Cultural Cross-Currents: The Indian Space Painters

At the end of World War II American artists were seeking to create a form of modernism that was uniquely their own. In this quest they coupled the styles of the European Surrealists and abstract painters with influences found closer to home. One influence many turned to was Native American art. The Indian Space Painters may be the modern artists most closely associated with Native American art—specifically, the art of the Pacific Northwest. In Haida and Tlingit art, these American modernists found anthropomorphic interlocking subject matter that lent itself to the Surrealist abstraction they were already emulating in their own paintings.

Here, our Director of Modern & Post-War Art, Harold Porcher, provides some insight into the Indian Space Painters and their role in Modern Art.

The Indian Space Painters

Like many art movements, the Indian Space Painters were not a formal group. They shared no goal nor manifesto, but were made of several like-minded artists who studied and/or taught at The Art Students League and found a mutual admiration for Native American art. The group included (but was not limited to) Steve Wheeler, Peter Busa, Robert Barrell, Howard Daum and Will Barnet. In the indigenous art of the Americas they found ties to the visual devices they saw in the European modern works, such as flattening of the picture plane, amplification of negative space, and abstraction of forms. Regarding spiritual meaning and symbolism that was essential in Native American art, the Indian Space Painters avoided the transference of symbolism foreign to their backgrounds. Much of the titles used disassociate with the recognizable forms in the pictures. In this way, much of the work seems in line with Surrealism and Dadaism.

Steve Wheeler

Steve Wheeler’s titles appear to be stream-of-consciousness decisions and have little bearing on the interpretation of the art itself. Woman Eating a Hotdog, Girl Whistling, and Little Joe Picking His Nose are a few examples. In the cases where he references pop culture, again it seems to not have any direct correlation to the painting’s subject matter, as in Nick Carter, named for a movie character played by Walter Pidgeon in three MGM films from 1939 to 1940, or Laughing Boy, which was the title of a popular 1939 Oliver La Farge book.

Steve Wheeler, The Halogens II, oil on canvas, circa 1943. Sold June 2016 for $65,000.

Halogens II, sold at Swann in June of 2016, is an early work by Wheeler. The heavily abstracted image depicts two figures. As is typical of Wheeler’s mature style the background is filled in with patterns reminiscent of Native American weaving. The title could be a reference to the colors used, as the halogen elements: Fluorine, Chlorine, Bromine, and Iodine, all present in colors of pale yellow, yellow-green, red-brown, and light to dark purple. Still, Wheeler was well-read on art techniques and color theory, so this connection could still have been a stream of consciousness impulse, and not a preconceived narrative for the painting.

Robert Barrell

Another of the Indian Space Painters, Robert Barrell, held a job at the American Museum of Natural History while serving as a staff artist for the WPA. He would complete five murals for the museum. In addition, he assisted on mural projects by Edward Laning for the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library, and by Carl Roters at the 1939 World’s Fair. His close relationship with the Native American objects in the collection certainly held influence on his works. His friends also would have enjoyed the benefit of his access to the collections.

Robert Barrell, Cat and Bird, oil on gesso board, 1942. Sold June 2016 for $23,750, the auction record for the artist.

Barrell’s education at the Hans Hofmann School introduced him to Modernist concepts, and his classes at The Art Students League, where he met and befriended Steve Wheeler, played major roles in shaping his early career. He would later abandon Indian Space motifs for a more representational style.

Related Reading: Etched in History: Printmakers of the Federal Art Project

Will Barnet

Will Barnet is widely known as a figurative painter and printmaker. His time working in an abstracted style can be traced well into his later works, though he moved away from abstraction around 1960. In a side-by-side comparison between Barnet’s abstract works and his figurative compositions, there is a shared sense of structure and balance. Compare, for example, Woman Reading and Dark Image, with their simple bold forms, and Study for “Whiplash,” with Silent Seasons-Summer, both more patchworks of interlocking shapes. At the end of Barnet’s painting career, he returned to abstraction, showing works at several gallery exhibitions as well as at Montclair Art Museum in 2011, just prior to his 100th birthday.

Abstract Expressionism

Parallel to the emergence of the Indian Space Painters, artists that became champions of the Abstract Expressionist movement had an attraction to the art of indigenous peoples. Jackson Pollock, a son of Wyoming, had a lifelong fascination for Native American culture, while Adolph Gottlieb created Pictographs. Gottleib’s works, emerging between his figurative works shown with the Group of Ten and before his iconic Blast series, are influenced by Native American imagery while not incorporating any recognizable symbols. This omission was intentional on the part of the artist, as his desire was to capture the visual format of indigenous American art without imbuing his paintings with cultural symbols and concepts that did not represent his beliefs.

Adolph Gottlieb, Omen, etching and aquatint, 1944-45. Sold November 2012 for $28,800.

More on Abstract Expressionism

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

These artist’s influences flow beyond borders and language barriers. And no single artist formulates ideas dropped from the heavens. Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Cross-cultural germination of ideas is an important part of innovation. This influence continues today, and can be seen in the works of Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, whose work is rooted in the tradition of his people while also encompassing the Pacific Basin and beyond, through the melding of Haida motifs with Japanese manga imagery. These works are fresh and dynamic, while referencing a deep history of visual language from two cultures separated by a vast ocean.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Yelthadaas, white gold leaf, oil paint and lacquer on steel, 2010. From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.