Affinities and Influences: Native American Art
and American Modernism

As the title suggests, Affinities and Influences: Native American Art and American Modernism focuses on the visual and conceptual connections between Native American and twentieth-century American modernist art. By placing these works together, Dr. Gail Stavitsky, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, and Twig Johnson, Curator of Education and Native American Art at The Montclair Art Museum organized an exhibition which displayed common aesthetic values transcending differences in time and origin. Included in the exhibition were paintings by such acclaimed modernists as William Baziotes, Adolph Gottlieb, Will Barnet and more, juxtaposed with artifacts from Northwest Coast Indian, Cheyenne, Sioux, Hopi, Navajo and other Native American tribes.

Native American art has survived and evolved through the paradox of custom and innovation. While intermarriages, the arrival of the white man, the forced removal of tribes onto reservations and the tourist trade all affected the style of the traditional arts, the inherent concepts have remained the same. Iconography represents emotions, spiritual essences, and the unseen forces experienced in dreams. Designs are inspired primarily by nature or religious beliefs.

Just prior to World War I, the first generation of modernists began to embrace indigenous art and culture as a revitalizing antidote to the ills of contemporary society. By contrast, Native American-influenced art and theory after 1941 was a vital source for a modern art based on the Jungian idea of the collective unconscious. What both generations of modernists shared was the celebration of Native America as a means of rejecting European culture and acquiring indigenous roots. For the first time, ethnographic objects were removed from the realm of natural history and looked at as works of art.

While connecting Native American art to the work of modern artists, Affinities and Influences also dispelled the concept of Native America as one homogenous culture. The Native American works on view ranged from objects of the Pacific Northwest Coast to those of the Great Plains. These objects illustrated the great diversity found in Native American societies.

Affinities and Influences: Native American Art and American Modernism was organized by The Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey. This exhibition was generously supported by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Funding for all Montclair Art Museum programs is made possible in part by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State.