In October 2012, I published “Always Out of Time,” an essay on the arresting untimeliness of Native American art, in the annual catalogue of the stellar Donald Ellis Gallery.
In 1905, a prospector named Adam Hollis Twitchell was making trades with Native American tribes along Alaska’s Kuskokwim River, which flows from the snow-blanketed mountains in the center of the state into the Bering Sea. Twitchell was married to a Yup’ik woman and often attended ceremonies reviled by the European missionaries who had settled in the area, collecting masks that would otherwise have been left to decay in the snow. One mask was two-thirds the size of a human head and dominated by a long, gawking beak and prodigious umber loops framing a pair of depressed eyeholes. The cream-colored face was girded by gray feathers, which hung from a crude wooden chassis. The mouth was barely sketched and yet the slight contours and swath of color sufficed to define the visage: gleeful, even delirious, as if trying to repress uncontrollable laughter. Wielded during a nighttime ritual, the seabird mask must have swooped frightfully through the firelight, like a maniacal apparition.
Shortly after Twitchell acquired the mask, which dates to the end of the nineteenth century, New York City collector George Gustav Heye bought it for his Museum of the American Indian. Heye’s collection grew to be the largest in the world. When he began deaccessioning works in the 1940s, surrealists like Max Ernst, André Breton, Enrico Donati, Robert Lebel, and Roberto Matta flocked to the museum’s Bronx warehouse, such that it became known as the “surrealist Macy’s.” A fellow New Yorker named Julius Carlebach bought the seabird mask around this time and took it to his Upper East Side antiques shop, another haunt—and perennial drain on the bank accounts—of the surrealists. Claude Lévi-Strauss referred to the shop as “Ali Baba’s cave”; Peggy Guggenheim, at the time Ernst’s wife, recalled Carlebach “perpetually scurrying around and finding things with which to tempt Max.” Lebel, who inventoried the objects that passed from the Heye collection to the surrealists, purchased the mask in 1944, and it remained in his family until reentering the market sixty-two years later.
Now we have the Lebel mask in the pages of this catalogue, displayed at an art fair as part of the inventory of a commercial gallery. Looking at this artwork, we can’t help but see a record of culture and trade, politics and aesthetics, odious acts and revolutionary ideas inscribed onto the bird’s goggled visage, like the concentric rings that mark a tree trunk. Though we can assume the mask played a ceremonial role, its exact function is unknown. The seabird is quite important to the Yup’ik, and hunters are thought to take on the animal’s identity to protect and empower themselves. Traditionally, masks were abandoned after being used, which ensured the endurance of the artistic tradition surrounding rituals (since there would always be a demand for new masks). Many of the extant ceremonial objects were surrendered by members of local tribes to missionaries in the nineteenth century—a condition of their conversion to Christianity—and preserved as souvenirs. Some were eventually transported to local trading posts, some were shipped to Europe and sold at flea markets, some ended up in private collections or museums in New York and London. While the mask is a product of this history, it never ceases to be completely sui generis, even as its status shifts over time— from Yup’ik fetish to modernist talisman, ethnographic relic to rarefied commodity. The mask is a register of the past but also a prism for understanding, defying, and looking beyond the present.
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Much has been made of the propriety of examining Native American art through the lens of art history or anthropology or patrimony. Instead of taking up this stifling debate, I’d like to posit a relationship between the past and present functions of these objects as artworks, relics, and commodities, a relationship that ultimately generates new ways of seeing and thinking, new possibilities for perceiving and remaking our present world. This isn’t to say we should be so solipsistic as to think about a 150-year-old Yup’ik mask as a model for a new social order in our own time, as Breton did. (“It’s above all the visual art of the red man that lets us accede to a new system of knowledge and relations,” he remarked.) Rather, our sense of the present may be disturbed precisely because of the mask’s untimeliness.
In his essay “What Is an Apparatus?” (2006), the philosopher Giorgio Agamben elaborates on this idea, proposing that there is “a secret affinity between the archaic and the modern, not so much because the archaic forms seem to exercise a particular charm on the present, but rather because the key to the modern is hidden in the immemorial and the prehistoric.” In other words, the past is alive within the present, as that part of the present that always eludes us. When we “pursue the primitive and the archaic,” we turn to this unrealized potential as a force of rejuvenation. “The present is nothing other than this unlived element in everything that is lived,” Agamben writes. “To be contemporary means in this sense to return to a present where we have never been.”
