I Prefer the Navajo Rug:

Locating an American Primitive


"The Armory Show of 1913 intensified the interest in ancient American art among painters and sculptors" (Cahill 7).

"In their programmatic return to the art of the Shakers, the Indians, and the colonial primitives, American artists of the twenties clarified their relationship to the American tradition" (Rose, Readings 112).

Still Life, No. 1
Marsden Hartley
Still Life, No. 1

In the midst of the Thomas Craven's rails against modern art in the 1930s, when social realism and regionalism was often reduced to anti-modernism and dogmatic nationalism, the Museum of Modern art presented its first exhibition connecting pre-Columbian and American modern art. According to Holger Cahill, acting director for MOMA at the time of the exhibition (two years before he would serve as director of the WPA), the Armory Show had kindled an interest in indigenous art previously unseen in the United States. His claim, along with the juxtaposition of pre-Columbian and modern non-Indian art at the 1933 exhibition "American Sources of Modern Art" provided audiences with a means of identifying a modern art in the United States separate from European tradition. Though he cites no specific examples of the Armory Show's effect on American artists, by calling on the 1913 exhibition, which from the beginning was associated with the emergence of modern art in America, Cahill connects the advent of modern art with an interest in Native American art by Anglo painters and sculptors. Cahill's focus on pre-Columbian art encouraged viewers to accept non-representational form because of its derivation from the art of the continents' first peoples, deliberately distancing it from European modernism.

The MOMA exhibition was unmistakably invested in identifying a foundation for modern art that was "primitive" and thus provided authentic, direct expression; equally important was the incontestably non-European source material. While European modernists promoted Native American art as a source of inspiration as well (images of Indian sculpture reprinted in Der Sturm and articles by Guillaume Apollinaire are two well-known examples), the sculpture and masks from French colonies in Africa and Oceania were, and remain, prioritized in narratives of primitivism in European modern art. In the catalog to the 1933 exhibition, Cahill distinguished pre-Columbian art from the artistic traditions of Africa, Asia, and Europe:

Earlier students have sought to find parallels for ancient American art in Egypt and the Far East, and a cultural contact between these civilizations and America has been suggested . . . The marvel . . . is the spectacle of a people skilled in architecture, sculpture and drawing . . . not derived from the Old World, but originating and growing up here, without models or masters, having a distinct, separate, independent existence; like the plants and fruits of the soil, indigenous (Cahill 17).
According to Cahill, modern American artists had accessed this "distinct, separate, independent existence, . . . without models and masters," (non-European art) by studying Native American art. Although the 1933 exhibition was the first to draw distinct comparisons between Native and non-Native art in America, the debate on how to classify Native American cultural objects and their relationship to modern art was prevalent well before the 1930s. Not surprisingly, it appeared in the critical discussions fueled by the Armory Show.

Cahill's deferral to the show twenty years before was not merely emblematic. Armory Show critics participated in arguments concerning cultural relativism and primitivism that became key elements in the discourse on early 20th-century art. With the desire to cultivate a distinctly American art, which was not merely a product of the 1930s but was very much at the heart of the Armory Show debates, came a reevaluation of Native American cultural objects and their position within an American art tradition. As W. Jackson Rushing has argued in Native American Art and the New York Avant-Garde, "the recognition of Indian art as such was coincident with the emergence of modernism in America. In fact . . . the modernism of New York's avant-garde, 1910-1950, was dependent on Native American art and culture to a degree previously unrecognized in the art-historical literature" (xi). While a broad, virtually indiscriminate primitivism that attempted to define a Western tradition distinct from all other artistic form and methodology was certainly common in responses to the Armory Show, critics of the 1913 exhibition also praised or denounced works through their connection to Native American sculpture, weaving, and basketry. Specific Native American works were measured against European paintings at the Armory Show. Not only was the work evaluated according to its formal conventions, but the boundaries of fine art, the decisions as to what objects were appropriate for exhibition as art, were negotiated through Native American work as well. Whereas a number of critics used references to Native American art as a way of dismissing the work of fauvist and cubist art as merely decorative, others described Indian art in the same ways that modern art was described: authentic, instinctual, and spiritual. Coinciding with a search to define American art separate from European tradition, many artists and critics promoted Native American art as a source for a national aesthetic.


Although the 1933 exhibition was the first to draw distinct comparisons between Native and non-Native art in America, the debate on how to classify Native American cultural objects and their relationship to modern art was prevalent well before the 1930s. Not surprisingly, it appeared in the critical discussions fueled by the Armory Show.


Locating the American Primitive: Native Americans in Road Shows, World's Fairs, Ethnographic Museums, and the Armory Show

Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull
Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, 1885.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, Native American culture was defined for non-Natives through a variety of cultural sites. The art and culture of Native Americans was framed (and remains framed) as primitive in cultural hierarchies still found in museums like the American Museum of Natural History. Other public forums classified Native Americans and their cultural production through Indian road shows and world's fairs.

The most easily accessible way of defining Native Americans for non-natives was through Indian road shows. Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show brought a Native American culture to audiences across the U.S. and Europe. Highly stylized and melodramatic, the show relied on tropes like cowboy and Indian standoffs, buffalo hunts, and attacks on unsuspecting settlers. Its legitimacy was defended through its use of "authentic" Indians, sometimes legendary warriors like Sitting Bull, considered dangerous by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (Reddin 75). Even before Buffalo Bill (né William Cody) spread his version of Native American culture, George Catlin, a painter and showman, began touring with Anglo-Americans dressed in Native clothes. Soon after, in 1840, he took groups of Objiwa and Iowa Indians to London and finally to the rest of Europe (Reddin 15-16). Throughout the United States, smaller shows imitating Catlin and Cody's successful entourages brought an abbreviated and sensational tale of Native American life, blurring all distinctions between tribes and heightening the importance of certain "exotic" rituals such as scalping and war dances. The Indian road shows, along with the circus and P.T. Barnum's American Museum, became known for their loudly advertised ploys, which were seen by many as attempts to hoax the public.

