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Anya Montiel - The Art of George Morrison and Allan Houser: The Development and Impact of Native Modernism - The American Indian Quarterly 29.3 & 4 The American Indian Quarterly 29.3 & 4 (2005) 478-490

The Art of George Morrison and Allan Houser

The Development and Impact of Native Modernism

On October 21, 2004, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington DC celebrated its one-month anniversary with a report of 305,503 visitors.1 It would be safe to assume that at least one-third of those people visited or passed through the third floor exhibit, Native Modernism: The Art of George Morrison and Allan Houser. Even more visitors saw the signage or read published materials with the artists' names. Undoubtedly, the timing and placement of Native Modernism as one of the inaugural exhibitions will affect the prominence of Allan Houser (1914–94, Warm Springs Chiricahua Apache) and George Morrison (1919–2000, Grand Portage Band of Chippewas) on a national level. Although the exhibit lasts only one year, it carries historical significance for the museum and for the artists.

The significance and the impact it carries will be explored and explained along with the exhibition design and development process. For over two years I acted as the assistant to the NMAI curator of contemporary art, Truman Lowe (Ho-Chunk), working on Native Modernism and the Continuum 12 Artists exhibition for the New York museum. Choosing Morrison and Houser was a deliberate decision by Lowe and was supported by the executive museum staff. Delving into the lives and works of Morrison and Houser will help elucidate that choice and its effects.

The Artists

The idea for a retrospective on George Morrison and Allan Houser as one of the inaugural exhibitions came from the NMAI curator of contemporary [End Page 478] art, Truman Lowe. An artist and sculptor himself, Lowe knew both artists personally and saw them as mentors and visionaries. During his interview for the curator position, the panel asked him what exhibition he would propose for the Washington DC museum. Without hesitation, Lowe advised an exhibition on Morrison and Houser due to their effect on contemporary Native art and future generations of artists. After he explained his idea further, the panel agreed.

 Gallery view 3, Native Modernism Exhibition. Courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC, 2004.
Click for larger view
Figure 1
Gallery view 3, Native Modernism Exhibition. Courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC, 2004.

Lowe learned about Morrison when he was a student in graduate [End Page 479] school seeking out a topic for a research project.2 Morrison became a role model for the young, emerging artist—both were born in the Midwest to Native parents and had been raised among their traditions.3 When Lowe saw an article on Morrison illustrated with a photo taken in his New York City loft, he admired Morrison's determination to seek out his dream on the East Coast.4

 Untitled. Color Pencil on Paper by George Morrison. (Grand Portage Band of Chippewa, 1919–2000), Grand Portage, Minnesota, 1995, in The National Museum of the American Indian. Collection of Robert and Frances Leff, photo by Robert Fogt. Courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC, 2004.
Click for larger view
Figure 2
Untitled. Color Pencil on Paper by George Morrison. (Grand Portage Band of Chippewa, 1919–2000), Grand Portage, Minnesota, 1995, in The National Museum of the American Indian. Collection of Robert and Frances Leff, photo by Robert Fogt. Courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC, 2004.

George Morrison was born in 1919 in Chippewa City, Minnesota, near the Grand Portage reservation along Lake Superior. His parents raised him and his eleven siblings in the Chippewa traditions and language. He went to boarding school in Wisconsin but returned to Minnesota at the age of ten for treatment of tuberculosis of the hip. He spent a year at a children's hospital in Saint Paul where he immersed himself in books and drawing.5

Morrison attended the local Grand Marais High School in Minnesota studying industrial arts. Loans and scholarships from the Consolidated [End Page 480] Chippewa Agency helped Morrison further his art studies at the Minnesota School of Art from 1938 to 1943. Upon graduation, he received a Vanderlip Traveling Scholarship and studied at the Arts Students League in New York City. Morrison thrived in New York, studying under Morris Kantor, meeting and exhibiting with other artists, and being immersed in the American abstract expressionist movement. He explored and mastered the surrealist forms and techniques used by the abstract artists of his time. Morrison had his first of nine solo shows at the Grand Central Moderns Gallery in New York City in 1948.6

A Fulbright scholarship awarded Morrison the opportunity to study in France for one year at the École des Beaux-Arts and the University of Aix-Marseilles in 1952. Upon his return, he exhibited on the East Coast and the Midwest while accepting temporary teaching assignments at art schools in Minnesota, Iowa, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.7 At the Dayton Art Institute in Ohio, he met and fell in love with the artist Hazel Belvo. They married in 1960 and had a son, Briand Mesaba, in 1961.

