NATIVE AMERICAN ART AND THE NEW YORK AVANT GARDE by W. Jackson Rushing. (University of Texas Press: $39.95; 288 pp.) In attempting to establish a link between America’s Modernist movement and Native American art, W. Jackson Rushing has turned out three books in one. At once an inquiry into museum practices, a crash course in Native American art and mythology, and a survey of the forces that coalesced to create Abstract Expressionism, this book is packed with new information and original insights. It reads, however, like a college textbook and probably won’t appeal to those with a passing interest in visual art.
He does get his book off to a rousing start though, with a provacative examination of the idea of the primitive. Rushing argues that this is a fictional concept invented by the dominant culture (read: white male) whose primary function is to mirror the culture as it desires to see itself. This, he claims, is also the driving force behind the concept of human evolution, an idea that takes the form of a hierarchical structure that positions monotheistic white males obsessed with progress at the top, and relegates agrarian cultures built around mystical systems to the bottom. Our conception of the primitive, says Rushing, shifts in relation to how our view of ourselves changes; hence, Native Americans have alternately been seen as noble savages, happy peasants, brutal killers, ineffectual alcoholics.
The New York avant garde’s fascination with all things Indian reached an apotheosis in 1941 when the Museum of Modern Art presented the landmark exhibition, “Indian Art of the United States.” It was then that Jackson Pollock, who was struggling to hammer out a wholly American style that would reject European painting traditions, began to immerse himself in Native American motifs. Under the sway of Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious and obsessed with the idea of art as ritual for discovering the self and accessing the subconscious, he made a series of pictographic works incorporating Indian symbols and motifs that were to lead to his legendary drip paintings of the 50s--works he acknowledged were related to Navajo sand painting.
Pollock wasn’t the only Modernist to drink from this well; Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart and Marsden Hartley all cherry-picked what struck their fancy from the Native American world for use in their work. All art, of course, is a synthesis of sources and there’s no reason why Native American art should be off limits. It is, however, troubling to know that the interest of Pollock and company in Native American art was restricted to traditional styles and artifacts only, and that they had no regard whatsoever for contemporary work by their Native American colleagues. There’s something wrong there.