee reservation.” These entries augment the historical narrative, offering a welcome alternative to the “official” histories which have most often trained attention on events and people from dominant white culture at the expense of consideration of Indigenous, Black, or Queer histories. Equally, the textbook story of history has never considered most of the individual machinations that make up and shape life. The history textbook has always privileged the stories of the select few, in the United States, those designated as the “Founding Fathers” – the ones with the sculptures.
Gibson didn’t remove Teddy Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln from the Park Block plinths, but by asking Indigenous, Black, and Queer community members to occupy those spaces and putting the photographs up in the museum, he offers an alternative version of history–one that, instead of national heroes, celebrates real people for a history that is more representative of the collective, more inclusive, and more equitable.
The glass panel reads “They rewrite their story.” That statement conveys agency but doesn’t convey that it is a shared responsibility: Our collective story needs to be rewritten, because it is incomplete. In prioritizing a single story, it leaves most people out of that story. It’s as though standard history is a big rope composed of an infinite number of individual threads. Rewriting the story means untangling the rope and rearranging those threads into a web of meaning rather than only considering the pre-defined whole.
Dakota Modern presents the life and career of Howe (1915-1983) as a singular arc; they are one and the same. As a child, Howe was sent to an Indian Boarding School, notorious institutions designed to “kill the Indian [and] save the man.” Released from school residency because of a serious illness, Howe spent time in the company of his grandmother, Shell Face, learning the culture and history of his Dakota ancestors. When he returned to school, the educational ethos had changed and he was trained in a newly instituted studio arts program at Santa Fe Indian School. “Studio” art used Pueblo painting and Plains ledger drawing traditions to execute works that illustrate Native traditions for collectors and tourists. Howe’s earliest works in the style are descriptive, but static: dancers frozen in amber (Untitled (Sioux Dancers)), something to behold from the past rather than representative of a vibrant present.
Even five years into his artistic career, Howe began to shrug off Studio expectations. Sioux Water Boy, from 1939, one year after Howe’s graduation, features a twisting figure with perspective used to depict a smaller figure and symbolic bird. The groundline offers an early glimpse into Howe’s later style: inverted, elongated triangles outlined in red, reach into the earth. This multi-colored flourish presages his mature style, as do the tapered curves of his signature.
After serving in World War II in Europe, Howe returned to pursue a bachelor’s degree from Dakota Wesleyan, and by 1949, more of his mature style of painting peeks through. Flouting the Totem remains sternly representational, but with a reveling in the motion of the horse and buffalo and undulating dusky hues of the clump-grass-festooned earth. The emphatic striations of hair reprise in several works later in the artist’s career.
Howe’s investment in motion and abstract forms, along with his explorations of color, continued to shape his work. He retained subjects from his Dakota heritage, but the whorling forms play a coequal role, so the subjects aren’t illustrations in the way some expected. In 1958, one of Howe’s works was rejected from an “Indian Annual” at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma because it was deemed “not Indian.” The rejected work isn’t in the PAM show, but a second work on a similar theme, Umine Dance, gives an indication of the style: five figures in five distinct positions: crouching, leaping, arched, with variously shaped, contorted limbs jagged lines with tentacles or roots represent motion or sound, maybe both. It is both clearly a dance and nothing like the “Studio” works of Howe’s early training.
Howe, incensed by the Philbrook rejection, pens a response that becomes infamous. The exhibition wall text an PAM includes the quote: “Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting?” The full text of the letter continues to ask if Indians are to be treated as though “only the White Man knows what is best for him. Now, even in Art, ‘You little child do what we think is best for you, nothing different.’” There were expectations for what “Indian” painting was, what it should depict and how. In the estimation of the jury at the Philbrook Museum of Art, Howe didn’t sufficiently fall in line.
Howe’s work might have been too abstract to meet expectations of the time for Indian painting, but it was equally out of step with the dominant narrative of mid-century American Modernism, with its disdain for representational subject matter. Dance of the Heyoka, from 1954, presents as a collage of bright pink, blue, and red shaded shapes. The figures emerge on closer inspection: hooded heads, arcs or rays of black hair. The jumble communicates the energy and fervor of the dance; it goes beyond formal meditation to represent a distinguishable subject. Abstraction after Wakapana (1973), Meditation (1968), and War Dancer (1968) dispense with subjects, but these are anomalies in Howe’s larger oeuvre.
In contrast, mainstream mid-century American Modernism had abandoned representation by the early 1950s. There were artists who returned to figuration, but the return was a contrarian statement–Jasper Johns’ flags, or Pop Art, rather than an unbroken line of representational development. Abstraction hit its stride in the 1960s. The chapter on the period in the standard art history textbook, H.H. Arnason’s History of Modern Art, is “Playing by the Rules: 1960s Abstraction.” Ellsworth Kelly and Kenneth Noland were the standard-bearers for what was termed “hard-edge abstraction.”
Howe’s work doesn’t fit this narrative. I can’t remember ever seeing him included in an art history survey textbook. For a field that claims to value the new and novel, there certainly are a lot of expectations about what the new and novel has to be.
This “failure” to meet expectations comes to a head in Howe’s later career, when the artist embraces geometrically fractured space. In Cunka Wakan, from 1966, intersecting shards don’t dissemble the perspective of the horse so much as manifest its form with contrasting blues and reds with black for the mane and leg. Art critics saw this and shoehorned Howe into a narrative in which the artist was belatedly embracing early 20th century Cubism. Howe again bristled: “I have been labelled wrongfully a Cubist.”
When appreciated on its own merits, for what it is rather than what the dominant art establishment thought it should be, Oscar Howe’s work and artistic vision is accolade-worthy. For artists trying to navigate multiple identities, for artists who may not fit the expectations of who an artist should be and what their work should look like, Howe is a trailblazer, and one who should be adulated as such. Howe never got a sculpture on a pedestal in the Hall of Fame of Modern Art, but those sculptures are in the process of being removed, anyway. The plinths are ready to host a rotating cast rather than a select few “fathers.”
Art history isn’t a single rope, either: it’s an infinite number of individual threads, and each thread contains multitudes. Rather than tell a single story of artistic progress, those threads intersect, diverge, and connect all manner of different inspirations, influences, and touchstones. It’s a web. One of the many threads in that web of Modern art is Oscar Howe. He was Yanktonai Dakota, a painter trained in the Studio style, an abstractionist, an Episcopalian, a husband, a father, and a teacher. He was also a bowler.
Jeffrey Gibson: They Come from Fire is on view at the Portland Art Museum through February 26, 2023. A second project by Gibson, To Name An Other, is on view at the museum upstairs. Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe is on view through May 14, 2023.