For most of the 20th century, the Western art establishment had conceded that objects made by the indigenous people of the world can be called ‘art’. For almost all of that time, indigenous ‘art’ has been relegated to its own museums or in some of the larger, more inclusive institutions, to its own section of the museum. For all of the recognition these policies have given to the art of the world, it still smacks of the repudiated legal doctrine ‘separate but equal’, formerly used to justify racial discrimination in parts of our country.
Ilya Bolotowsky was a founding member American Abstract Artists in 1936 which was formed to promote abstract art. Perhaps because Bolotowsky, Josef Albers and others involved with the group were originally from Europe, the art was considered at the time ‘too European’ for the American aesthetic! Of course, that perception changed over time as New York became the recognized art center of the Western World and American Abstraction became the dominant art form of the post-WWII era.
The Native American tradition developed on its own. While it is true that Ilya Bolotowsky taught in Wyoming from 1947 to 1957, and that he both respected and admired Native American art, he had already began his journey in abstraction. Just as many great inventions occur nearly simultaneously, artistic traditions often travel separately to their neighboring destinations.
According to Gaylord Torrence in his landmark book THE AMERICAN INDIAN PARFLECHE, a Tradition of Abstract Painting, ”Painting on leather in varied forms has been practiced by Native American artists since prehistoric times and it is this tradition that...determined the aesthetic sensibility that formed the basis of its imagery.” (p.42)
Almost all parfleche are painted with strictly geometric forms. The exceptions are extremely rare and seem to be related to religious items. All of the examples in this exhibition are utilitarian objects that are decorated with painted geometric abstract forms. The large rectangular envelopes were made to hold household goods and clothing and to be strapped to the side of the horse. The shape of the rawhide container and the general outline of the forms used had a regional distribution with subtle differences that identify sub-groups in the region. The range of creativity within a codified format is yet another testimony to the genius of the human artistic spirit.
Below is of a pair of Crow horse ornaments or armor. While they covered the side of the horse, their protection was metaphoric. There are only three other pair known to exist and all are in museums. There is also a single example in a museum in Cambridge, England. What is fascinating about these few surviving examples is that they were collected over a long period of time, from 1841 to the very end of that century,and all contain nearly identical imagery which appears to reflect a cosmological reference, according to Torrence (p.74). Their nearly identical iconography over an extended time suggests a specific concept represented in the design. It’s not just geometric forms, it’s geometric forms with meaning - we just don’t know what it is. Much like religious art in the Western tradition, we embrace it for the response its beauty triggers in us.
While parfleche is found throughout the non-coastal American West, the examples here come from the Great Plains extending westward to the Columbia River Plateau.
John Molloy, 2016
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