In 1970 Morrison left the Rhode Island School of Design, where he had taught art since 1963, to accept a visiting professorship in American Indian studies and studio arts at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, a true homecoming. Morrison explained, "I felt an inner need to come back, not realizing the consequences of what I was doing. I felt the need to put certain Indian values into my work."8 Morrison stayed in Minnesota, receiving an assistant professorship at the university in 1971 and a full professorship in 1973.

While Morrison referred to himself as a painter, he created wood collages but called them "paintings in wood."9 In these pieces, Morrison took various types of woods and joined them like pieces of a puzzle into large, rectangular collages. In 1974 he designed one such collage for the exterior of the Minneapolis American Indian Center that measures eighteen feet tall by ninety-eight feet wide. That same year the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis exhibited a major solo show of his line drawings, a series of intricate drawings of straight and curvilinear lines on paper.

Morrison continued to explore different art forms, creating his first totem sculpture in 1977 for an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. The artwork, Red Totem I, is an impressive square column of geometric patterns in stained redwood reaching twelve feet in height. In 1983 he retired from teaching and was honored with a solo exhibit at the University gallery. [End Page 481]

Although he was diagnosed with Castleman's disease in 1984, Morrison continued to create art but on a smaller scale. The horizon paintings came out of this later period and were painted on canvas attached to board that he could reach while seated in bed. The paintings depicted the horizon over Lake Superior in brilliant glimmers of color exhibiting a variety of artistic techniques. Most measure about four by twelve inches and have poetic titles such as Lucent Paramour, Infinite Magic, Red Rock Variation, and Lake Superior Landscape.

In 1997 a Morrison totem sculpture was featured along with the work of other Native artists like Allan Houser and Truman Lowe at an exhibit at the White House. His health continued to decline, and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis honored Morrison as its first master artist in 1999, a year before his death.

Lowe also knew the artist Allan Houser. They had met through group exhibits and connected through their shared love of sculpture. Houser was from the same generation as Morrison; he was born in 1914 on a family farm in Apache, Oklahoma. His parents, Sam and Blossom Haozous, raised him and his four siblings to respect and honor the Warm Springs Chiricahua Apache traditions.10 The Haozous family came from the group of Apache who, led by Geronimo, fought to save their livelihood and were imprisoned in Florida and then Oklahoma by the U.S. government.

Houser attended school in Boone, Oklahoma, and was sent to Indian boarding school at Fort Sill in 1922. Homesickness brought him back home, and he finished his grade schooling in Boone in 1928. For high school, he was sent to Chilocco Indian School but left the following year to work on the family farm. Houser exhibited an early interest in art, always drawing and carving small figures. Drawing became one way for Houser to record his father's stories about Apache life, and his father encouraged him to draw accurate Apache dress and regalia.

Houser heard about a free art school for Native people in Santa Fe and applied and was accepted into the Art Studio at the Santa Fe Indian School in 1934. He excelled at the school and received an outstanding art student award in 1935 and his first solo show in 1937 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. After graduation in 1938, his paintings were exhibited at the World's Fair in New York City, the National Gallery in Washington DC, and the Art Institute of Chicago. That subsequent year, he [End Page 482] married Anna Marie Gallegos, a Navajo and Hispanic woman he met while in Santa Fe.

At school, Houser learned to draw in the "studio style" of art, painting flat, outlined figures of Native people at traditional ceremonies and on buffalo hunts on a white background. That approach was the accepted style for Native artists at the time, but Houser wanted to experiment and incorporate increased movement and realism. While attending a special art program at the Fort Sill Indian School in Oklahoma, Houser met muralist Olle Nordmark, who encouraged him to try sculpture.

Houser applied for a commission to create a sculpture to fallen Native soldiers of World War II. In 1948 he was awarded the commission for the Haskell Indian School in Kansas, the first sculptural commission to a Native artist. Houser had never worked on a sculpture that large, let alone in marble. However, he completed Comrade in Mourning, an eight-foot-tall Carrara marble artwork of a Native man draped in a blanket with head bowed and a headdress and pipe at his feet.

