For Oscar Howe, the journey to becoming one of the most influential and innovative Native American painters of the 20th century began in high school.
Howe began charting his path as a professional artist at the Santa Fe Indian School in the 1930s, and his work from that time shows the seeds of what would become his signature style, blending modernist aesthetics with stories drawn from his Dakota culture.
Howe’s lifetime of work is the focus of the retrospective “Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe,” which opens Saturday at the Portland Art Museum.
Read more: Portlanders are literally put on a pedestal in ‘Jeffrey Gibson: They Come From Fire’
During the height of Howe’s fame, said the Portland Art Museum’s curator of Native American art, Kathleen Ash-Milby, at a press preview of the show on Thursday, the media “fixated” on Howe’s biography.
“I think this was a source of frustration for Oscar,” Ash-Milby said, “because he wanted to be a professional artist. He wanted to have that recognition. And I think that for a lot of people in mid-century America, the idea of a person being a contemporary artist and being Native American was incongruous.”
And yet, in an exhibition of Howe’s life’s work, it is impossible not to peek into his compelling biography.
Howe was born in 1915 on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota. Like many children on the reservation at the time, Howe was sent with his brothers to an off-reservation boarding school.
But, due to chronic illness and his mental health after the death of his mother in 1924, Howe was sent home and spent a good deal of time with his maternal grandmother, Shell Face, who used their time together to share Dakota stories and traditions with him.
Those stories would become the foundation for his life’s work and the exhibition Ash-Milby spent years curating at the National Museum of the American Indian before coming to the Portland Art Museum. The exhibition debuted in New York last spring and now opens in Portland alongside contemporary artist Jeffrey Gibson’s “They Come From Fire.”
“Dakota Modern” spans five decades of Howe’s work, from those early, spare and serene paintings done in Santa Fe to the vibrant, vibrating work of his later years.
Howe used color and shapes in a purely modernist way and yet his work has a narrative quality that sets it apart and makes it accessible and interesting to any viewer. He creates moving bodies, dancing, fighting, dying, that leap from the walls.
Howe died in 1983 in South Dakota, where he lived and worked for much of his life, even designing the Corn Palace murals.
“He was a huge cultural figure in South Dakota,” Ash-Milby said. “Everyone in South Dakota knows his name.”
But “Dakota Modern” makes the case for Howe as a nationwide household name and for the longevity of his work, which feels relevant today. Regardless of the details of his biography, the exhibition is a testament to one of the great modernists of the 20th century.
“Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe,” Portland Art Museum, 1219 S.W. Park Ave., Oct. 29 through May 14, 2023, portlandartmuseum.org
— Lizzy Acker
503-221-8052; firstname.lastname@example.org; @lizzzyacker
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