The Armory Show was routinely compared to road shows and circuses to stress that cubism and futurism was "faked" art. In addition to the accusations of outrageous advertising techniques employed by the organizers, the gentleman cowboy, Theodore Roosevelt, likened cubism and futurism to Barnum's mermaid, a major attraction at the showman's museum, which contained curiosity-cabinet material from Peale's Philadelphia museum after he sold it in 1850. The "Feejee" mermaid, which drew large crowds, was supposedly the world's only preserved mermaid, actually a monkey's body sewed to the tail of a fish. This, according to Roosevelt, was what cubism and futurism amounted to—a vaudeville performance or a circus sideshow act, insincere and inauthentic. Far from the exhibition halls of the National Academy or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Armory Show was seen by many as a lowbrow entertainment, not legitimate art. The circus metaphor was widely employed by critics of the Armory Show, and Marsden Hartley was likely not alone in seeing the 1913 exhibition as a "wild west show." (Ludington 95) These shows undoubtedly encouraged works produced in this period by European artists like August Macke's Indians on Horseback (1911) and Picasso's Buffalo Bill (1912), exhibited in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibit in London.


The Armory Show was routinely compared to road shows and circuses to stress that cubism and futurism was "faked" art.


Knees and Aborigines
John Sloan
Knees and Aborigines, 1927.
Unlike the road shows, the Hopi Snake Dance ceremony took place in Hopi communities in the Southwest and was one of a number of rituals the Hopi performed throughout the year. This ritual, however, in part because of the handling of snakes, was heavily publicized in tourist guides promoting trips on the Santa Fe Railroad and was described in numerous publications including The Saturday Evening Post. The tourist traffic to the area coincided with an increased ethnographic interest in New Mexico and Arizona that began in the 1880s (Truettner 20). Arizona and New Mexico established statehood in 1912 and were the last two territories to become states before Alaska and Hawaii. In the midst of this new frontier, "the snake dance was the most frequently described and photographed Indian ceremony in the Southwest and was regarded by many as the most complete survival of the olden days to be found among American Indians" (Truettner 89).

Screen, Leopard and Deer
Robert Chanler
Screen, Leopard and Deer

Two of Robert Chanler's decorative screens, which greeted visitors to the Armory Show in Gallery A, featured Native American subjects, most likely in the same flattened perspective of his other work in the show. Hopi Snake Dance, listed in the catalog as "Moki"—an earlier name for the Hopi, was surrounded by animals and wildlife. Deer, birds, porcupine and leopards stood next to Chanler's screen as well as one simply titled Indian. By the time Chanler exhibited his screens, the snake dance was widely known, and was possibly one of the dioramas on display in the Museum of Natural History at the time of the Armory Show (Dilworth 46).

Theodore Roosevelt's Visit to Walpi
Photographers during Roosevelt's visit to Walpi.
Theodore Roosevelt, whose "Rough Rider" image seemed antithetical to the appreciation of Native American culture, wrote a series of articles for The Outlook in October of 1913, describing his journey to Arizona in the summer of 1912. In his article on the Hopi Snake Dance, he expresses the realization that Indian ceremonies were no longer separated from white society. The audience, according to Roosevelt, transforms the "strange heathen ceremony" into art: "There were almost as many whites as Indians, and most of the Indian spectators were in white man's dress" (369). The civilizing gaze of whites and assimilated Indians allows Roosevelt to reevaluate the snake dance as a highly original form of art: "There is an urgent need from the standpoint of the white man himself of a proper appreciation of native art. Such appreciation may mean much towards helping the development of an original American art for our whole people" (Roosevelt 365). Natalie Curtis, ethnomusicologist, author of The Indian's Book, and escort to Roosevelt when he visited Walpi in 1912, remembered his visit as a success: "Roosevelt had an appreciation of historic and cultural values, of literature and art, beyond what the public usually credited him with. And his prophetic practicality saw what the American Indian might mean to our Nation—saw it and uttered it" (Curtis 93). While Roosevelt's appreciation was certainly qualified, and he credited the "advance" of Native Americans to the "presence of the white man in their neighborhood," he promoted Native American art as a way of establishing a distinctly American art, separate from European traditions (Roosevelt 315).


By the time Chanler exhibited his screens, the snake dance was widely known, and was possibly one of the dioramas on display in the Museum of Natural History at the time of the Armory Show (Dilworth 46).


Though less frequent than road shows, world's fairs provided a powerful medium to establish the position of Native Americans in a cultural and racial hierarchy. Fairs were, according to Robert Rydell, "celebrations of progress, with a subtheme suggesting the racial superiority of the white progressors" (Jonaitis 41). The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition celebrated the 400-year anniversary of Columbus' "discovery" of America (a year late). The White City, which referred to the white Beaux-Arts exhibition halls featuring technological and manufacturing breakthroughs as well as European and American art and music, represented what its name suggests: a racial hierarchy that secured white, European and American advancement. Native American exhibits were included in the Midway, an area for entertainment and "curiosities," and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was outside the fairgrounds altogether. The exhibits in the midway included a mixture of Native American cultural objects and Hopi and Navajo dressed in tribal costumes in reconstructed villages, along with the "original home of Sitting Bull" (Bancroft 881). The Indians were housed in the fairs and performed traditional ceremonies for audiences (Jonaitis 41).

