The Saint Louis Art Museum presents ‘Action/Abstraction Redefined: Modern Native Art, 1940s–1970s,’ the museum’s first exhibition to focus on modern and contemporary Native American art. The exhibition will opened on June 23 and continues through September 3, 2023.
The exhibition is organized by Santa Fe’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), a Native-American led institution with a deep, focused collection. SLAM curators will expand the number of works in the touring exhibition from 52 to approximately 90— supplementing with works from national lenders and the museum’s collection—to provide more context for the remarkable story of abstraction during the first decade of the IAIA.
Like Abstract Expressionist artists, who broke with representational conventions and prioritized experimentation, artists at IAIA redefined the concept of abstraction following World War II. Combining ancestral aesthetics and art influences coming out of New York, artists in the exhibition pushed the boundaries of Native art media, subjects and styles to develop the field of contemporary Native Art.
In 2008, the Saint Louis Art Museum presented ‘Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976,’ an exhibition organized by the Jewish Museum in New York in collaboration with SLAM and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. This new exhibition builds on and responds to that earlier exhibition, with a focus specifically on Native American artists and their influences.
“Presenting this exhibition is an important opportunity for the Saint Louis Art Museum to continue our work to expand the narratives of American art while engaging our visitors with works of exceptional quality,” Min Jung Kim, the Barbara B. Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, said.
In the 1940s, Indigenous artists began to create work that overtly challenged received definitions of Native American art. These artists studied global art from across human history, drew freely from past Native American art and responded to current trends in mainstream modern art. Innovative artists—including Fritz Scholder, Lloyd Kiva New and Linda Lomahaftewa—explored new modes of artistic expression in studios across the nation and especially at the IAIA, which was founded in 1962.
The IAIA nurtured innovation and encouraged experimentation as artists combined styles and methods of the New York school with abstract forms based in historical Native art. “Action/Abstraction Redefined” introduces audiences to this exciting body of artwork and deepens scholarship by highlighting many women artists whose work remains largely unknown even among specialists.
“‘Action/Abstraction Redefined’ will help visitors to see our historic collection of Native American art in new ways, as vital sources for contemporary artists,” Alexander Brier Marr, SLAM’s Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Assistant Curator of Native American Art who curated the St. Louis presentation of the exhibition, said. “It will also help visitors to connect historic and contemporary Native art. As our collection of contemporary Native American art from the last 30 years grows, this exhibition furnishes a critical middle chapter in the continuous history of artmaking by Indigenous North American peoples.”
The exhibition also provides the opportunity to fill chronological gaps in the museum’s collection. In March 2023, the Museum purchased Fritz Scholder’s 1966 oil on canvas “New Mexico #45,” the first postwar painting by a Native American artist to join the collection. Marr noted that SLAM’s other holdings of Native American art provide many examples of the historical abstraction that IAIA artists engaged in their work. In recent years, the museum has also made it a priority to acquire contemporary works by Native American artists, including Truman Lowe, Wendy Red Star, Dyani White Hawk and others.
The touring exhibition is curated by Manuela Well-Off-Man, chief curator, IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts; Tatiana Lomahaftewa-Singer, curator of collections, IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts; and Lara Evans, IAIA associate professor of Native Art History.