What you see: Medicine Man, an undated painting by the late Native American artist Oscar Howe. The Santa Fe Art Auction estimates it at $25,000 to $35,000.
The expert: Gillian Blitch, president and CEO of the Santa Fe Art Auction.
Who was Oscar Howe? He was a Yanktonai Sioux from Dakota. He drew his first lines when he was three–he was always fascinated by lines. He was taken away from his parents in 1922, at age seven, and went to a federal boarding school at Pierre, South Dakota. He did two tours of duty in World War II, and did murals for the Works Progress Administration before he was called up. Throughout his career, he remained rooted in his Dakota ancestry. It was a motivation for his art. One or two academics suggested he was influenced by European Cubism and the avant-garde, but he emphatically rejected that. [The abstract elements of his art] tie into the symbology and the mythology of Sioux culture.
When did Oscar Howe’s art career gain momentum? When he went to the Santa Fe Indian School in 1938. Dorothy Dunn started the school for Indian painters and it was really focused on traditional Indian painting, which was supposed to be illustrative, and called the Studio style. The first part of his career, he was successful in the Studio style. He broke out in the 1950s–that’s why he’s important.
What happened to Oscar Howe in the 1950s? He became famous in 1958 when the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma held an exhibition of Indian painting. It started a project for Native American artists in 1946, and did juried exhibitions and provided a platform for exposure. The Studio style won prizes, and I guess it also unintentionally established a standard of style that prevented artists from developing their abilities. In 1958, the painting Howe sent to Philbrook was rejected. I think the term [they used to explain the rejection] was “not authentically Indian.” He was outraged, and he sent a very famous letter that said, “Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting, with no right for individualism, dictated to as the Indian has always been, put on reservations and treated like a child, and only the White Man knows what is best for him? Now, even in Art, ‘You little child do what we think is best for you, nothing different.” Well, I am not going to stand for it. Indian Art can compete with any Art in the world, but not as a suppressed Art….”
What inspired Oscar Howe to paint Medicine Man? It was an ancient story in Sioux culture. It’s from the tahokmu, which references a spider trap, or web [in his native language]. He used lines and planes in that painting in order to add dynamism to the figure. I think it [the lines and planes] looks like the spokes of a spider web–you look at it in a different way. Where Cubists break up the figure to flatten it, Howe uses lines to add energy to the image. You see a lot of movement. It’s not flat at all, though it’s broken into sharp geometric fields.
Ah, I was going to ask–I haven’t seen many works that straddle the line between figurative art and abstract art, but that is not what Oscar Howe is trying to do here, right? He’s combining a figure and abstraction as part of his Native American approach to art? That’s absolutely how he would argue it. It’s not abstract art in the way that Braques or Picassos were. It was about animating the figure so you’d understand what’s going on. He rejected any notion that his work was derivative of Cubism. That’s not what he was doing. In Medicine Man, the subject remains intact, unlike in Cubism, where the figures are fragmented and reorganized.
Oscar Howe used casein paint, a milk-based paint, for Medicine Man. Was that his preferred type of paint? And did he mix it himself? We see casein very often from traditional Indian painters, but I don’t know how often Howe used it. But he would have mixed the paints, yes. He was a very traditional artist.
Would he have used a live model for Medicine Man? No, it would have been from a story, and from the heritage he carried inside him. His purpose in painting was to visually articulate his language and culture, specifically Dakota and Sioux.
As of November 2019, only four Oscar Howe works have ever appeared at auction. Why do you think that’s the case? Are people just reluctant to sell–they want to keep them? As you can imagine, there’s so much interest in this piece. Most don’t want to sell his work, and he’s almost an iconic figure. Him and Joe Herrera are literally referenced as the first modernist American Indian painters. You don’t need to send [Howe’s works] to auction.
This Oscar Howe painting belonged to Patricia Janis Broder. How does that provenance affect collectors’ interest in the work? Tremendously, based on the very successful auction of her collection [with Santa Fe Art Auction in April 2019]. She was important to American Indian art history. She wrote about the material before a lot of people were paying attention. She knew what she was buying, and she lavishly illustrated [the art she bought] in her books. She definitely makes a difference.
What makes Medicine Man such a strong example of Oscar Howe’s work? This is classic Howe. The use of the tahokmu device is brilliant in this particular painting. It’s just a classic instance of energizing–the figure is there and moving and powerful and you get the force of it. It’s an expression of what the medicine man does. It articulates the medicine man’s magic and his role in Sioux culture.
Was the painting inspired by Howe’s personal encounters with medicine men? No. He spent an important part of his early life with his blind grandmother, who came from a long verbal tradition of story-telling in the Sioux culture. Though she was blind, she drew pictures in the sand to illustrate her stories.
The Oscar Howe painting is undated, but are there clues lurking in the work itself that helps us figure out when he might have made it? We know it’s definitely that later period [his modern period rather than his Studio period]. I would think it’s 1960s or 1970s, but it’s hard to say.
What’s the world auction record for an Oscar Howe painting? It was set in 1998 at Sotheby’s New York. The medium was also casein. It was called Modern Sioux Dancer and it went for $15,500. It was one of his modern pieces.
So if Medicine Man sells for even its bottom estimate, it’s a new world record for Oscar Howe… I looked at other auction records [when setting the estimate for this work] and there are so few of them, and none are comparable to this one. This is better and more typical of the best of his work. It’s more characteristic of the aspects of his art for which he is most highly prized.
What is the Oscar Howe painting like in person? Oh! [Sighs] It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s vibrant and vivacious. It’s in beautiful condition. I know it was in storage for a long time. It looks unfaded. It looks, I think, the way he wanted us to see it.
Are there aspects of the Oscar Howe painting that the camera doesn’t pick up? There’s no surface to this painting that you’re missing. It’s not an oil. Casein is very flat. You don’t see the brushwork in it.
Why will this Oscar Howe painting stick in your memory? I’ve been in the art world for more than 20 years, and I’ve never had an Oscar Howe in my hands. This artwork is so pleasing to the eye. And I have huge admiration for his conviction as an artist. I have huge respect for the letter he sent to Philbrook saying, ‘How date you tell me how to represent my culture.’ He was brave, and he was good.
Images are courtesy of the Santa Fe Art Auction.
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