As Native Americans were systematically annihilated through American governmental policies, nostalgia for Native Americans and especially for Native American culture grew. By 1900, anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Frank Cushing, and Mooney had published studies of individual tribes emphasizing the complexity of Native American societies, also representing them as "artisans of a high order" (Truettner 24). In 1904, at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, Indian crafts were displayed as art rather than ethnography (Truettner 26). At the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego (1915) there was an entire building devoted to Indian art (Truettner 26). The only other art displayed at the 1915 exhibition was "Modern American Art," a section organized by Henri and that included his work along with paintings by Sloan, Glackens, Luks, Lawson, Prendergast, Bellows, du Bois, Sprinchorn, and Hassam (Perlman, Robert Henri 116).

At world's fairs, visitors would also be exposed to sculptural and pictorial representations of Native Americans. These portrayals were often exhibited interchangeably as ethnography and as art. Many of the anthropological exhibits at the 1893 Word's Fair included "life-size sculptured figures engaged in 'primitive' industries" (Rushing, Native American 7). Much emphasis was placed on preserving the "vanishing Indian," and sculptors produced nostalgic representations of the American west. Wayne Craven devoted a whole chapter to "Cowboys and Indians; Lions and Tigers," in Sculpture in America to call attention to the production of Native American sculptures in the late 19th and early 20th century. Non-native sculptors were involved in educating the public through representations of Native American bodies, clothing, and daily activities. When serious threats of Native American resistance seemed overcome, monuments were constructed to memorialize them as peaceful, noble savages, and regret for the destruction of so many lives was expressed.

Model for the Buffalo Nickel
James Earle Fraser
Model for the Buffalo Nickel, 1913.
James Earle Fraser's End of the Trail (1876-1954) and the Buffalo Nickel, first issued in 1913, were two quintessential memorials to Native Americans created in the early 20th century. Fraser, represented in the Armory Show by a Frame of Medals, Horse, and Grief, subscribed to the idea that the dying Indian race needed to be preserved. Fraser's Indians in The End of the Trail and the Buffalo Nickel were amalgamations of Plains' Indians. According to William Truettner, in their romantic demise, the Plains' Indian came to represent all Indians (33). In creating the Buffalo nickel, Fraser said his objective was "to achieve a coin which would be truly America, that could not be confused with the currency of any other country" (Truettner 32). Fraser's identification of Native Americans with the United States was an integral part of distinguishing American art and culture from European influence as much as the American Scene was in the 1930s.

The entranceway to the Armory Show, Gallery A, looked a great deal like the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a gallery of sculpture and decorative arts, but the subject matter was more familiar to the Natural History Museum: There were a number of monuments to Native Americans in Gallery A. Charles C. Rumsey's Indians and Buffaloes, Myra Musselman-Carr's Indian Grinding Corn, and Enid Yandell's Indian and Fisher are examples of the Native American sculptural studies that greeted visitors to the Armory Show. Similar to the allegorical work in the gallery, like George Gray Barnard's Prodigal Son that was the centerpiece, the studies were constructed as timeless memorials. Unlike Ethel Meyer's portrait studies of women in contemporary fashions, the portraits of Native Americans were most likely considered ahistorical types. The titles of the works emphasized the agrarian economy of Native Americans, which reduced culture to the basic necessities of buffalo, corn, and fish. These monuments reflected the disregard of tribal difference and complexity in documentations of Native American experience.


Unlike Ethel Meyer's portrait studies of women in contemporary fashions, the portraits of Native Americans were most likely considered ahistorical types.


Sunrise
Nessa Cohen
Sunrise
While Rumsey, Musselman-Carr, and Yandell did not necessarily work from live models, many artists in the late 19th and early 20th century did choose to live near Native American tribes and used Native American models in their studios. Around the time of the Armory Show, the American Museum of Natural History offered commissions to artists for ethnographic sculptures of individual tribes. Several sculptors at the Armory Show were involved in such assignments. Mahonri Young and Nessa Cohen received funds by the Natural History Museum to travel to the southwest and study the features and dress of particular tribes. Nessa Cohen, whose Sunrise glorifies a timeless intimacy with the natural world, spoke of her commission from the museum in an interview with the Evening Sun about her work in the Armory Show: "On the strength of some Indian compositions, I was asked to submit sketches for future work by the Museum of Natural History. Last winter I completed a group of eight figures for the museum, and upon its composition was asked to take a long trip through the Southwest among the six tribes of Indians as a basis for further groups." (10 Feb. 1913) Hopi Relay Runner (1912) is undoubtedly one of Cohen's studies for the museum. Mahonri Young, represented in the Armory Show by his reliefs for the Sea Gull Monument in Salt Lake City, Utah, as well as Man Shoeing a Horse, and Mother and Son, received three commissions from the Museum of Natural History for Indian dioramas: the Hopi Habitat Group (1912-14); the Apache Habitat Group (1914-16); and the Navajo Habitat Group (1916-24). As a result of his experiences, he then chose to create own studies of the tribes who lived in the Plains (Fort 235).

