New York

T. C. Cannon, Two Guns Arikara, 1973–77, oil and acrylic on canvas, 71 1⁄2 × 55 1⁄2".

T. C. Cannon, Two Guns Arikara, 1973–77, oil and acrylic on canvas, 71 1⁄2 × 55 1⁄2".

T. C. Cannon

National Museum of the American Indian | New York

The painter T. C. Cannon (1946–1978) was only thirty-one when he was killed in a car accident in Santa Fe, New Mexico, leaving behind a startlingly mature body of work that deserves wider recognition. Like that of many American Indians, his art has long been marginalized; this retrospective, curated by Karen Kramer, sought to remedy that injustice.

Some of the show’s earliest canvases were completed near the end of Cannon’s time at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, the tribal arts college established in 1962 that quickly became a hotbed for radical politics and avant-garde experimentation. Though these works tend towards abstraction, with various symbols, texts, and collaged photographs dispersed among washy patches of oil paint, Cannon makes his desire to grapple with the social and political realities of his people clear. D-Day Blues, 1966, includes a scribbled stanza from Bob Dylan’s 1964 protest ballad “With God on Our Side,” an indictment of the US military and the massacres it committed in the name of westward expansion. In It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Sighing, 1966, a tribute to Dylan—whom Cannon emulated in his own charged poetry and songs—the singer is portrayed as a saintly blond amidst a series of words related to his life and work, showing Cannon’s early experiments with the figure.

Motivated in part by the respect afforded warriors in his father’s Kiowa culture, Cannon enlisted and served in Vietnam. Following his discharge in 1969, his style shifted, toward one of greater visual and conceptual clarity. He embraced figuration, synthesizing a variety of art-historical influences, from Van Gogh’s meandering but steadfast lines to Matisse’s exuberant embrace of color and pattern. His images from the last eight years of his life are composed of flat, luminous planes of paint, often thickly outlined in complementary hues that give them an otherworldly aura; this technique was especially effective when applied to figures. He worked in classic genres such as portraiture and landscape, to depict his heritage and community while testifying to the horrific atrocities they endured. Consider Soldiers, 1970, which underlines Cannon’s conflicted feelings about taking up arms for a nation that had colonized and obliterated his people. It shows a man split in two, arms stretched out Christlike: One half of him is painted like a Native warrior, while the other is depicted as an American infantryman. Both are dressed in garb from the 1800s.

Many of the artist’s portraits draw on nineteenth-century photographs of Native tribes, most notably those taken by Edward S. Curtis. The photographer carefully staged his compositions so as to avoid any trace of modernity, crafting a romanticized image of indigenous communities as arrested in a timeless past, evoking a view that continues to permeate popular culture. Cannon reanimates these subjects, imbuing them with vitality through his joyful use of color, line, and pattern. His men and women are undeniably in and of their present. Two Guns Arikara, 1973–77, shows a seated older man gripping a pair of cocked pistols that rest across his lap. His stern expression is in stark contrast to his fabulous lilac pompadour, which chromatically echoes the purple, polka-dotted wall and floor behind him. The dots reappear in many of Cannon’s works, an allusion to the hallucinations experienced during a sun dance.

Cannon’s economical mark-making and sophisticated color sense are breathtaking. In Abbi of Bacabi, 1978, one of his last, and possibly unfinished, works, the same lively brown brushstrokes used in the foreground reappear in the sliver of faraway mesa at the top of the picture. Much of the middle ground, which frames the commanding figure of a stout matriarch, consists of overlaid ocher cross-hatching that suggests a field of wheat. In Pueblo Woman Dancer, 1972–78, the figure’s white manta echoes the bleached-out background, while the border of her dress rhymes with the rich tonalities of her skin. Many of the artist’s later works focus on medicine men, dancers, and ceremonies—long-suppressed cultural practices that were only finally legalized in 1978.

While this exhibition ably demonstrated the novel representational strategies Cannon developed to dignify those long relegated to the edges of American history, the next step would be to place his work in dialogue with that of allies engaged in similar projects. Cannon shares Kerry James Marshall’s principled commitment to figuration as a corrective to systematic historical erasure, and his subjects exude the same self-possessed grace as those of his late contemporary, Barkley L. Hendricks. Like these peers, his work anticipates the recent resurgence of often exuberant portraiture by painters of color. To properly honor Cannon’s legacy would be to acknowledge his central role in this recent history of American figurative painting.