When the Amon Carter Museum added “of American Art” to its masthead five years ago in anticipation of its 50th anniversary, the museum’s holdings of the breadth of American art had a pitiful hole.
There was no Native American art on display, and if there was any in the permanent collection, it had been stored away for years.
As is so often the case with American history and American art museums, the story of the Americas begins when Christopher Columbus sailed off course.
Now the Carter is making partial amends with “Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art From the Diker Collection,” an exhibition of exquisite objects from across North America that also includes contemporary works from Native American artisans who continue using the media and the iconography of their tribes.
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Now, if American art museums would combine contemporary art that acknowledges its roots or its debt to Native American arts, the whole concept of American art would be enriched.
Valerie and Charles Diker, the New York City-based couple who have been compiling this collection, began their art-buying habit with pop art in the 1960s, then moved on to pre-Columbian art.
They bought their first Native American piece in 1972 on a visit to Santa Fe.
“It was a big jump from pop art to the pre-Columbian,” Valerie Diker said. “We had to choose an object with our eyes and heart, not with a name.”
But once they began collecting the old American artworks, they saw the connections with 20th-century artists who channeled Native American pictorial language that combined the living and spiritual worlds.
There was a group of abstractionists who belonged to a brief movement called the Indian Space Painting group. Artists such as Barnett Newman, who responded to the Northwest Coast tribes ascribing shapes as living things; Adolph Gottlieb, who found personal resonance in pictographs; and Jackson Pollock, who saw the sand paintings of the Southwest Indians as a new way of applying color.
This connection between the unknown artists and the known artists appealed to the Dikers.
The Native American sources were embraced by midcentury Americans as they were a counterbalance to the fading European emphasis in American art. There were hundreds of native North American cultures from which to draw, and the attention of the contemporary artists helped the art of indigenous people become recognized as the first truly American art.
“It’s one thing to collect paintings; it’s another thing to put together a collection that represents cultures,” Charles Diker said.
There are hundreds of tribes officially recognized by the American government; the 567th was added just recently. So the collection, to be even remotely representative, spans the continent — from the lavishly beaded apparel from the Seminoles in Florida to the ancient ivories from the Bering Strait on the far northwest coast.
Southwestern baskets and ceramics, sculptural objects from the Eastern Woodlands, and regalia from the plains are some of the standout pieces on display at the Carter. The exhibit of more than 120 pieces is divided into 11 sections, showing a historical breadth that covers millennia.
One of the oldest pieces is a water jug from New Mexico estimated to be from about 1150. That it is still in one piece is testament to the quality of all the Dikers’ objects. They are in exemplary condition.
Valerie Diker acknowledges that over the course of their collecting, they will trade up if they find something that is better quality than something that is already in the collection.
Parts of their collection have been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, but this is the first traveling exhibition curated from the collection. After its run at the Carter, it will travel to the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University and the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio.
There are some marvelous textiles on display, and one geometric Tlingit tunic bears a striking resemblance to a black-and-white checkerboard poncho on display at the Dallas Museum of Art in its current exhibition, “Inca: Conquests of the Andes,” which has many parallels with the Carter’s exhibit.
This just further highlights the travesty of under-representation of North America’s indigenous peoples. The connection between these artifacts demonstrates that the continents of the Americas had a vibrant art history of their own that was hideously desecrated, and that what is left deserves much more attention.
As that attention is so lacking, now is a good time to visit what is on display at the Carter. It is some of the best Native American art you are likely to ever see.
Gaile Robinson, 817-390-7113
Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art From the Diker Collection
▪ Through Sept. 13
▪ Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth
▪ 817-738-1933, www.cartermuseum.org