For many advocates of Native American rights and those nostalgic for a pre-industrial society, the landscape of the Southwest became a way of capturing the consciousness attributed to all Indians that was described alternately as instinctual, simplified, pure, and authentic. The Taos Art Colony, formed in the 1880s, is probably the most well-known of the early groups of artists who moved to the Southwest, but a number of other painters moved to the territories that would become Arizona and New Mexico. Kate Cory, who exhibited and sold her Arizona Desert in the Armory Show, lived in the Hopi communities of Oraibi and Walpi for seven years, from 1905 to 1912. Most of what survives from that period is found in photographs, though she did paint as well during this time. Kathryn Reisdorfer sees these photographs as ethnography or documentary, "perhaps the most thorough documentation of their society and daily life" (Reisdorfer 198).


For many advocates of Native American rights and those nostalgic for a pre-industrial society, the landscape of the Southwest became a way of capturing the consciousness attributed to all Indians that was described alternately as instinctual, simplified, pure, and authentic.


Though road shows, the Hopi Snake Dance, and world's fairs reached a wider audience, for artists especially, the ethnographic museums that collected Native American art were just as influential if not more so in framing Native American cultural objects in Europe and America. At the height of European imperialism (around 1914), 85 percent of the world was under direct or indirect European control, and ethnographic museums were found in virtually every large city in Europe and America (Rado 284). The Trocadero, which primarily held cultural objects from French colonies in Africa and Oceania, had a collection of Native American art as well. Germany had the largest source of Native American artifacts in Europe. Massive collections of American Indian material had been on display in Berlin, and by 1914 there were almost 30,000 examples of Native art on display in the Museum fur Volkerkunde. In the United States, the primary source for Native American artifacts in the Northeast was the Museum of Natural History in New York, which, starting in 1867, housed Mayan, Aztec, and Pueblo, and Northwest Coast art that appeared in glass cases, classified and categorized by their function—the antithesis of European high art, which was by definition autonomous from use value. Ethnographic museums not only reinforced a racial and cultural hierarchy, but also emphasized a dead or dying culture, as did many paintings and sculptures of Native Americans at the turn of the century.

Marsden Hartley and Max Weber acknowledge the effect that sculpture and art works in ethnographic museums had on their paintings executed around the time of the Armory Show. They initially studied Native American art in Europe, at ethnographic museums in Paris (the Trocadero) and in Germany (at the Museum fur Volkerkunde) that emphasized the art as an outgrowth of nature rather than culture. Hartley found the objects he saw in the Trocadero and the Museum fur Volkerkunde valuable, not just as compositional pieces, but also for their "authenticity and spiritual necessity" (Haskell 27). His understanding of "spiritual necessity" was derived from the work of Kandinsky, but also from his reading of Henri Bergson and William James in this period. His desire for an instinctual, individual art comes in part from the prioritizing of intuition over analysis in Bergson's Creative Evolution, widely read and reproduced in Camera Work during this period. In order to understand Native American art as instinctual and spiritually essential, Hartley had to deny many historical specificities including the booming curio markets of the early 20th century that was often the source of pieces in ethnographic museums.

Indian Pottery
Marsden Hartley
Indian Pottery (Jar and Idol),1912.
Hartley's Still Life, No. 1, like most still lifes, uses decontextualized and extracted materials. The objects Hartley chose indicate his interest in the formal elements of Native American art—a Navajo pitcher is combined with blankets and more traditional still-life items like the bowl of fruit and vegetables. This painting, along with Indian Pottery (Jar and Idol) (above), also produced in 1912, reflect Hartley's study of Native American cultural objects.

Max Weber, as a student of Arthur Dow, would have been exposed to Native American baskets and Zuni and Navajo textiles as materials for teaching a "natural method" of art production (Rushing, Native American 42). As early as 1909, Max Weber studied Mayan, Aztec, and American Indian art in the Museum of Natural History, which he ranked with the Louvre and the National Gallery of London (Rushing, Native American 44). Weber submitted his work to the Armory Show, but the hanging committee asked Weber to send only two paintings, standard for the later American entries to the show. Weber, who believed he was one of the most progressive American painters of the day, refused to show his work at all (Dunlop 177).


[Hartley and Weber] initially studied Native American art in Europe, at ethnographic museums in Paris (the Trocadero) and in Germany (at the Museum fur Volkerkunde) that emphasized the art as an outgrowth of nature rather than culture.


In addition to ethnographic museums, Native American cultural objects were easily accessible through the arts and crafts or "curio" markets that flourished around the time of the Armory Show. It is known that as early as the 1880s and 1890s Hopi potters were encouraged to mass-produce their wares for tourist consumption (Berlo, Introduction 7). Traders were also directly responsible for changes in Navajo weaving, giving them templates from Turkish carpet pattern types—tese were more popular, traders believed—and other sources to duplicate (Berlo, Introduction 8). Documentation was often fabricated as well, although products were marketed as authentic, handmade materials. The curio trade was at its height between 1880-1930 (Berlo, Introduction 8; Cohodas 89), and the works came predominantly from the Navajo and Pueblo tribes of the Southwest. Weber's appreciation for the quilts and baskets that came through the craft markets was documented in Camera Work. In 1910, he had written of Indian quilts and baskets as "much finer in color than the works of the modern painter-colorists'" (Rushing, Native American 44).

Primitivisms at the Armory Show

Before the Armory Show, the painting and sculpture of many European artists had already been connected to non-European formal considerations. The most familiar example of primitivism in modern art is probably Picasso's study of Niger-Congo masks in the execution of Mademoiselle d'Avignon in 1907. Much evidence has been supplied to support Picasso's appropriation of masks and sculpture purchased from local Parisian shops. He also had access to a tremendous amount of West African sculpture raided from French colonies and brought to the Trocadero, formally known as the Ethnographic Section of the Palais du Trocadero in Paris, now known as the Musee de l'Homme. Picasso, though the penultimate example of such practices that have come to be understood as primitivism, was barely mentioned in critical reviews of the Armory Show, and he was neither attacked nor praised for his appropriation of African or any other non-European models.