Comrade marked Houser's foray into three-dimensional art forms. Like Morrison, Houser became an art instructor, accepting a position at the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah in 1952. While teaching art, Houser also illustrated seven children's books. In 1954 he was awarded the Palmes d'Academique by the French government for his work as an artist and teacher. Houser stayed in Utah teaching until 1962, when he accepted a position at the newly formed Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.

Houser taught sculpture at the Institute and became head of the sculpture department. He continued to work in stone and wood but experimented with metal welding.11 In 1967 he cast his first bronzes, starting small and then replicating larger pieces. His style remained fluid, some executed as realistic human subjects and others as pure abstract, modern forms. Houser retired in 1975 to concentrate on sculpture. He received an artist-in-residency from Dartmouth College in 1979 and participated in shows in France and Germany.

In 1992 Houser was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bush. In April 1994 he donated a large bronze sculpture, May We Have Peace, to the White House as a gift to the American people by the First Americans. In August 1994 Houser passed away at his home shortly after his eightieth birthday. [End Page 483]

Morrison and Houser were masters and visionaries; they broke away from accepted forms of Native American art to pursue their own styles, techniques, and use of materials. They were prolific artists and have full oeuvres, exhibiting throughout the United States and abroad. Through teaching art for numerous years, they influenced generations of artists, Native and non-Native alike.

Exhibition Design and Development

From its inception, Native Modernism was to be unlike the other permanent exhibitions, Our Universes, Our Peoples, and Our Lives. Na-tive Modernism was designed as a classic art show. The works are not crowded against each other, and most have minimal labels listing only title, date, materials, and lender. Lowe referred to the exhibition as an "oasis"—a calm and reflective place for visitors to experience the beauty and power of art.

The exhibition research and development phase was fairly basic. Research was conducted on each artist from archival documents and published books and articles. Since the NMAI collection included little art by Morrison or Houser, conducting thorough searches of the location and condition of pieces held in public and private collections was essential.12

Lowe also wanted the exhibition to display the human side of these artists. Morrison and Houser had social lives—they entertained, traveled, met other artists, and raised families. He proposed a video for the gallery theater with family members, colleagues, and former students sharing their stories. The NMAI curatorial and media staffs then traveled to Santa Fe (for Houser) and Minnesota (for Morrison) for the interviews. Another medium to record the exhibition was an accompanying book. Besides highlighting some of the art displayed in the show, the book contains essays on the artists by prominent Native writers and artists, such as N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa) on Houser, Gerald Vizenor (Chippewa) on Morrison, and a comparative essay by Gail Tremblay (Onondaga/Mi'kmaq).

Physically, the exhibit would be housed in the temporary gallery on the third floor of the new museum. There are two entrances—one from the main hallway shared with the Our Lives exhibit and the other by the resource center. Since visitors may enter from either side, both openings were treated as entrances and have the same information: an introduction [End Page 484] by Lowe, biographical panels on each artist, and one piece of artwork by Morrison and one by Houser.

The gallery is divided into two sections—one for Morrison and one for Houser. The center area features signature pieces from each artist mixed together, a consideration for the rushed visitor to experience both artists while breezing through one opening to the other. The majority of the works by each artist were kept separate on purpose so that visi-tors would not confuse which art was created by Houser and which by Morrison.

Besides labels, visitors would know which artist they were viewing by color palette. Since Houser lived and created works about the Southwest, his side of the gallery was painted in tones of orange and yellow reminiscent of mesas, prairies, and sunsets. Morrison lived along and incorporated the shore of Lake Superior in his works, so his gallery was in shades of blue and green like the dense foliage and ever-changing water.

Within each artist's section, the art is arranged by theme, not chronology. Since both men have passed on, it would be simple to arrange the art by time period. Yet both Morrison and Houser revisited certain themes throughout their careers, and arrangement by theme seemed stronger. The Houser subsections included his works on paper, realistic sculptures, portrait busts, mother and child figures, post-retirement works, abstraction, maquettes, and the female nude. The Morrison area featured wood collages, paintings, works on paper, surrealism, line drawings, horizon paintings, small sculptures, and the human figure. In total, Native Modernism featured 174 works, 105 from Morrison and 69 from Houser.13 Forty-six private and public lenders, including the family estates, loaned items for the exhibition.

