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To support Native
American art, the Rockefeller Foundation organized the “Rockefeller Conference
on Indian Art” at the University of Arizona, Tucson in 1959. Among the 31
participants were Lloyd Kiva New, Fritz Scholder, and MoMA director Rene
d’Harnoncourt. As a result, the “Southwestern Indian Art Projects” were held to
teach Native youth contemporary art forms and practices. Both programs led to
the establishment of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in 1962, with
the intention to
empower creativity, leadership and self-determination in Native Arts. These events happened during an
era that saw the Robert Kennedy Senate hearings on Indian
education, the formation of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the occupation
of Alcatraz, the confrontation at Wounded Knee, and the authorization of the
Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. IAIA opened as a
vocational art school for Native students to replace the outdated Studio School
at the Santa Fe Indian School.i
Native artists and educators including Lloyd Kiva New and Fritz Scholder
designed the curriculum, which urged experimentation with various materials,
techniques, Native and contemporary art influences such as Abstract
Expressionism and Pop Art. IAIA’s progressive art philosophy sparked a cultural
change within Native Art by challenging the standards imposed upon by the
Western art world and dominant society.

 

Lloyd Kiva New (1916-2002) became
IAIA’s first art director. New taught IAIA students the textile design processes
used in his Scottsdale-based Kiva Studio. Vibrant, unconventional colors, layering
of Native and abstract designs are characteristic for his influential style. New
believed students carried an inherent sense of design that could be drawn out
through contemporary printing techniques. He emphasized that Native artists had
an important contribution to make to the field of contemporary art, and he
believed “the future of Indian art lies in the future, not the past.”ii

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At the beginning of
his career, Fritz Scholder
(1937-2005) did not want to be labeled as an “Indian artist”. He encouraged IAIA
students to experiment with Modern art mixed with their own tribal art traditions.
Scholder’s signature style includes thick application of paint, rich textures
and luminous Pop inspired colors, as well as expressive brushwork and
distortions of the human figure. Color relationships and composition were often
more important to him than the subject. Scholder was best-known for his
American Indian portrait series that challenged stereotypes on Indian life and
art.

 

Even though T. C. Cannon (1946-1978) had a short
artist career, he was one of the most influential and innovative Native painters.iii
Cannon soon developed his own unique style,
using vibrant color and making social and political statements. His
paintings often reflect the contradictions of life as a Native American in
mainstream society during the 1960s and 70s. Among his signature works are Fauvist
and Pop art inspired portraits that present Native Americans as collectors of
European art, challenging established roles of who is the collector and who is
the collected.

 

Legacy

Beginning in the 1940s Native artists increasingly created
works that incorporated the visual strategies of Modernism combined with Native
art traditions. These groundbreaking, highly individual works
defied the predictability of
most Indian art of the previous era. Their art represents a significant turning point in Native
art history and a drastic shift from the earlier flat, romanticized paintings.

During the 1960s,
Native art and culture initiatives including IAIA gained support from the
liberal climate and the social and political activism of the era. IAIA’s teaching philosophy of
experimentation, innovation and risk taking allowed artists to use art
as a vehicle for addressing issues of Native American reality and identity. IAIA
artists used Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Native art forms as a vehicle
to critique historic narratives and voice concerns for matters such as
environmental politics and land rights. The art of the 1960s and 1970s began a
conversation that continues to this day: these works and their spirit of self-determination has been
inspiring Native art created in response to events such as the Columbus
quinquennial during the early 1990s or the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in
2017. These early experiments in irony and social commentary opened up a new
phase of contemporary Native art that has been developed further by Jaune Quick-to-See
Smith, Carl Beam, George Longfish, Harry Fonseca, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun and
others.

 

i The Studio School was
established by Dorothy Dunn (1932-1938), who promoted a flat,
stylized, uniform painting style with firm and even contours with soft colors

ii University of Arizona, “A
Proposal for an Exploratory Workshop for Talented Younger Indians,” October 15,
1959. Lloyd H. New Papers, IAIA Archives, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

iii T.C. Cannon died in an automobile crash at age 31, in 1978. In 1972, Cannon and
fellow artist and former IAIA teacher Fritz Scholder had an exhibition at the
Smithsonian Institution’s National Collection of Fine Arts, titled Two American Painters. The fact that the
title lists them as “American Painters” signifies the importance of their work
in American art history.

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