The absence of Picasso in the Armory Show dialogue did not prevent critics from branding the newest European art as "primitive." For many Armory Show critics, it was the primary way to define modern art at the exhibition, even though "primitive" remained in these discussions, as elsewhere, nearly as broad a term as modern art or post-Impressionism itself. J. Nilsen Laurvik's article on the Armory Show, sold outside Copley Hall during the Boston leg of the show, tackled the question "Is it Art?" and prioritized the relationship between modern art and primitivism: "If an appellation is needed I think Pseudo-Primitives will more truly characterize them than the confusing and irrelevant one now in general use (Post-Impressionism)" (Laurvik 4). Laurvik's classification was scarcely less confusing or more specific than post-Impressionism and included within it all art that appeared to draw on the traditions of colonized peoples, prehistoric peoples, and children. The "ultra-moderns," as the artists were also called, were routinely chastised for producing work that corresponded to varying aspects of a primitive consciousness, defined as instinctual, pre-historic, pre-rational, childlike, or mentally insane.

The last two aspects of primitive consciousness were amplified in the Armory Show debates to dismiss the work of post-Impressionist artists. Perhaps least acceptable to audiences at the Armory Show was the praise given to children's artwork by certain modern artists. Stieglitz had shown an exhibition of children's art in 1912, at the suggestion of Abraham Walkowitz (these works were all by immigrant children on the Lower East-Side), but even spokespersons for modern art were unable to treat works by children seriously (Clive Bell, for example disregarded this aspect of post-Impressionism in Art, published in 1913). An article in The Nation written in response to the Armory Show condemned "the admiration for the art of barbarous and primitive man, which would be no doubt enthusiastically extend to the works of glacial or Paleozoic children" ("Post-Impressionism Again" 1060). Similarly, a writer in the Chicago Evening Post, whose thoughts were included in the collection of essays available for sale at the Chicago and Boston parts of the Armory Show, ridiculed the support for a "child cult": "in the Exhibition of Modern Art men with seductive voices are saying again that 'children, with their fresh, unspoiled vision of things, testify to the validity of the post-impressionist and even of the cubist vision of things.' This will not do. This is an adult world, milords, and it demands an adult art" (For and Against). These arguments were rarely applied to specific works but to the paintings and sculpture of fauvists, cubists, and futurists enmasse. The comparison between child art and much of the work at the Armory Show was only one aspect of the extremely broad discussion of primitivism.

Another aspect of primitive consciousness used to dismiss the work of modern artists was the presence of mental illness. Two autobiographies of van Gogh were published in the United States in 1913—Katherine Dreier's Personal Recollections of Vincent van Gogh and The Letters of a Post-Impressionist, translated by Antonio Ludivici. Through these and the popular knowledge of van Gogh's disorders, other artists were routinely accused of having diseased minds. Matisse claimed to be so distraught over the impression Americans had of him after the Armory Show that he begged, "Oh do tell the American people that I am a normal man; that I am a devoted husband and father, that I have three fine children, that I go to the theatre" (MacChesney 5). Moira McLoughlin has discussed the presence of disease in the criticism of the Armory Show at length, in "Negotiating the Critical Discourse: The Armory Show Reconsidered," citing it as one way critics at the Armory Show delineated artistic boundaries. Though a familiar argument used against artists of all ages, mental illness was also identified as a type of primitive consciousness, belonging to a less civilized or poorly ordered mind. Primitivism came to encompass not only children but also "neurotics, schizophrenics, criminals and sexual deviants, whose 'conditions' were commonly understood as degenerative—a sort of twisted return to primitive states" (Rhodes 23). The interrelationship between mental disorder and the production of modern art was used to ridicule artists and paintings alike. The subject of Marguerite Zorach's painting was satirically prescribed "salicylate of quinine in small doses," a drug used to treat the delirium and hallucination caused by high fevers or malaria (qtd. in Tarbell, Zorach 69).


[Definitions of] primitive consciousness [as childlike and insane] were amplified in the Armory Show debates to dismiss the work of post-Impressionist artists.


Those critics who possessed some perspective on European and American art traditions explained primitivism as it is perhaps more commonly known in art history—as both a return to ancient cultural forms and an awareness of contemporary non-Western art. This primitivism implied a combination of models, an "urformen" as Frances Connelly terms it (5). More than drawing on any one source, this primitivism was a conglomeration of methods perceived as outside European tradition. Christian Brinton examined the art of the Armory Show through primitive art found at the seats of ancient civilizations:

In order to extricate ourselves from the stupidity and stagnation of [debased illusionism], we have gone back to the fountain heads of primitive art as they may be found in Hindu-China or Yucatan, on the plains of Mongolia, in the basin of the Nile, or among the shimmering islands of the Polynesian archipelago . . . The present movement, of which we hear so much, possibly too much, represents more than anything the subtle ascendancy of Orient over Occident (Brinton xxx).
Brinton's customary and inclusive "Orient" parallels the ahistorical cultural primitivism that was expressed by many modern artists. This common application of primitivism was still reliant on cultural evolution rather than cultural relativism. The interrelationship between ancient cultures and contemporary colonized cultures was an integral aspect of primitivism as it was discussed at the Armory Show.