Significance and Impact

The NMAI made an important statement in chartering the Native Modernism exhibit for its temporary gallery during the grand opening. Director Rick West (Southern Cheyenne), the son of the late artist Dick West, had spoken about the NMAI's role in celebrating living Native cultures. The museum would be a place to display historical items as well as work by modern Native people.

The museum could have curated an exhibition on traditional works of art by Native people. With over 800,000 items in the museum's collection, [End Page 485] it would have been a doable task. However, the NMAI lacks a solid collection of contemporary Native art. A contemporary art show would be difficult to arrange, especially one on Morrison and Houser. NMAI currently owns two prints by Morrison and six bronzes by Houser. Such an exhibition would entail numerous loan agreements and a shipping budget. However, the NMAI endorsed and respected Lowe's idea.

Having a contemporary Native art show also might confuse visitors. They may not expect art by Native people to show pure abstractions and be created on canvas or in stone and bronze. Morrison and Houser were influenced by the abstract and modern artists of their day. Some works do not depict Indians or refer to Native spiritual beliefs. They are artworks, expressions of beauty and life.

In choosing Morrison and Houser, the NMAI also makes a statement about the caliber of the artworks and the artists' importance in history. Lowe selected Morrison and Houser because he proposed that they mark the beginning of contemporary Native art history.14 These artists created work unlike other Native artists of their time and constantly experimented with new styles and materials. Houser is often referred to as "the father of contemporary Native sculpture" because he worked in stone and bronze (new media for Native artists), and his style is often copied. While many critics tried to search for Native elements in Morrison's works, he chose to use the surrealist technique of automatism where "the artist's hand is trained to draw 'automatically.'"15

Visitors are usually drawn to one artist over the other. I have had numerous people tell me, "The exhibit is wonderful, but I was really taken by the work of George Morrison [or Allan Houser]." And that is another impressive result: visitors are beginning to become Native art critics. They are forming their own opinions about Native art and hopefully widening their definitions of it.

Lowe had expressed his desire for contemporary art museums like the Hirshhorn and the National Gallery of Art to acquire art by Native artists for their collections. Art produced by Native people tends to be relegated to anthropological, natural history, or cultural institutions. They are seen as "crafts," not as pure art, maybe due to racism or ignorance on the part of the curators or acquisition committees. Rarely are Native artists awarded shows in major art venues, let alone a one-person show. And it says more for such a museum to acquire such pieces for its permanent collection. During a pre-opening viewing of the NMAI for Smithsonian [End Page 486] employees, I overheard someone remark, "This is something you would see in the National Gallery [of Art]." Native Modernism is similar to any exhibit at the Hirshhorn or National Gallery.


Over the course of the exhibition planning, I experienced many touching and personal moments. Especially as the museum opening neared, the exhibition team was full of anticipation and excitement. In January 2004 I remember likening the feeling to waiting for a baby to arrive since the museum's opening was a mere nine months away. While I did experience frustrating moments and disappointing setbacks, something would always renew hope and energy.

One such moment occurred during the media interview trip for George Morrison. I had the opportunity to stay at Red Rock, Morrison's home and studio on the Grand Portage Reservation. Red Rock is located on an isolated strip of shoreline along Lake Superior. Morrison sketched and painted many works, like his horizon paintings, from that vantage point. As I watched the moon glow and the resulting shimmers across the water, I became overcome by the power of the lake. While it was dark outside, the moonlight created brilliant specks of color on the water. The lake seemed very magical. Immediately I understood Morrison's fascination with the horizon over Lake Superior and why it had been a recurrent theme in his works. I sat in awe for many hours.

When I left Grand Portage for Minneapolis, I filled my vehicle at a nearby gasoline station. The young cashier knew that I was not a regular customer and asked me where I lived and worked. When I told her that I worked for the Smithsonian, she wondered what I was doing near Grand Portage. I informed her that we were planning an exhibition on George Morrison for the National Museum of the American Indian. She had no idea who that was, but a man standing behind me proudly piped in, "George Morrison was a famous artist from here. I went to high school with him."

Overwhelmingly, George Morrison is one of Minnesota's favorite sons. Many Minnesotans proudly told me about how much they admired his work or offered a personal story about him. Just as I witnessed recognition of Morrison, Allan Houser has a solid fan base among his students. Artists proudly talk about being taught by Houser in class or [End Page 487] completing an apprenticeship from him. Sculptor and former student Cliff Fragua (Pueblo Jemez) referred to Houser by the respectful title of "Mr. Houser" during his interview for the exhibition video. He spoke of him as an uncle, because "[Houser] was concerned about all his nephews and all his nieces. . . . [He kept] in touch with others and [had] this network to find out what his students were doing. I find that very caring."16 Just as students respected him, Houser also admired emerging artists who followed their own paths and dared to experiment.

