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This essay by Barbara Hollister originally appeared in the catalog accompanying the exhibition "The Indian Space Painters: Native American Sources for American Abstract Art"
(Baruch College, New York, November 8-December 17, 1991)

Indian Space: History and Iconography


The decade surrounding World War II was a watershed in American art. During these years, the formative years of Abstract Expressionism, a group of artists known as the Indian Space Group par­ticipated in an intensive search to extend the language of form, sharing an aim of many others to find a human dimension within the language of abstraction.

Due to a dearth of artistic activity in Europe and a gradually increasing influx of many refugee artists, such as the Surrealists in 1940, the art world's center of gravity began to shift to New York, bringing with it a sudden confluence of new ideas that had a dramatic impact on a generation of developing art­ists. Many of these artists continued a dialogue, started by earlier 20th-century modernists, with art forms of primitive and archaic cultures. The Surreal­ists, for example, brought an interest in and knowl­edge of Native American art, and several important ethnological exhibitions of the art of Oceania and the Northwest Coast Indian held in the 1940s made this work accessible to the American public. Many American artists, looking to American roots for sources of inspiration, had already discovered in the art of Native Americans a powerful influence and counterbalance to European culture. The Indian Space artists found in Northwest Coast ideographic art the basis of a pictorial language in which image, symbol, and myth coalesced, functioning simulta­neously as art form, historical narrative, and religious icon. They were thus engaged in one of the seminal issues of early abstraction: the merging of language and image.

It was Howard Daum, one of the younger artists of the group, who coined the term "Indian Space." This was to prove a controversial label; other adher­ents of the movement preferred the term "Semeiol­ogy" (referring to its exploration of the language of symbols). The history of the movement, which lasted from the late 1930s through the late 1940s, can be divided into two phases, each associated with a dif­ferent set of artists. The first formulated the ideas, while the second disseminated them through lconograph, one of the first artist-run periodicals. Mem­bers of both groups participated in a significant 1946 exhibition, "8 and a Totem Pole."

The Art Students League, with which all these art­ists were associated, provided a cosmopolitan and democratic atmosphere, in which old guard, avant-­garde, and European emigré artists mingled and argued, notably in the League cafeteria, which took on the ambiance of a Paris cafe. The principles of Native American art were widely discussed there, and it was in this fertile intellectual environment that the Indian Space movement had its origins.

Steve Wheeler, Peter Busa, Robert Barrell, and Will Barnet were students at the League in the mid-1930s. Although they shared an emphasis on formal approaches, their respective contributions to the movement differed. Wheeler developed the main principles. Busa had close ties with the Surrealists (in 1946 he was shown by Peggy Guggenheim, who ex­hibited the Surrealists). Barrell immersed himself in Native American Indian culture and art. He col­lected all the volumes of the Smithsonian's Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, an important source publication for other Indian Space artists. Will Barnet, a prominent teacher at the League from 1936 through the 1970s, was a major proponent of Native American art, and his classes were to influence many nascent artists, among them Howard Daum, Gertrude Barrer, Ruth Lewin, and Oscar Collier of the later lconograph group. Barnet brought his students to see exhibitions of Native American art at the Museum of Natural History (the Heye Foundation). Starting in the late 1940s, his own work would assimilate these artistic principles as well, emphasizing spatial relationships that were all-positive.

After Wheeler, Busa and Barrell left the League in the late 1930s, they remained close friends, attend­ing Hans Hofmann's school on 8th Street, work­ing on the Works Project Administration, and go­ing to art exhibitions together. In an accelerated search for a new direction in their work, they ab­sorbed the influences of Klee, biomorphism through Miró, and other modernist traditions; by 1940, their paintings were emphasizing flatness and allover design. They were developing a new concept of space in which the distinction between foreground and background was eliminated, creating all-positive space. Although these were features of Northwest Coast Indian as well as Peruvian and oceanic art, Wheeler emphasized that they were universal ideas that he only later saw confirmed in primitive art. He never exhibited with the Indian Space group or considered himself part of it. Even so, art critic Clement Greenberg wrote in The Nation in 1947 that “this tendency [which] takes its point of departure from Northwestern Indian art [was] first made known by Steve Wheeler.”1

Howard Daum formed a bridge between the art­ists of the first group and those of the second, who studied at the Art Students League in the 1940s. He generously shared his ideas with the younger artists Barrer, Collier, Lewin, and Helen DeMott and in­troduced Barrer and Collier to Robert Barrell. Col­lier studied for a time with Barrell at his 14th Street studio. In the spring of 1946 Barrer and Collier, together with their writer friend Kenneth Beaudoin, started Iconograph. Focusing on issues of language and symbol, as well as North American Indian culture, the magazine served as a forum for new ideas in the arts. With Beaudoin as editor, Collier as associate editor, and Barrer as art editor, five issues and two supplements were published, the last appearing in the fall of 1947. A subsequent issue was published by Collier alone.

Iconographic Sources

Barnett Newman described the ideographic image made by the Northwest Coast Indians as a "shape [that] was a living thing, a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex."2 The artists of the Indian Space Group saw in these inventive two-dimensional sym­bolic forms, which predated written language, a way of rediscovering modes of thinking and perceiving long lost to Western culture.