About a year before the Armory Show, the artist Julius Rolshoven discussed the conflict between a (white) American artistic tradition and Native American art: "Modern art is international, and has no sympathy with those who, in the endeavor to be racially national, break away from all that is European; those, for instance who seek in the American Indian what is distinctly American" (14). Rolshoven, who would later join the Taos Art Colony in 1916, saw a danger in searching for a national, cultural tradition within Native American art, since the (Anglo) American artist would have to deny race and heritage to embrace Indian art: "What, I ask, is American individuality? Only an American Indian can be really individual in the sense that critics understand it. If I sought that kind of individuality in painting the results would be absolutely unnatural. The Indian is the only American; all other Americans are European . . . Oh there's nothing worse for an American artist than willfully to put aside his European ancestry." (Rolshoven 14) Rolshoven not only denies Native Americans any involvement in modern art, he also excludes all other Americans who could not claim European ancestry from citizenship and cultural production. While many artists did maintain that modern art was not tied to national boundaries, other American artist and critics saw Indian art as a way of satisfying the search for an American tradition.

America Has Its Own Primitives: Reading Modern Art at the Armory Show

Two Figures
Max Weber
Two Figures, 1910.
In his first one-man show at Alfred Stieglitz's '291' gallery in January 1911, Max Weber was criticized for his reversion "to a rude sort of Aztec symbolism which seems to be without significance to any soul but himself. Grotesque profiles, enormous eyes, bodies joined like dolls, barbaric patterns in the landscapes—these are the elements of Mr. Weber's pictures and their ugliness is appalling" (qtd. in Rushing, Native American 44). What is striking about this commentary is that Weber was later described as a disciple of Picasso and his work was identified as a derivation from African sculpture. The comparisons critics chose to use between modern and primitive art were integrally related to the practical access that artists and critics had to these cultural objects and the interrelationship of the cultures through colonization. Unlike many previous and subsequent accounts of primitivism in modern art, discussions of artists by American critics around the time of the Armory Show connected modern work to Native American works as much as any other non-Western source to account for the movement away from three-dimensional perspective, simplification of line and form, and the use of non-representational colors.

Theodore Roosevelt's "Layman's View of the Exhibition" is a widely quoted response to the Armory Show. In his article, Roosevelt compares Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (here "A naked man going down stairs") to "the Navajo rug in [his] bathroom." According to Roosevelt the rug, "on any proper interpretation of the Cubist theory, is a far more satisfactory and decorative picture. Now if, for some inscrutable reason, it suited somebody to call this rug a picture of, say, 'A well-dressed man going up a ladder,' the name would fit the facts just about as well in the case of the Cubist picture of the 'Naked man going down stairs'" (719). Roosevelt, while using the example of the Navajo rug to identify Duchamp's painting as decorative, praises the superiority of the Native American cultural object, precisely because it doesn't claim to refer to anything tangible: "from the standpoint of decorative value, of sincerity, and of artistic merit, the Navajo rug is infinitely ahead of the picture" (719). Roosevelt's comparison has been read indiscriminately as a way of mocking the cubist paintings at the Armory Show. Although Roosevelt would unlikely suggest that the rug should be moved from the bathroom floor to the burlap walls of the Armory, Roosevelt's statements do appear at a time when he was supportive of documenting and preserving particular aspects of Native American culture.

Roosevelt, who collected Native American rugs and handicrafts, supported Natalie Curtis' ethnographic project to document Native American music, art and literature, which resulted in The Indians' Book. While his comments do not suggest that Native American art should be exhibited alongside European and American art, his praise for the Navajo rug can be seen as part of his belief in the possibilities of Native American art as an indigenous American cultural form. Other critics connected the work at the Armory to Native American textiles as well: "Here we have Post-Impressionism . . . Here and there we see . . . something that would please us in a piece of Indian weaving" ("Art Extremists" 1). While the hierarchy between fine (non-Indian) and Native American art is in many ways maintained in these statements, they also point to the possibility that Indian art could be received in the same way as modern art. Amédée Ozenfant uses this argument in his discussion of the reception of modern art, but uses the example of a "negro rug:" "You are able to feel satisfaction in looking at a negro rug, which represents nothing: why not feel similarly in front of a Cubist work and allow the form and colour to affect your sensibility, without demanding anything more from it." (Ozenfant 76)


Although Roosevelt would unlikely suggest that [a Navaho] rug be moved from the bathroom floor to the burlap walls of the Armory, Roosevelt's statements do appear at a time when he was supportive of documenting and preserving particular aspects of Native American culture.


Ernest Blumenschein, an artist who spent his summers at the Taos colony, wrote a somewhat similar response to the Armory Show in an article entitled "The Painting of Tomorrow." He, like Roosevelt, chose an object from his home to explain the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh: "As I write I can see a primitive man on an Indian basket I picked up in the desert of Arizona. He is a simple figure . . . The great essentials are there . . . but the art of it all is that he takes his unobtrusive place in a scheme of decoration. [The scheme] of decoration, the pattern, the design, the composition, seems to be the chief consideration with the Post-Impressionists Gauguin and Van Gogh and their multitude of imitators" (846). Blumenschein, in connecting the work of Native American basketry and European post-Impressionism, emphasizes the importance of "significant form." Though Blumenschein was far from a cultural relativist, he later described Native Americans as a "fine intelligent race who have developed a distinctive and absolutely original art" (Rushing, Native American 30).