The artworks in this catalogue are masterpieces regardless of time or place, but we might also think of them as a set of questions about the relationship between times and places, between the contemporary and the historical. For the past century, surrealists, missionaries, cubists, frontiersmen, abstract expressionists, ethnologists, and curators have collected, appropriated, exhibited, and sold Native American art. In doing so, they have imbued the work with a sense of persistent presentness, which has further facilitated its appropriation. More people know more than ever about the original context of the work, but because the work now circulates in innumerable forms, its meaning becomes increasingly contingent, diffuse. The mid-nineteenth-century Tlingit pattern board owned by Andy Warhol and auctioned at Sotheby’s after his death is emblematic. A symmetrical design painted on milled wood and used as a template for handmade blankets and tunics, this work can be viewed in many ways: as a seductive composition, with formlines depicting a three-faced bear on one side and a whale in profile on the other; as an exemplar of the evolution of the Chilkat weaving style; as a surprising instance of technological reproduction in the realm of craftwork; as an instructive intersection of the contemporary art and antique markets; and, finally, as a piece of Warholania inextricable from the artist’s collection of 175 zoomorphic cookie jars—he called them “time capsules”—which were sold at the same auction for $250,000.
Does this mean the Tlingit pattern board is an artifact, a metonym, an artwork, an allegory? A piece of cultural heritage, a commodity, an emblem of the uneasy trade between these terms? What does it mean for the work to be all of these things at once? Much the same could be asked of a painting like Botticelli’s ethereal Ideal Portrait of a Lady (ca. 1475–80), an apotheosizing image of the artist’s muse. But we would get a different set of answers, having less to do with the uncanny familiarity of a seemingly foreign object than with the origins and nature of portraiture, the tantalizing gaze of the model, the question of the image’s fidelity to reality. Such portraits and their interpretations fit into a more or less established narrative of the development of Western art, a history that we imagine to be our own. The narrative of Native American art is much more porous, and given the paucity of information about so many of the works it is likely to remain so. For those of us who are not Native American, the tradition of this art exists apart from our own culture—yet the two have been imbricated for as long as there has been anything like our culture. Beyond the standard museums of “Western art,” look to Arizona Highways, kachina-congested Tex-Mex restaurants, the deformation of Navajo textile patterns and Pueblo ceramics into mass-produced beach towels and dinner plates.
Rather than lament this diffusion of Native American culture, we might celebrate the emblems of persecuted social groups filling out the ranks of down-market commodities. The surrealists, who posed Native American art against the stultifying rational order of their own society, may have appreciated the beach towels, if only as blowback from their towering influence. Breton’s collection, housed in his Paris apartment, epitomizes the modernist faculty for invention through recombination: A Kwakwaka’wakw headdress loomed over a Haida bent-corner box, which sat on a table with a Melanesian carving of a hermaphroditic figure, which was encircled by various other talismans and artifacts, among them hand-blown liquor bottles, vintage manuscripts, still-life paintings, dreamscapes, stuffed songbirds. In this context, all items became surrealist objects, which Breton described as “particularly enviable in their sheer power of evocation, overwhelming us with the conviction that they constitute the repositories, in art, of that miraculous charm, which we long to recapture.” Breton was interested in how the objects in his collection had been created and used, but perhaps cared more about what the collection itself said about archetypal symbols, the productive uses of hysteria, and the violation of cultural boundaries. After all, he was not an anthropologist but a collagist seeking to revivify a sick society in the wake of World War II, and he valued his masks for being “more surreal than the surrealists.”
Likewise, Barnett Newman used Native American art to disabuse critics of the notion that “modern abstract art is the esoteric exercise of a snobbish elite,” as he writes in the catalogue of “Northwest Coast Indian Painting,” which he curated at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1946. Newman’s exhibition is a typical effort to join seemingly disjunctive worlds, in this case Manhattan bohemia and traditional fishing villages, in the eternal realm of great art. Like many others before and after him, Newman emphasized the formal characteristics and metaphysical questing common to centuries-old ritual objects and present-day paintings and sculptures, confirming the timelessness of the former and the seriousness of the latter. He asks, “Does not this work rather illuminate the work of those of our modern American abstract artists who, working with the pure plastic language we call abstract, are infusing it with intellectual and emotional content, and who, without any imitation of primitive symbols, are creating a living myth for us in our own time?”
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Of course, such encounters with Native American art may yield what critic Rosalind Krauss calls “soft primitivism,” which is primarily concerned with aesthetics. Writing in the catalogue of the 1984 Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” she warns against aestheticizing Native American work, derides “a primitivism gone formal and therefore gutless.” But they are also likely to prompt profound consideration of how the work speaks to our time without entirely coinciding with it, and use “ethnographic data to transgress the neat boundaries of the art world with its categories based on form,” as Krauss recommends. Canadian artist Brian Jungen, for instance, employs sports jerseys and Air Jordan sneakers to create traditional textiles and ritual masks. The metaphrastic quality of his work echoes the trafficking of the original art object and, subsequently, a derivative corpus of imagery, to disorienting effect.
