Originally published in Points West magazine
T.C. Cannon: Challenging the Parameters
Julie Coleman Tachick
Former Curatorial Assistant, Whitney Western Art Museum
T.C. Cannon (Kiowa/Caddo), regarded as one of the most eloquent, innovative, and influential American Indian artists of the 1970s, played a pivotal role in helping change the direction of traditional Indian painting. Integrating bold colors and aspects of modernism with Indian themes and traditions, he offered his audiences a new way of seeing the American Indian experience.
Cannon’s time and place in the history of American Indian art assisted in nurturing his philosophy and creative character. Born Tommy Wayne Cannon in Lawton, Oklahoma, on September 27, 1946, Cannon came into the world on the cusp of early rumblings by Indian artists who wanted to change the boundaries and confines characteristic of American Indian art. During the 1930s and 1940s, the flat, two-dimensional, and highly stylized southwestern or Studio style had quickly become a cliché in American Indian painting. This style not only reflected what non-Indian patrons and collectors thought Indian art should embody but also defined what was, at the time, considered “pure and acceptable” Native art. By the 1950s, feeling confined by the limitations that had been imposed upon Indian painting, artists such as Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Sioux), Joe Herrera (Cochiti), Patrick DesJarlait (Ojibwe), and George Morrison (Ojibwe) began merging modernist movements such as Cubism and Abstract Expressionism with tradition in order to intertwine mainstream artistic innovations with aspects of Native culture.
As a new ideology of American Indian art emerged, Cannon became a vital part of its early awareness and formation. In 1964 he enrolled in the Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA). Established in 1962 by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, IAIA materialized as a result of an intense national debate about, and restructuring of, what constituted American Indian art. Widely credited with revolutionizing and revitalizing modern Indian painting, IAIA was significant to the direction Indian art took because the Institute’s objectives empowered and encouraged a new generation of Native artists to approach art in any manner they imagined.
Under the direction of Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee), students at IAIA during this era were exposed to a plethora of educational experiences and encouraged to experiment with new methods and techniques. The school’s curriculum embraced tribal identities and cultural traditions and supported individual creativity. As a result, the students’ visual vocabulary was strongly bicultural, and their works were characterized by innovation in technique, style, and subject. In addition to Cannon, several other Indian artists who studied at the Institute from 1964 to 1967, dubbed the “golden years,” have become well-known and successful in the contemporary genre: Kevin Red Star, Earl Biss, Doug Hyde, Linda Lomahaftewa, Karita Coffey, and Sherman Chaddlesone, among others.
Fritz Scholder (Luiseno), who has developed a respected painting career of his own, was also present at IAIA during this period. As an instructor at the Institute, Scholder worked alongside his students, where concepts of action painting, expressionist thoughts, and social commentary were explored in a natural process of exchange between teacher and students. He also offered a course on the history of art that introduced students to artists and art movements from both cultures. His approach provided the students with a strong and relevant foundation from which they could base their own artistic developments.
Armed with this background, and hailing from what was, at the time, considered to be the cutting-edge environment of the contemporary Indian art scene, Cannon excelled. In 1972, at the young age of 24, he was given a major show with Scholder at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Collection of Fine Arts that subsequently traveled to several prestigious museums throughout Europe. The exhibition, titled Two American Painters, launched him to fame. Audiences in and outside of the United States embraced his style and approach with an enthusiastic response. In the following six years, he produced a large body of serious work, including commissions for the Seattle Arts Commission and the Santa Fe Opera.
Shortly after the exhibition at the Smithsonian, Cannon met New York art dealer Jean Aberbach, who soon began representing the artist on an exclusive basis. In 1978, the pair was planning Cannon’s first one-man show, a major exhibition to be held at the Aberbach Gallery in October. Unfortunately, their plans changed. On May 8, 1978, five months before the opening, Cannon was tragically killed in an automobile accident at the young age of thirty-one.
On December 10, 1979, Aberbach opened T.C. Cannon: A Memorial Exhibition in New York City. The important and monumental show was a huge success, drawing collectors from around the world. From New York, the exhibition traveled around the United States, appearing in notable museums such as the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona; the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe; and the [then-named] Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.
Featuring fifty major works by Cannon, the memorial exhibition was on display for the public in the Historical Center’s central lobby space from March 1, 1981, to April 26, 1981. The show presented a wide range of works, including oil paintings, watercolors, Japanese woodcuts, and notebook sketches. Cannon’s Self Portrait appeared on the cover of the Patrons Preview invitation to the exhibition. By celebrating Cannon as the featured artist for the 1981 season and placing the show adjacent to the Whitney Gallery of Western Art’s permanent exhibition of master works by earlier artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, and Joseph Henry Sharp, the Center exerted its confidence as a cutting-edge institution as well as its commitment to recognizing inspiring and talented contemporary artists. In the words of the Center’s then director, Peter Hassrick:
T.C. Cannon was very much a man of the West. It is our feeling that the museum has an obligation to spread a cross section of artistic and historic perceptions of the West rather than labor entirely in the traditional and figurative world of Remington and Russell.