The rugs and baskets Roosevelt and Blumenschein describe are, like the Native American objects Hartley and Weber praise, decontextualized within the history of Indian art, without regard to tribal differences. It is not surprising that these critics, from two very different disciplines, would use examples of Native American art instead of (French colonial) African sculpture. Roosevelt and Blumenschein recognized the importance of Native American art as a distinctly American form. Their articles indicate an interest in connecting modernism with American rather than European forms, even at a time when U.S. policy officially prohibited many aspects of Native American cultural expression—such as tribal rituals, tribal medicine, and tribal languages—and focused on assimilation projects.

Hottentot Venus
Illustration of spectators observing a "Hottentot Venus."
The links between Native American culture and modern paintings and sculpture were often used to discount both, but the associations between the two reveal the presence of Native American art and language within the discourse on modern art. At the Armory Show, the work of Matisse was connected to a various "primitive" forms, from Persian vases to the Hottentot Venus. In some senses, these gestures merely imitate French criticism of the annual Parisian salons in the late 19th century. According to T.J. Clark, "A good salon review was incomplete without its quota of monstrosities, and one or two works each year were consigned to the space outside Art altogether. They were compared with the latest popular song or 'Hottentot Venus'" (Clark 92). The original "Hottentot Venus," a Xhosa or Quena woman, Saarjite Baartman (her Dutch name), was exhibited throughout the late 19th century, presented as an anomaly to scientists and observers, who could pay extra to examine her enlarged buttocks (see illustration above). She, like other "curiosities" from African colonies, ended up in the present-day Musee de l'Homme. According to Linda Schiebinger, "up until quite recently (1985) her genitalia, preserved in a formalin bell jar, her skeleton, and a cast of her body, were on display in case #33 in the Musee de l'Homme in Paris" (Schiebinger 163). The "Hottentot Venus" became a frequently used trope by art critics to describe non-standard or "monstrous" forms of the female nude. The Hottentots were one of the most widely known examples of primitive tribes throughout the world.

During the Armory Show, the Hottentot appeared again, this time in conjunction with a Native American reference, the Choctaw Indians. Both tribes were used as evidence for the inability of modern painting to communicate with its audience. In an article on the Armory Show, a writer for the New York American dismisses the work of Picabia and Duchamp responding, "I do not speak Hottentot or Choctaw." For this anonymous critic, the paintings contained incomprehensible references, misplaced signs, and a pictorial language unknown to the observer. A common complaint against modern art at the Armory Show was that the painting was so individual to the painter that no one else could understand it. As in Roosevelt's discussion of the Navajo rug, the titles of works seemed incompatible with the paintings they accompanied, and linguistic and pictorial verisimilitude became a focus of discussion. In addition to the frequent appearance of the Hottentot Venus within art criticism, the Hottentot were also known for their language—the South African Xhosa and Quena tribes were named "Hottentot" by the Dutch in imitation of their speech patterns, described as a variation of clicking noises (Schiebinger 163). The Choctaw, who became heroes during WWI when their language was used as an unbreakable code, were the first of the tribes of the Missippi River valley who were forced to move to Oklahoma in what has become known as "The Trail of Tears." As such, they existed as a part of the prevalent nostalgia for the dying Indian. While Arthur B. Davies proclaimed that, "all modern art speaks French," (Archives) connecting it to the history of European art, many other critics saw modern art breaking with tradition, leaving the paintings and sculpture as far from the standards of European fine art as Native Americans were perceived to be from the rest of American society.


[Roosevelt and Blumenschein's] articles indicate an interest in connecting modernism with American rather than European forms, even at a time when U.S. policy officially prohibited many aspects of Native American cultural expression—such as tribal rituals, tribal medicine, and tribal languages—and focused on assimilation projects.


Totem Pole
Image of totem pole from
"Oh You High Art!" The World Magazine, 1913.
The cultivation of a relationship between all "primitive" cultures was used to Americanize Gauguin and to convince American viewers of the connection between Tahitians and Native Americans. Joseph Chamberlin described Gauguin's subjects as Americans: "His color is deep, tender, beautiful; his subjects, albeit tropical, seem extraordinarily American. We may feel at home in Gauguin's symbolistic landscapes, peopled with rude primitive South Sea islanders that are much like Indians." (Archives) Henry Tyrrell in The World Magazine article entitled "Oh You High Art!" juxtaposed a photograph of a painting labeled "Alaskan Totem Pole" with Picabia's The Dance at the Spring. The former includes the caption "Cubists deny that they get their idea from the Indians" (Archives) Though there are no formal affinities discussed, the use of the two works, along with the title of the article indicates the incompatibility of "high art" and "Indian art." In this article, as in others, the connections between modern and Native American art question the authenticity of cubist paintings, but the interrelationship was also an opportunity to Americanize modernism.

Shortly after the Armory Show, statements by artists, whose interest in Native American art may or may not have been cultivated by the 1913 exhibition, indicate a desire to connect Native American art to modern American art, thus separating it from European tradition. William Zorach describes his interest in cubism as a result of his visits to the Armory Show and to the Museum of Natural History:

In Paris I had not understood or been interested in the Cubists. But after the Armory Show I began making my visual observation of nature into Cubist patterns . . . My painting took a deeper and more mystical tone . . . I went to the Museum of Natural History and studied the carvings of the Eskimos, the Aztecs, and the Mayans. I felt here were fundamentals —an expression of life directly spiritual in the sense of a spirit being unhampered by external values (qtd. in Hoffman 16).
Zorach's experience, like Hartley's, involves a study of formal elements that are presumed to develop from an authentic, instinctual expression. For both of them, this could be found in Native American art.