Part of what makes treasured, centuries-old Native American artworks contemporary is that they are commodities just like Air Jordans, but at the same time they seem to transcend the realm of commerce, even make it ridiculous. To return to Agamben: “Contemporariness is … a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and an anachronism.”
This holds true, maybe doubly true, for artworks that originally operated as currency—stores of value, mediums of exchange, units of account, though in a rather different economic landscape. The 170-year-old Chantland blanket, collected by the North Dakotan trader John Chantland in 1870, is the most remarkable example. A so-called first phase chief’s blanket, the Chantland represents the earliest evolution of a highly prized style of textile woven by Navajo women to be bartered or sold to members of other tribes. These textiles are distinguished by narrow blue horizontal stripes superimposed on thicker brown stripes, with swathes of white in between—a Navajo innovation. The Chantland is one of only nine extant blankets marked by fine red veins, made of industrially manufactured thread taken from the imported flannel that lined the garments of settlers, running between the brown and blue bands. The warp and weft are bound so perfectly that the red stripe seems to levitate above a seamless field of blue, the blue above the brown, the brown above the ecru base. Topography appears where we would expect texture. The ribbons of color suggest an infinitely recurring pattern, as if the blanket were just a particle of an all-encompassing design.
Unlike ritual masks, such blankets were produced in order to create value, even wealth. By the 1830s, Navajo chief’s blankets were some of the most expensive garments in the world, and were ubiquitous among high-ranking members of other western tribes. The blankets could be traded for one hundred buffalo hides, twenty horses, ten rifles, or five ounces of gold, and owners could wear them for a year and then trade them without their value diminishing. Though Navajo chief’s blankets are commodities, they are also ingrained in myth. A deity known as Spider Woman is thought to have taught Navajo women to weave, and the symmetrical designs of the blankets express the balance between the natural world and the spirit realm that is essential to the Navajo belief system.
One of the most impressive qualities of these artworks is their ability to embody a cascade of meanings through time and space, to give form to flux—without the intrinsic effect of the object being diminished, without the originality of the work being compromised. These are supremely synthetic objects, despite the particularity of their forms. And those forms, too, are multivalent. “Tlingit icons and motifs in visual art work on a number of different levels,” writes Thomas Thornton in Being and Place Among the Tlingit (2007). “They reference events, emotions, kin, places, and other themes that are fundamental to individual and social group identity. The most sacred icons are clan crests, manifestations of animals, places, and other entities, which are incorporated into artistic designs, regalia, and other cultural forms.”
One such form is the Haida doll attributed to the so-called Jenna Cass carver, a renowned Northwest Coast artist of the early nineteenth century. His corpus consists of several masks and four dolls, all with the same labreted lower lip and facial tattooing. The inside of one mask is marked with the name Jenna Cass, which is thought to be the English rendering of Djiláqons, the Haida name of an ancestress of the tribe’s eagle moiety. This particular doll is carved in the round and sheathed in a Western-style dress made of cloth obtained from European traders; it was acquired in Puget Sound by Captain William Martain in 1928 and donated by his granddaughter to the Woburn, Massachusetts public library in 1923. While the figure’s body is plain, the miniature mask over its face is daubed with brown, teal, and red pigments; the eyes are owl-esque and the mouth agape; tufts of hair hang down to the shoulders. One is struck by the transfiguring abstraction of the face and the simple shape of the body, the contrast between the otherworldly and the mundanely material. Conventional wisdom has held that the unnamed artist’s works were produced for foreign trade, but a close examination of this doll reveals a slight hole in the back of the head, which may indicate that it served a ritual function, acting as a vessel for the spirit of Djiláqons.
The doll is one of the most ancient, universal forms of sculpture, and it often links social play to ritual to trade; though the Haida sculpture is an ineluctably singular work, we might also see it as part of a lineage that includes ancient Egyptian paddle dolls, British Queen Anne dolls, surrealist artist Hans Bellmer’s fetishistic deconstruction of female mannequins, and the beloved Barbie. Or we might not: Lineage aside, encountering the most exceptional Tsimshian antler club, Tlingit grease bowl, or Apache Gaan mask can produce the kind of brisance that shatters your preconceptions, stills your breath. Which is to say that the various interpretations to which this art is subjected may be interesting, satisfying, even convincing, but none are capable of explaining the work or accounting for its effect; there is always a surplus. This is as true for us as for the surrealists, pioneering anthropologists, nineteenth-century missionaries, Barnett Newman, Andy Warhol, the Native Americans who crafted these objects and their progeny. And so maybe it is better to say that no interpretation is capable of finally locating the work—in the present or in the past, in an art-fair booth or along the banks of the Kuskokwim, in the realm of commodities or deities.