In 2002, twenty-one years after the memorial exhibition, the Center had the extraordinary opportunity to acquire a painting by Cannon for its collections. There are a limited number of original works by the artist available due to his premature and unexpected death. Buffalo Medicine Keeper, ca. 1974, was generously secured through the William E. Weiss Purchase Fund and is a strong and striking example of Cannon’s trademark painting style.
Here the artist uses bold, contrasting colors that vibrate against one another, creating the illusion of motion and rhythm. His brushstrokes are quick, yet controlled, and hints of underpainting emerge. Tradition provided a firm foundation from which Cannon gathered knowledge and inspiration for his paintings. It also served as a point of departure for further artistic gains that were defined by his individual creativity. The flat areas of color, underpainting, and outlining employed in his paintings are reminiscent of traditional Indian painting, yet his intensity of color, paint application, and flat, decorative style recall influences from early twentieth century European painters such as Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh.
Beyond his new and unusual style of painting, Cannon was admired for his ability to capture and comment on the past and present world. He often used bold portraiture of a solitary Native person as his vehicle of choice, integrating decorative patterns and vibrant color schemes to enhance the work. Although his imagery and subject matter concentrated on Indian themes and traditions, he incorporated modern elements from American culture, as well as other world cultures, into his paintings.
In Buffalo Medicine Keeper, the man wears a combination of objects from both the traditional Indian way of life and the modern American culture. Among Plains Indian men, there is a long tradition of wearing buffalo horn bonnets, which provided warriors protection in battle and ensured long, healthy lives. The man wears a hair pipe breastplate, slightly visible between the fashionable striped shirt and vest. The title and subject matter of the painting are references to the Sun Dance, one of the most sacred ceremonies among Native peoples of the Plains. One of the purposes of the Sun Dance is to honor the Buffalo Spirit. A painted buffalo skull, such as the man holds, is placed at the back of the Sun Dance Lodge as a sacred altar, facing east toward the rising sun. The decorative dot pattern enhances the overall image, but the dots also symbolize an aspect of the Sun Dance ceremony in which participants stare at the sun until spots appear before their eyes. The dots refer to this visual experience. Framed in darkness and then enclosed within a bright circle, as if in the spotlight, the subject, and his experience and existence, are the focus of the work.
Placing a traditional image in a modern setting illustrated Cannon’s belief that Indian people are modern people who maintain their ancient heritage in contemporary times. It was not uncommon for Cannon to position himself in this role. In Collector #2, a self-portrait, the artist is dressed in modern attire. Wearing sunglasses and with arms folded across his chest, he appears guarded but confident. He’s a contemporary artist, aware and proud of his heritage, but also familiar with the masters of European art, as indicated by the small van Gogh landscape painting hanging on the wall. In creating his own works, he draws his strength and knowledge from both.
Although Cannon stated that an Indian painting was any painting that was done by an Indian, he believed there really was no such thing as an Indian painting; instead, there was Indian sensibility, the idea of a collective history that began with birth and continually developed throughout one’s upbringing and life experiences. Artists of all nationalities were working in a multitude of modes and styles. To Cannon, it seemed unnecessary to define a work based on an artist’s heritage. “After all, Picasso spent most of his life in France anyway. Does that make him a Spanish painter or a French painter? I say it makes him Picasso.” Likewise, Cannon argued that contemporary American Indian art should be viewed within the broader context of modern society. It deserved to be critiqued, evaluated, and appreciated under the same terms and circumstances as modern mainstream art movements.
Cannon played an important role in the metamorphosis and development of contemporary American Indian art during the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Following his convictions, armed with a passion for the culture of his people and a knowledge of, and sensitivity for, artistic design and aesthetics, he challenged the popular concepts of what constituted “Indian art.” As a result, Cannon not only contributed to the redefinition of its parameters, initiating an advancement toward a model truer to his own experiences as an American Indian in the modern world, but also helped clear the way for future generations of Native artists to pursue their own distinct and uniquely American artistic interpretations.
1. The artist is known professionally as T.C., short for Tommy Cannon or Tee Cee, as he sometimes signed his letters. Joan Frederick, T.C. Cannon: He Stood in the Sun (Flagstaff, Arizona: Northland Publishing Company, 1995), 20.
2. For an extensive discussion on this topic, see J.J. Brody, Indian Painters and White Patrons (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971).
3. Margaret Archuleta and Rennard Strickland, Shared Visions: Native American Painters and Sculptors in the Twentieth Century (New York: The New Press and Phoenix, Arizona: The Heard Museum, 1991), 22.
5. Peter H. Hassrick. Letter dated March 6, 1981. Exhibition Archives, McCracken Research Library, Buffalo Bill [Center of the West].
6. Elizabeth Dear in T.C. Cannon: He Stood in the Sun, 166.
7. See Jamake Highwater. Song from the Earth: American Indian Painting (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1976), 177.