The Northwest Coast Indians emphasized the essential unity of all things, seen and unseen. Through their intense awareness of animals, believed to embody the magical sources of nature, they selected their most characteristic movements and habits, distilling them into symbolic representations that conveyed their very essence. In this way the In­dians affirmed their identity with the physical and .spiritual world.

Similarly, the Indian Space artists found within the symbol a means of conveying the essential real­ity underlying the world of appearance. Often they used their immediate surroundings as the starting point for their work, as Howard Daum does in many paintings of the urban landscape of Union Square. According to Helen DeMott, "The landscape is tied to our identity. A recognition of place and the innate desire to record its physical existence is a way of affirming our own. [It] ties us to locale and ultimate­ly to history and myth."3

The Indian Space artists saw in the metamorphic power of tribal art a way of fusing the formalism of Cubism with the inner vision of Surrealism. An im­portant feature of the art of the Northwest Coast is "the mixing in one space of two or more images that must be seen from different vantage points." Indian art "serves as a means for expressing ... connections between people and animals." For example, "a shaman appears as a polar bear ... or a woman turns into a walrus."4 The theme of metamorphosis is central to Northwest Coast culture.

 Many of the Indian Space artists adapted some of these pictorial methods, transforming personal themes into an iconography that expressed a vision of the modern world's ambiguities and complexities. By condensing an object to its essential and perma­nent features, and by separating and rearranging them in a process described by anthropologist Franz Boas,5 they arrived at a new order and meaning.

The artists constructed elaborate constellations of forms within forms in which positive and negative space (foreground and background) are of equal importance, creating kaleidoscopically interchange­able images. Just as their compositions have no single point of focus, so the content conveys multi­ple and ambiguous meanings. Wheeler and Barrell, for example, distort and fragment forms so that there are scarcely any recognizable points of reference. There are, however, narrative elements in their paintings, although much of the interpretation is left to the viewer. Barrell often uses literary themes, such as Don Quixote, or scenarios from dai­ly life. Wheeler incorporates recurrent motifs, such as grimacing masklike images and other comic and grotesque features, transforming themes of popular culture into a "record of life as a whole."6 For both artists, component parts come together into a multitude of visual puns.

Busa and Barnet have a more classical vision, as seen in Busa's totemic Children's Hour, and Barnet's Fourth of July, in both of which the images have been reduced to their most essential structures and rearranged and merged to create a larger, ideograph­ic whole. Barnet's painting depicts the abstracted, emblematic forms of his three children, represented by such elements as their vertebrae.

Although they lack the common belief system of tribal cultures, some of the artists have created their ' own pictorial cosmologies. Daum, though a rigorous formalist, reaches beyond pure abstraction: his pulsating distillations of rhythm, structure, and the "diamond light"7 of New York reflect a larger uni­versal and mystical vision. Gertrude Barrer's bio­morphic landscapes are uncharted territories in which inner states of mind are transformed into in­timate yet epic "universes of structure."8

Several Indian Space artists used automatism—­moving the brush without conscious will—to charge "the known with the new life through ... metamor­phosis."9 In 1941 Busa was among the first American painters to experiment with this technique, employed also by both Daum and DeMott, who terms it the "self-propelling line."10 Although Wheeler does not describe automatism, for him too the line is of primary importance; it is "continually creating itself' and has the "immediacy of consciousness."11

The art of the Indian Space movement encom­passed many important points of departure for the development of a new pictorial language. Ultimately this language was assimilated and then eclipsed by the ascending movement of Abstract Expressionism. During the pivotal period when American art was finding its voice, the Indian Space painters created a new iconography by transforming the familiar identity of things into a complex, multileveled vision—at once idiosyncratic and universal, of the moment and timeless.

  1. Clement Greenberg, "Review of Exhibitions of the Jane Street Group and Rufino Tamayo." In John O'Brien, ed., Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1986), 132.

  2. Barnett Newman, in The Ideographic Picture (New York: Betty Par­sons Gallery, 1947), 2-3; quoted in New York School: The First Generation, ed. Maurice Tuchman (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Coun­ty Museum of Art, 1965), 22.

  3. Helen DeMott, lecture at Art Students League, 15 April 1991.

  4. S. A. Arutiunov and William W. Fitzhugh, "Prehistory of Siberia and the Bering Sea." In William W. Fitzhugh and Aaron Crowell, eds., Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska(Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1988), 127. This article refers to Eskimo culture; however, Alan Wardwell notes that there are parallels in the way the Northwest Coast Indians look at their relation­ship with the animal world.

  5. Franz Boas, Primitive Art (New York: Dover, 1955).

  6. Adam Gates, "Face to Face," in Steve Wheeler, Hello Steve (New York: Press Eight, 1947 ), n.p., 2nd page.

  7. Howard Daum, personal notebooks, n.p.

  8. Gertrude Barrer, interview with the author, Spring 1991.

  9. Edward Renouf, "On Certain Functions of Modern Painting," Dyn 2 (July/ August 1942): 22. Quoted in Stephen Polcari, Abstract Ex­pressionism and the Modern Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 24.

  10. DeMott, op. cit.

  11. Gates, 3rd page.

Steve Wheeler drawing
Steve Wheeler
Untitled (Head)
1942, watercolor & ink, 13 x 11 in. (private collection)