Indian Fantasy
Marsden Hartley
Indian Fantasy, 1914.
Though Hartley had incorporated Native American objects in his painting before the Armory Show, Hartley's Amerika series, produced in Germany in 1914, was painted just after he returned from a trip to New York. Hartley reported that he wanted to "memorialize [America], or at least the part of it that best reflected something of the difference between it and Europe" (Ludington 117). In Indian Fantasy and Indian Composition, both from 1914, Hartley did not draw on a specific cultural object he had seen in the ethnographic museums but painted popularized images of Native Americans: tipis, canoes, earthenware pottery, bow and arrows, and Indian figures in headdresses. Barbara Haskell discusses Hartley's reorganization of objects in Indian Composition: "like the keeper of a curiosity cabinet, [Hartley] deracinated culture-specific objects and mixed them together . . . without any indication of original context . . . It does not describe, nor was it intended to connote, a specifically Native American content" (Haskell 35).


While Arthur B. Davies proclaimed that, "all modern art speaks French," (Davies 1) connecting it to the history of European art, many other critics saw modern art breaking with tradition, leaving the paintings and sculpture as far from the standards of European fine art as Native Americans were perceived to be from the rest of American society.


Like other modern artists, Hartley perpetuated extremely stylized images, but he was interested in creating an art that would draw on an idealized Native American culture. In the winter of 1914, Hartley wrote to Stieglitz that "he wanted to be an Indian, that the true expression of human dignity would be to paint his face with the symbols of the race he adored, go to the West, and face the sun forever" (Haskell 42). For Hartley, the use of Native American symbols was a way to generate a national aesthetic consciousness. Hartley believed that "whites had to borrow quickly because we have no tradition and no racial background" (Rushing, Native American 37). Hartley also wrote articles defending Native American art that appeared in journals like Art and Archaelogy. His defense included a call for appreciation on nationalistic grounds: "[The Indian] is the one man who has shown us the significance of the poetic aspects of our original land . . . He has indicated for all time the symbolic splendor of our plains, canyons, mountains, lakes, mesa and ravines, our forests and our native skies, with their animal inhabitants" (qtd. in Rushing, Native American 37). Like other American painters, Hartley believed that a national art was tied to the geography of the United States, and the Southwest allowed him and other modernists to draw on both at once (Rushing, Native American 37). When he finally traveled to New Mexico in 1919, he ultimately came away disillusioned with "geology and the vanishing races" (qtd. in Hokin 43). He described his departure as "a decent from a very foolish cross" (qtd. in Hokin 43).

Apache Braves
Paul Burlin
Apache Braves, c. 1915.
Paul Burlin's four drawings of New York—William Street, Minnetta Lane, Remains of Equitable Building, and Washington Market District—were his contributions to the Armory Show. Shortly after the exhibition, Burlin traveled to New Mexico and began a study of Indian artists of the region (Udall and Connors 193). His portraits of Native Americans are similar to Auguste Macke's Indians on Horseback (1911), and the drooping head of the man on the horse in Apache Braves (left) recalls the defeat of James Earle Fraser's The End of the Trail. According to Frank Rushing, "Cubism and Native American design were interactive and mutually reinforcing [for Burlin]" (Rushing, Native American 53). His interest in Native American art was perhaps informed by the Armory Show but also by the work of his wife, Natalie Curtis, who had studied Native American art, literature, and music since 1901. Primarily an ethnomusicologist, Curtis was the compiler of The Indian's Book, first published in 1905. In her introduction to the book, which included Native American songs and poems, she emphasized the potential of the work for non-Indians: "What other nation has in its midst a like opportunity for inspiration? . . . Here, among us, down-trodden and by us debauched, is a people of real creative artistic genius—the first Americans and possibly the oldest race on earth" (qtd. in Rushing, Native American 50). She also supports statements made by other modern artists like Marsden Hartley and Paul Burlin: "The Indian is artistic by nature. His art is not a luxury of the cultured few, but the unconscious striving of the many to make beautiful the things of daily living" (qtd. in Rushing, Native American xxxv). In November 1913, Natalie Curtis called for an interchange of ideas between Native and Anglo-Americans (Rushing, Native American 51).

The list of artists who traveled and worked in New Mexico in the late teens and 20s, many through invitations of Mabel Dodge Luhan, reads as a partial catalog of the Armory Show itself. The statements of John Marin, Andrew Dasburg, Robert Henri, and John Sloan echoed the declarations of Hartley and Zorach in their search for authenticity and spirituality in Native American art. Sloan, who went on to support the exhibition of work by Native American artists, claimed, "if there were ever to be a 'real American art,' it would develop in New Mexico" (Rushing, Native American 31). When Indian artists were first included in the Society for Independent Artists exhibition of 1920, he promoted their work as modern art: "The Indian artist deserves to be classed as a modernist; his art is old, yet alive and dynamic . . . His work has a primitive directness and virility, yet at the same time it possesses sophistication and subtlety. Indian art is at once classic and modern" (Rudnick 111).

While the direct correlation between the Armory Show and an interest in Native American art by modern American painters is not the goal of this essay, it is clear in the reactions to the exhibition that many critics and artists connected primitivism to Native American forms rather than African or Oceanic forms. During the Armory Show, Native American art also took on the role of defining the limits of fine art and questioning the standards of critical evaluation on the basis of verisimilitude. While the comparisons to Native American art were one way of dismissing much of the modern art at the show, they also were a way of claiming modern art as part of an American tradition. In a time when Americans were searching for how to define an American art, Native American art provided many artists and critics with a way to show the departure of American modernism from European traditions.



Tour the Armory

Marketing Modern Art:
From the Armory to the
Department Store

"The Part Played by Women:"
The Gender of Modernism
at the Armory Show

Sources