The great achievements of North America’s first artists are celebrated in American Indian Art from Fenimore Art Museum: The Thaw Collection, an exhibition that demonstrates the long-standing excellence of the aesthetic traditions of North America’s native peoples. Spanning the continent from the first millennium to the 20th century, the exhibition of more than 35 exceptional objects showcases masterpieces in various media—sculpture, painting, drawing, basketry, textiles, ceramics, and the decorative arts.
Native Americans took great pleasure in the visual beauty of these objects made with imagination and skill, but they also prized qualities invisible in the finished work. These vary from place to place and may include the ritual correctness of gathering raw materials; sound construction and usefulness; the power that comes from an object’s conception in a vision or dream; or how often an object appears in performances, feasts, and ceremonies, during which oratory, dance, song, and movement give it animating force. For instance, a whelk shell neck ornament exquisitely carved by an unrecorded Caddoan artist between 1200 and 1350, depicts a figure involved in a ritual observance and was worn as a sign of status or office. In a more recent example, which dates to 1880-1881, the Sans Arcs Lakota artist, Black Hawk, created drawings of hunting, dance, warfare, and ceremony. He used minimal outlining and animated his rendering with pattern, textured surfaces, and pale, translucent color.
Art such as Black Hawk’s bears witness to Native American artists’ experimentation with the new materials, techniques, and imagery introduced by Euro-Americans. Such objects record artists’ ability to absorb without being absorbed, despite intense pressure to assimilate into Euro-American culture. They testify to their creators’ ingenuity and resilience, and to the importance of the arts in sustaining traditions that have not vanished but continue today stronger than ever.
This selection of artistic landmarks is drawn entirely from the collection of Native North American art that was assembled by Eugene and Clare Thaw. Recognized as a leading dealer and collector of Old Master drawings and paintings, Eugene Thaw approached Native American material culture as fine art, applying the same exacting standards of connoisseurship here as in other areas. Today, his collection of American Indian art encompasses more than 875 objects and is widely recognized as one of the most significant in the world. Discover the transcendent beauty of the choicest of these works of art on view for the first time for our Utica community.
The exhibition is organized by Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, in collaboration with the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute. It is supported by a generous grant from the Eugene V. & Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust.