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Oscar Howe exhibit in NYC brings Indigenous South Dakota artist to the masses

A first-of-its-kind collection of paintings spanning decades of the Yanktonai Dakota artist's career is on exhibit in New York City, and will arrive in Brookings, South Dakota, in 2023. Howe, a longtime professor in Vermillion who designed murals on the Corn Palace, was a seminal Indigenous artist.

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The opening to the Dakota Modern exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian in New York City, as seen on Monday, March 14, 2022.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service
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NEW YORK — Oscar Howe is as close to a household name among painters in South Dakota.

An elementary school bears his name in Sioux Falls. His WPA-era murals round a Mobridge gymnasium . For years he designed the murals at the Corn Palace in Mitchell .

The curator of "Dakota Modern," a new exhibition of Howe's work at the National Museum of the American Indian-Smithsonian in New York City , wants his local fame to replicate nationally.

"He is kind of a hometown hero in South Dakota," Kathleen Ash-Milby, associate curator at the museum, said of Howe during a video conference call earlier this month. "He is less known for his actual art."

Ash-Milby and the National Museum of the American Indian are mounting what's billed as a "major retrospective" spanning Howe's career. Howe is known for landing a coveted professorship at the University of South Dakota, and for writing a fiery letter to an Oklahoma art show in 1958 vowing that Indigenous painting was more than "pretty, stylized pictures."

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But now it's time to remember him as, first and foremost, an artist.

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"Oh, I rank him up there with Rembrant, with Picasso," said J. White , an Arikara painter, who owns the Post Pilgrim Gallery in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

White says she learned, in part, from the Sicangu Lakota and Omaha painter Bobby Penn, who learned from Howe.

"I find him in my work," she said.

The "Dakota Modern" exhibit features rooms of Howe's paintings, beginning with simpler work influenced by his training in the 1930s at the Studio of Sante Fe Indian School up to his mid-century, quintessential swirls and geometric-backed paintings of horses or ceremonies or woman graced by an eagle.

The works are Dakota-influenced, not Cubistic , Ash-Milby said in an interview on Wednesday, March 23. She argues that some critics assumed that Howe's military service during World War II introduced him to the works of Picasso and Juan Gris in European museums.

"It was a very shorthand way to refer to his work as derivative of European art," said Ash-Milby, who also serves as the Portland Art Museum 's curator of Native American art. "I totally understand why he was apoplectic when, at the end of his life, when he was finally getting attention, that (association) was bandied about."

Howe died at age 68 in 1983. His paintings have largely been on display privately or in collections at the University of South Dakota or South Dakota State University . But now they're in one of the biggest art stages in America.

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Thus far the reviews of the exhibition have been positive. Forbes magazine called it "spectacular." Artnet News included the show on its "must-see" list for 2022.

Critics say it's an overdue appreciation for the artist who mostly worked and lived far away from the bright lights of New York City.

A bridge builder

The Yanktonai Dakota artist grew up on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation along the Missouri River. Howe first was sent to boarding school in Pierre before sickness drove him back home to live with his grandmother, Shell Face. At home, he'd learn stories that formed the narrative backbone of his later paintings.

Howe attended school in New Mexico and returned to Pierre to paint and teach at a boarding school. One of his pupils was future renowned Luiseno artist Fritz Scholder . After further schooling in Oklahoma, Howe's own work evolved into trademark bright water-paintings, with sharp lines, and Indigenous subject matter.

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A patron takes in the Dakota Modern exhibition, featuring Oscar Howe's paintings, at the National Museum of the American Indian - Smithsonian in New York City on Monday, March 14, 2022.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

While Howe's work won the 1947 grand prize at the Indian Art Annual, sponsored by the Philbrook Art Center in Tulsa, his advancement in the next decade didn't suit the tastes of the annual's organizers. In 1958, they disallowed his entry — "Umini Wacipi (War and Peace Dance)" — into the competition, spurring Howe, an often mild-mannered man, to write a letter to the organizers .

"Whoever said that my paintings are not in the traditional Indian style, has poor knowledge of Indian Art indeed," Howe charged.

With the letter, Howe's legacy would only grow. As a professor at the University of South Dakota, Howe contributed two paintings a year to the university and continued winning competitions and exhibiting his work . Other paintings were sold into private collections. While he often avoided explicitly political subjects, his perhaps most famous painting, " Wounded Knee ," ended up in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum in Kansas.

With the exception of the latter, many works have now found temporary homes in the Alexander Hamilton Custom House in lower Manhattan. The exhibition will move in November to Portland, Oregon, before finishing up next year at the South Dakota Art Museum in Brookings June 10-Sept. 17, 2023.

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"Oscar's work doesn't always appear in modern art textbooks, and his work absolutely should be in modern art textbooks," said Cory Knedler, chair of the Art Department at the University of South Dakota. "When Howe is really reinventing himself as an artist, most history books focus on New York City or Western Europe, and there's so many other cultures that need to be investigated."

Knedler, who helps organize the annual Oscar Howe Summer Art Institute at USD, is among many in hoping Howe the painter is a name more Americans might soon recognize.

White, the Sioux Falls gallery owner, attended the Institute as a high school student in Yankton.

"He built a bridge between Native and non-Native people in language that left everybody to interpret," White said, adding with a laugh. "But he was still allowed to do whatever ... he wanted."

Christopher Vondracek is the South Dakota correspondent for Forum News Service. Contact Vondracek at cvondracek@forumcomm.com , or follow him on Twitter: @ChrisVondracek .

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Related Topics: ARTAMERICAN INDIAN
Christopher Vondracek covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at cvondracek@forumcomm.com or follow him on Twitter at @ChrisVondracek.
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