T.C. Cannon: short life, long legacy

T.C. Cannon (Kiowa, Caddo; 1946-1978) is one of my favorite painters. The work explains why for itself. Besides his artistic genius, he seems like such a cool guy. In every picture I’ve seen of him, he’s smiling. Everyone I’ve ever heard talk about him does so with reverence.

Art history, like all history, fills its pages with figures who died tragically young. Raphael, Caravaggio, Van Gogh, T.C. Cannon. One of those names will be less familiar to most than the others.

The Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, OK hopes to help change that by exhibiting and promoting his artwork.

“(T.C.) Cannon helped shift perceptions about Native American culture in general in the 1970’s,” Laura Fry, senior curator and curator of art at the Gilcrease Museum, told me about Cannon’s influence. “He was part of this movement to show that Native art and Native culture didn’t have to be in a small box. He was able, in some ways, to convince a wider audience beyond the Native community that Native American artwork isn’t static, isn’t simply one type of style or one type of thing.”

T.C. Cannon at Institute of American Indian Arts

That movement, spring from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, included faculty member Fritz Scholder and fellow student Earl Biss. They were among the first generation of IAIA artists and faculty who would upend everything previously thought about and thought possible for Indigenous art.

“He was really doing something that hadn’t been done before and was just a spectacularly talented artist,” Fry said. “His work was an interesting blend of influences from Native history and culture, from European art traditions, from contemporary and modern art, from the Pop art scene, and he fused these different threads together to show that Native American artwork and culture wasn’t separate from the larger American story.”

Cannon died in a car accident at the age of 31. He could still be alive. So, too, could Helen Hardin. And Earl Biss.

Wondering where Cannon’s art might have gone remains a tantalizing, heartbreaking, unanswerable question.

“He was such a strong painter and artist in such a short time frame, I really wonder what he might have done next,” Fry said. “He’d probably be a lot better known. He might have received a wider recognition among the American public. He is not a household name the way Andy Warhol is partly because he worked such a short time.”

Warhol also died young, in his early 50s. Still, that gave him 20 additional years on Cannon. Imagine what T.C. Cannon could have done with two more decades? Forget about the art, imagine the lives he could have brightened?

“Had he lived longer and continued experimenting – one thing you see in the exhibit here is he was constantly trying new things,” Fry said. “His work ranges from printmaking to the bold Pop art inspired figures that I think he is most known for to Abstract Expressionism. Had he lived longer we would have seen something that none of us could predict.”

He was also a songwriter and musician. A story for another day.

Due to his brief life and career, T.C. Cannon’s artworks rarely come up for purchase. This exquisite coffee table book of his work belongs in the art library of lovers of T.C. Cannon.

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