Masked Moderns: Northwest Coast Native Art beyond Revival
Histories of “primitivism” in the avant-garde show that Euro-American modernism was always engaged in the appropriation of nonwestern and Indigenous art, with particular interest in Northwest Coast Native art forms by the Surrealists, Abstract Expressionists, and Indian Space Painters. However, there has been little consideration of how Northwest Coast Native artists chose to engage with the styles and tenets of Western modern art. To date, the history of postwar Northwest Coast Native art has been dominated by what is known as the Modern Revival, the supposed recovery of nineteenth-century Indigenous art in modern times. Native artists working in the Revival period typically produced neo-traditional work that was based on a canon of objects and styles constructed primarily by non-Native scholars from an idealized past. These anthropologists and art historians defined the rule-laden system of “formline design,” an organizational structure that uses a swelling and narrowing band and repeated geometric motifs to delineate totemic forms and that determined the spatial arrangement of carved and painted designs in a consistent visual language.
Between 1960 and 1990, however, many Northwest Coast Native artists departed from the neo-traditional style of the Modern Revival. They drew on Euro-American modernism and other non-Native aesthetic innovations to create works that complicated notions of identity, authenticity, and tradition. I argue for recognizing these transformative works as a Northwest Coast form of postmodern art in their two-fold critical response to Western modernism and to the canon of the Modern Revival. Trained in and deeply knowledgeable about Western modernism’s legacy, these artists understood and reframed its values of originality, aesthetic autonomy, and expressive innovation, combining such modernism with and layering it into forms that expressed Indigenous cultural values. These artists made use of Western modernism by applying its procedures to Indigenous content. They appropriated modern techniques to reframe their art in an idiom recognizable for Euro-American reception, thereby claiming a place alongside rather than subservient to them as fine artists.
This project will deepen the history of aesthetic primitivism in the broader canon of Euro-American modernism by revealing how the Indigenous postmodernists that are the subject of this study responded to and made use of it. They created work outside of the binaries of tradition and innovation and allowed for a reconsideration of the divide between modernism and postmodernism. I argue that their art further produces visual metaphors of the complex political relations between Northwest Coast Native Americans and the settler-colonial states that they cohabit. “Masked Moderns” will thus expand our understanding of how the specific history of Northwest Coast art reflects Indigenous sovereignty through points of contact, refusal, and reconciliation between Western art and Native American artists.