Of Indians and Modern Man, Whitney Museum of American Art (1970's)



 The exhibition of two hundred years of North American Indian art at the Whitney Museum through January 9th is the best show in town, and important for several reasons: the beauty of the objects themselves, what they say about their creators, and what they tell us about ourselves.


 There are horn spoons, wooden drums, war clubs with wooden or stone heads, skin jackets of the Plains Indians with pictographs on them, bowls that seem like the extended arms or generous belly of a strange little creature perched on the rim, chests, flutes, knives...all beautifully worked with animals or human figures an integral part of their design.


 But to my mind, the most breathtaking and striking works are the masks, ceremonial hats and free-standing sculpture, some in the form of house-posts. As sculpture, these masks and faces are unsurpassed in their solidity, structure and character. In most cases the planes are seen simply and boldly as is common with most so-called "primitive" art. Their use of color (red and green are favorites) and shells for teeth and eyes is beautiful.


 These are masterpieces in every sense of the word, and can hold their own with any masterpieces anywhere in the world. The inventiveness is endless, and nature and man's reaction to nature are the inspiration of it all.


 The height of realistic observation is reached in #43, a mask from the Kwakiutl tribe in Kitamaat, British Columbia, in which a broad, white-painted Eskimo face leers with great energy and immediacy, the face solidly seen in curving, naturalistic planes as opposed to the seemingly more usual abrupt change from angle to plane.


 All of these works have a beauty of craftsmanship, a feeling for texture, detail and significant sculptural form that will be apparent to everyone. There is also great emotional commitment in these works. One instinctively knows that these objects were of great importance to their creators and the members of the tribe who worshiped or responded to them.


 And here is the beginning of the relevance of these works by long-dead "primitives" to us as "modern," "civilized" men. These Indians were close to nature. We are far from nature. The Indians knew what darkness meant, and cold, stars, bears, lightning and storm, and the realization that the world is indeed a mysterious place full of unknowns.


 In our own lives, we have forgotten what darkness is, what it truly means for impenetrable night to fall. Flick on the switch, right? And Con Ed (barring difficulties with the Big Allis generator, of course), with great pollutive snorting, stems the night and comes to the rescue. We are insulated and protected from fears and monsters of the dark.


 Turn on the heat, and cold is gone. Either the smog is so thick or city lights so bright that we have nearly forgotten the stars. Bears are in Central Park Zoo, shuffling through empty soft drink cups, enduring the insults of city urchins, or, in apartment retreats, lie prostrate under stockinged-feet providing substance for erotic fantasies.


 Lightning and storm? We read occasionally of a hiker or camper being struck, but this has little relevance to our climate-controlled lives. And yes, wasn't it awful what happened in the Bay of Bengal?


 All mystery is gone out of our existence unless it's the mystery of why the boss didn't give us that raise, or the funny looks the help have been giving you in the halls lately. What mystery is there, what sense of God in the universe in an automobile, a computer, a corporation, the stock market, Mayor Lindsay and Governor Rockefeller pushing for a transportation bond issue, filth in the East River?


 The Indians were inspired by the life they lived, a life close to nature, and it is reflected in the works on display at the Whitney. That they had a sensitivity to nature, which in most cases is blunted in our time, is obvious. This is not to idealize the Indian, or say that we should chuck the wheel and clothe ourselves in skins. But they did know the names of plants and were able to eat them and make medicines from them. They knew the animals and their habits, and ate the whole animal as if instinctively aware of the nutrition in the marrow, brains and fat.


 And above all, these Indians had a sense of the poetry of life, the mystery of creation, the changing seasons. If December to us means the period of frantic ultra-commercialism, to them it was "the moon when the deer shed their horns." It must strike a responsive chord in many of us to think of berries, roots, nuts and herbs gathered for sustenance, and a certain brotherhood with animals and nature when compared with our own lives, pulling frozen brussel sprouts from the freezer in the local supermarket, or a pound of artificially-colored ground chuck wrapped in plastic from the meat department.


 There is something terribly tedious, mundane and restricted about the life we lead, a loss of poetry and the awareness of life's essential, insoluble mystery. A certain coldness and inhumanity. And our art reflects this. All you have to do while at the Whitney, is descend to the third floor and witness a series of oversize prints by the artists of our time you have come to know and love... Andy Warhol and Company.


 If we are ever to learn the difference between art of character with expressive meaning and that of the superficial "fun" swish and slash, we have only to compare the Indians with the degeneracy of most artists of our own slick age. We feel the power and honesty of the Indian art, while we sense the weakness, artificiality and fashion-mongering of today. The Indians have abstracted and retained the essence of life and nature, while our artists are true mannerists dealing only with formula and empty surfaces.


 Back on the fourth floor with the Indians, how much more rewarding is the Tlingit war helmet, #96, with a fierce, wide-eyed, broad-mouthed Eskimo face with a bronze glint and fringed red hair. Or, #95, also a Tlingit war helmet, carved from wood now cracked and old, with the mouth twisted in a quizzical snarl, the wrinkles rippling up one cheek and twisting the nose and face to one side.


 Perhaps most powerful and expressive of all are the five "false-face" masks created by the Iroquois. Framed by real hair pigtails, #295 is an absolutely fiendishly-alive, crazily- grinning, cross-eyed-staring red face with green eyebrows and lips. Carved in wood, it has a twisted, lined quality of spiraling in upon itself that suggests such movement and expressive force that it looks as if it had been molded instantaneously in some fluid medium by a demon crazed by the madness of life.


 According to Museum information, the false-face masks were "carved directly into a living tree -- the Iroquois still consider these masks to be alive, and when they are in use by those who still observe this way of life, the masks are fed and cared for."


 They certainly are alive. They throb and pulsate with a ghoulish glee. These masks express the demoniacal aspects of life that we perhaps lose sight of -- or choose to ignore -- that lie pulsing and quivering like an ever-present pile of sulphurous jelly beneath the very, very thin veneer of civilization. There is also the feeling that life is a grand joke played on us all, an idea that found similar expression in one of the greatest of artists, who seems so far removed from these North American Indian artists...Rembrandt, in his late, laughing, cackling self-portrait. We are all brothers.


 The carving of these false-face masks is sculptural to an extreme, with great drooling, slurping lips, large hooked or rubbery noses, prominent brows and deep-set eyes, and above all, the faces, cheeks, foreheads and chins are ravaged by deeply incised grooves as if the world were overcome by gleeful frowning. This is the mad world of nature and the dark heart of man uncontrolled by any rational interpretations. It resembles the way we "civilized" folk feel when subjected to any of civilization's many indignities, including one of our classic attainments, a traffic jam on the East River Drive.


 The Whitney Museum exhibition of North American Indian art is exquisite and extraordinary. Our artists -- all of us -- can learn a lot from these people.


Copyright by Don Gray



Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms