NEW YORK (Reuters) - An exhibit of American Indian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art throws the connection between art and collector into unusually sharp relief.
The show features key pieces from The Coe Collection of American Indian Art, the life’s work of a Ralph T. Coe, a collector and museum director who played a central role in reviving interest in American Indian art.
“The exhibit honors Coe and the role he played in the acceptance and understanding of the Native American work,” said Julie Jones, head of the museum’s Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.
The show includes about 40 objects representing a wide range of materials, from stone to animal hide, as well as time, place and distinct peoples.
Most of the Coe collection dates from the 19th to early 20th century when Native Americans came in contact with outsiders ranging from traders to missionaries to the U.S. army.
“Coe had some particular interests, one of them being objects that have come to be called souvenir art,” Jones explained.
Souvenir art melded Native American art with European art, such as mocassins embroidered with European-like floral designs. Work from the people of the Great Plains evokes the men on horseback wearing feathers and buckskin.
Masks and head dress ornaments, sometimes used in theatrical ceremonies and story-telling, are another aspect of the exhibit.
An imposing sculpture of a Noble Woman by the Northwest Coast Haida artist Robert Davidson, dated to 2001, is a contemporary expression of a long tradition of carving wood. Most of the objects were made by artists who were schooled by their predecessors.
“Traditions were handed down,” Jones said.
Born in 1929 in Cleveland, Ohio, Coe grew up in a home with filled with works by Renoir, Pissarro, Monet and Manet, all collected by his father, a trustee of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
“Coe came from a solidly Eurocentric point of view. He grew up in a house full of European paintings and learned to love them,” Jones said.
But a book by Miguel Covarrubias, a Mexican artist and amateur archaeologist sympathetic to tribal art, was a catalyst for Coe to turn his attention to the art of Native Americans.
Soon after reading it, Coe bought a carved model of a totem pole, his first work of American Indian art that would eventually form part of the Coe Collection, a group of more than 1,100 objects, some dating from prehistoric times.
He became a champion of American Indian art, a mutualism that continued for the next half-century.
By 1962 Coe, a curator at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, organized “The Imagination of Primitive Man,” an exhibit designed to illuminate the creative imagination of tribal peoples.
The most ambitious campaign Coe waged on behalf of this art resulted in “Sacred Circles: Two Thousand Years of North American Indian Art,” shown in London as part of the United States Bicentennial in 1976, and in Kansas City one year later.
Its nearly 700 objects revealed the Indian approach to nature and nature’s relationship to man, myth, time and space to a public that was unfamiliar with it.
“‘Sacred Circles’ changed the popular presentation of American Indian art and influenced a generation of collectors and museum professionals,” Jones said.
For his last large exhibition - “Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art, 1965 -1985” - Coe crisscrossed North America, seeking works of art that used traditional forms and materials, but were redefined by contemporary visions.
It marked Coe’s transition from art historian to an advocate for the new, larger world of North American Indian contemporary art, and was shown in several museums in 1986.
Reporting by Ellen Freilich; editing by Patricia Reaney