Since I was the researcher for the Allan Houser portion of the exhibit, I took personal interest in obtaining landmark Houser artworks for display.17 We had worked diligently on arranging the loan of the Houser sculpture Comrade in Mourning from the Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. The day it arrived in the gallery an overwhelming feeling came over me. Once Comrade was set in place, I helped unwrap the protective blankets and plastic sheeting. Silence swept over the room as the curatorial team, the collections and registration staff, exhibition designers, and conservators stood before the sculpture in wonderment. Having been cleaned before its journey, the figure glowed under the lights and its penetrating eyes stared back.18 We understood the importance of its being: Comrade had never left Haskell Indian Nations University before; it marked the first sculptural commission awarded to a Native American artist; it was Houser's first stone sculpture; and it marked Houser's start in the realm of three-dimensional art.

While Morrison and Houser have passed on, their legacies remain, especially in the lives they impacted and the artwork left behind. Na-tive artists like Doug Hyde, Dan Namingha, Estella Loretto, George Longfish, David Bradley, and Jim Denomie talk about the influence of these artists on their careers. In every video interview, colleagues from the Institute of American Indian Arts commented on Houser's constant sketching and tireless work ethic. This was easily demonstrated when I visited the Allan Houser Foundation Archives in Santa Fe and saw box after box of sketchbook pages. Some drawings were later realized as sculptures while others remained as doodles on restaurant placemats and napkins. During a similar visit to the storage facility of the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul, Lowe and I leafed through the many prints and drawings by Morrison. We were to note which ones interested us for the exhibition. Soon enough, we wanted almost every piece because each one was unique and remarkably executed with precision [End Page 488] and skilled draftsmanship. It was easily understood that both Morrison and Houser had devoted their lives to the pursuit of art. Without question, George Morrison and Allan Houser are worthy of their placement as the inaugural artists for the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC. Their long careers affected many people, and their art stands strongly beside that of other masters. Just take a look.

Anya Montiel was the curatorial research assistant for contemporary art at the NMAI (2002–4) and is currently the curator of collections for the Tohono O'odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum in Topawa, Arizona.


1. "National Museum of the American Indian Weekly Report," October 27, 2004.

2. Jo Ortel, Woodland Reflections: The Art of Truman Lowe (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 38.

3. Lowe was born in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, while Morrison was born in Chippewa City, Minnesota.

4. Ortel, Woodland Reflections, 40.

5. Gerald Vizenor in Native Modernism: The Art of George Morrison and Allan Houser (Washington DC: Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, 2004), 42.

6. Gail Tremblay in Native Modernism: The Art of George Morrison and Allan Houser (Washington DC: Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, 2004), 95.

7. Katherine Van Tassell, Standing in the Northern Lights: George Morrison, A Retrospective (Minneapolis: Minnesota Museum of Art, 1990), 21.

8. George Morrison, as told to Margot Fortunato Galt, Turning the Feather Around: My Life in Art (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1998), 135.

9. Morrison, Turning the Feather Around, 128.

10. Allan Houser was born Allan Haozous but Anglicized his last name early in his career, a decision he later regretted.

11. W. Jackson Rushing III, Allan Houser: An American Master (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2004), 111.

12. The NMAI collection includes two prints by Morrison and six bronzes by Houser.

13. It may appear that there is an unequal balance of Morrison works to Houser works. However, most Morrison items were drawings and paintings that took up less gallery space. Also, for conservation reasons, some Morrison works had to be replaced in six months with new works.

14. Truman Lowe, personal communication, 2003.

15. David W. Penney, "George Morrison," Contemporary Masters: The Eiteljorg [End Page 489] Fellowship for Native American Fine Art, vol. 1 (Indianapolis: Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, 1999), 18.

16. Cliff Fragua, interview, Santa Fe nm, March 20, 2003.

17. Rebecca Head Trautmann was the researcher for George Morrison.

18. Houser used his own face as a model for Comrade in Mourning. Even the Houser family remarked at how the sculpture resembles certain family members.

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