T.C. Cannon book “Of God and Mortal Men” celebrates the art, the man

The great T.C. Cannon. I’ve begun adding that adjective whenever I say or write his name. The great T.C. Cannon (Kiowa, Caddo; 1946-1978) was the first Native American artist I featured when I began writing about art. Within a month of starting as an arts and travel contributor at Forbes.com, I profiled an exhibition of his work at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa. I recently came across a T.C. Cannon book, “Of God and Mortal Men,” (Museum of New Mexico Press; 2017), published in coordination with a past exhibition of his work at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.

This T.C. Cannon book serves as an easily digestible intermediate biography of the artist and his influence. Well beyond introductory, far removed from exhaustive, dense, academic text, “Of God and Mortal Men” quenches a thirst for more information while simultaneously whetting the appetite to continue seeking.

I have a hard time reading anything without becoming sleepy. Filled with color reproductions of his masterpieces as well as sketches and photographs, heavy on storytelling, I breezed through this T.C. Cannon book in a weekend, eagerly pushing through chapter after chapter, never tiring.

The Art

T.C. Cannon, Waiting for the Bus (Anadarko Princess), 1977. Lithograph, 30 x 22 inches. Collection of Nancy and Richard Block. Photograph by Addison Doty. From the book "Of God and Mortal Men."
T.C. Cannon, Waiting for the Bus (Anadarko Princess), 1977. Lithograph, 30 x 22 inches. Collection of Nancy and Richard Block. Photograph by Addison Doty. From the book “Of God and Mortal Men.”

“Of God and Mortal Men” – a phrase taken from one of T.C. Cannon’s artist statements – centers around nine of his major canvases from the personal collection of Nancy and Richard Bloch. The paintings served as the centerpiece of the Heard exhibition as well.

Composed throughout the 1970s right up to his death in a car crash at just 31-years-old, the paintings are vibrant, lush and large format. They highlight Cannon’s unique synthesis of Native American heritage with traditional European art influences. They are the T.C. Cannon paintings which made T.C. Cannon, the great T.C. Cannon. Powerful, unique artistic expressions.

I don’t recall when I first became aware of Cannon, or when I conditioned myself to referring to him as the great T.C. Cannon, but these are the paintings which did both. My favorite is Self Portrait in the Studio (1975, oil on canvas, 72×52 inches) which was used as the book’s cover art.

Self-possessed and confident, leaned back in a chair, cowboy hat, boots, sunglasses, blue jeans, kerchief and dandified button down shirt, Cannon rests his brushes casually across his lap like a gunslinger would a Colt revolver in one of those old-timey browned portrait pictures. Cannon simultaneously says, “I’m a painter, I’m an Indian, I’m contemporary and I’m to be reckoned with.”

Formidable.

The quickest “draw” in the West.

As a self-portrait, it belongs with the greatest examples in art history, equal to anything achieved by the genre’s preeminent practitioners – Dürer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Kahlo.

I don’t typically compare Indigenous artists to those working from the white, European, patriarchal tradition; their aims were different and it assumes the European as “standard,” the ideal to be pursued. The great T.C. Cannon is an exception, however, because he sought that comparison. That artistic fraternity.

Cannon saw himself as a linear artistic descendant from the Renaissance through the Baroque and Romantic and Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and Modernism. His interior spaces flush with deeply saturated colors, bold patterns and lines, big patches of colors with windows looking out onto landscapes don’t merely recall Matisse, they originate with him. Cannon routinely included reproductions of Van Gogh paintings on the walls of his interior scenes.

Much of Cannon’s work could be considered Fauvist for its bold, non-representational coloring and lack of intricate detail. Fauvism is one of my favorite art historical movements. Matisse and Van Gogh two of my favorite artists. The T.C. Cannon book “Of God and Mortal Men” further identifies Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele as important influences. I don’t see that in T.C. Cannon’s work – yet – but Schiele is also one of my favorites. All of which help explains why I’m so drawn to Cannon’s work, these influences combining with the Native American culture, and history I’ve been attracted to since childhood.

The Man

T.C. Cannon at IAIA c. 1965-1966 courtesy of the Archives of the Institute of American Indian Arts. Reproduced by permission of the Estate of T.C. Cannon from the book "Of Gods and Mortal Men."
T.C. Cannon at IAIA c. 1965-1966 courtesy of the Archives of the Institute of American Indian Arts. Reproduced by permission of the Estate of T.C. Cannon from the book “Of Gods and Mortal Men.”

Earl Biss (Apsáalooke; 1947-1998) is my favorite artist. He and Cannon were classmates at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe in the mid-1960s. During this “miracle” era of Native American art – a period which essentially established contemporary Native American art as a thing, a definable movement – Biss and Cannon were joined there by fellow students Kevin Red Star, Earl Eder, Linda Lomahaftewa and Doug Hyde. Instructors included Fritz Scholder, Allan Houser and Charles Loloma.

As much as I connect to Biss’ work, if I could spend time with any of these icons, it would be Cannon. I’d last about two hours with Biss before he drank or drugged me under the table, and as much as I’d enjoy those two hours, they’d probably take two years off my life. Cannon is the early IAIA artist – the man – who I’d most like to take a road trip with. Spend a summer with. Hang out in his studio for a week with.

Universally described by those who knew him as thoughtful and wise, from his artwork and photographs of him, Cannon seemed like such a cool guy. An imprecise characterization to be sure, but I defy anyone to object.

“Of God and Mortal Men” opens with a striking photo of a young Cannon – no more than 20 – set against a wall at IAIA, sunglasses, arms crossed, corduroy jacket, blue jeans. Deeper into the T.C. Cannon book, a photo of Cannon, Scholder and Biss at an IAIA party in the 1970s is reproduced.

Cannon, again, cowboy hat, sunglasses, boots and blue jeans. Biss, amusingly, ever the iconoclast, wears a wildly flowered shirt, white jeans and what borders on a 10-gallon hat. I would take a year off my life to go back in time to attend that party, but I digress…

I first saw an image from this gathering in Lisa Gerstner’s fabulous Biss biography, “Experiences with Earl Biss.” When I came across the picture, I was dumbfounded. Awestruck. A shiver went down my spine.

Still does whenever I see it.

Did again when I saw this photo in “Of God and Mortal Men” taken at the same party from a different angle. Fritz Scholder looks directly into the camera.

Cannon, Scholder and Biss, side-by-side. To me, this is tantamount to Seurat, Cézanne and Van Gogh photographed shoulder-to-shoulder, chatting it up, sipping wine, at some Parisian exposition of their work in the 1890s. No such thing exists, of course, but for art historical significance, that’s the best comparison I can come up with.

Intellectually, I recognize all of these artists knew each other and influenced each other and hung out together, still, seeing photographic evidence of it – seeing them stand together on the same ground at the same time – overwhelms me.

So does this fact: T.C. Cannon could still be alive today. He’d be in his mid-70s, about the same age as my mom who is still lively and active and productive and sharp. He could still be painting. In little over 10 year’s time, the great T.C. Cannon left a body of paintings that revolutionized Native American art, demand inclusion in the highest echelons of Modern art and art history, and created a legacy as powerful 40-plus years after his sudden and tragic death as it was in the months that followed. Perhaps more so as a fuller appreciation for his genius has had time to coalesce.

Still, what might he have done, where might he have gone, how might he have further transformed painting had those next 40 years not been taken from him, from us?

Purchase “Of God and Mortal Men” here.

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