The textile galleries at the de Young Museum in San Francisco are not small. I am very well acquainted with them due to my frequent trips to the city — typically because there is an exhibition on at the de Young or the Legion of Honour I very much wanted to see, and heaven forbid I visit one without going to the other. Unlike their blockbuster Bulgari and Balenciaga exhibitions, the gallery space has not been manipulated or altered in any way, and yet Lines on the Horizon: Native American Art From the Weisel Family Collection is a very intimate exhibition, despite its completely open floorplan. Intimate to the point that when someone besides a small child does speak loudly, the rest of the visitors almost look at each other sideways in silent reproof for this breach of the ambiance.
I do not know whether his intimacy was intended or was a happy accident, but it fits the exhibition to a tee. The word foremost in my mind to describe the artwork in this exhibition is delicate. Even the boldly patterned, bright cochineal red and rich indigo blue Navajo serapes, seemed delicately beautiful. The tiny brush strokes, the purposeful creation of an overall effect in thousand-year-old pottery, the individuality in each piece that the exhibition’s curators invite and encourage you to seek. Details do not overwhelm, nor do they compete with the larger picture, but they are given their own spotlight.
The exhibition is the debut of a new donation by Thomas Weisel of a collection he and his family have spent thirty years creating, which spans a millennium. Seventy-two art objects including pottery, baskets, carvings, textiles, and drawings are on display at the de Young until January 4, 2015. This is only a portion of the 185 pieces already donated to the de Young, and a further 21 textiles which will be officially acquired by the museum by 2016. The Weisel Family collection focuses primarily on the artwork of the American Southwest, with a few pieces from the Pacific Northwest.
The guiding purpose of the collection — and the exhibition inaugurating it into the museum’s permanent collection — is connoisseurship. Not in the sense of value of each particular object, but in that rarity among non-western, non-contemporary art: determining the individual artist. Thomas Weisel collected with a carefully trained eye, trying to find pieces by the same maker. According to the catalogue, “A driving interest behind the selection of specific works for the Weisel Family Collection is the hypothesis that it is possible to identify individual artists … through sustained observation and comparison among objects in the same style.” This is an ambitious goal, but one that the collection succeeds in fulfilling. The intimacy I described invites you to look closer — as closely as the gallery attendants will allow — to pick out details, find continuity among pieces whether because they were made by the same hand, family, or wider community.
When you enter the gallery it is hard to ignore the textiles. This is perhaps due to the prestige of Navajo textiles, but I think it is more due to the bold colors, the distinctive patterns, and the sheer beauty of the pieces. Despite there being more pottery in the exhibition than textiles, it is one of the “Chief” blankets that graces the cover of the catalogue — they catch your attention and pull you in.
All of the textiles featured are the work of the Dineh (Navajo) people. In her contribution to the catalogue, curator of the Caroline and H. McCoy Jones Department of Textile Arts, Jill D’Alessandro, describes the history of Navajo weaving, and the development of their distinctive style from its Pueblo origins to the “Classic” period represented by the textiles in the exhibition. Most fascinating for me, since I confess a great deal of ignorance on the topic of Southwest indigenous textiles, was the suggestions of a greater trade network, of greater communication and exchange among the indigenous peoples of America through these trade and sale of these textiles. I am always intrigued by the communication and exchange of ideas and material goods between peoples — and have long felt there is a bias to portray the Native Americans as a single unit instead of the multiple and diverse nations they are. This cultural exchange is most apparent in the so-called “Chief” blankets featured in Lines on the Horizon — four pieces spanning the breadth of the style’s lifespan. These pieces, despite being less boldly colored, are the ones I most admired. They gain their name not from their use within the Navajo, but because they were purchased for use by chiefs of various Plains tribes. The Navajo did not have chiefs, but the Plains Indians did, and Navajo textiles were so desirable the Navajo made pieces for trade with Plains peoples, such as the four blankets made for chiefs of the Ute tribes.
The “stages” of the blankets do not indicate ranks within Ute society, but instead developments within the style by the Navajo. So that from the beautiful simplicity of the “first stage” blankets (see the far left above and the image below), the style gradually developed over the course of 35 to 40 years, into the more intricate, geometric patterns seen in the final “third stage” in the far right of the image above. The later stage no doubt had a major influence on the art deco period of the late 1920s and the 1930s due to a vogue for “Primitivism” — seeing the famous art deco building at 450 Sutter in San Francisco later the same day as my visit, it is easy to see how far short the imitators fell.
In her essay for the catalogue, D’Alessandro also discusses how the years of turmoil between the early 1800 and the mid- to late half of the century affected Navajo weaving. There is not only the displacement of the tribal peoples as they were forced onto reservations interrupting trade, but amidst the tragedy and the “battles fought among Native Americans, Spanish Americans, Mexicans, and European Americans for control of the western territories” the Navajo were exposed to a vast array of new artistic styles, materials, and perspectives — as well as new markets — that influenced and evolved the style and design of their weavings. The Classic period of Navajo weaving seems to be proof of triumph through turmoil for the arts.
The exhibition is a very comprehensive examination of artistry within the Southwest and Pacific northwest Native American artistic communities. To select one type of art “ove”r another is impossible. However, as a dress and textile historian after the textiles the pieces that most struck me were the depictions of the various Peoples by their own. A small taste of this was found in the bowl to the left above (ca 1450 – 1550, Sikyatki people), but the coup de grace was in the ledger drawings by Tsistsistas (Cheyenne).
In fact, I think I would be fair in saying these small, delicate drawings on blank, lined, ledger sheets were the pieces that have most fascinated me in the entire exhibition. The pieces featured are known as “The Old White Woman Ledger,” due to a tiny pictograph in several of the pieces portraying a hunched female figure with a cane (seen in the top center of the artwork below). This pictograph enticingly suggests that the pieces are all from the same artist, but close (intimate?) examination shows tiny differences in style which suggest a community if not a single hand. The ledger drawings in the Weisel Family Collection all portray one aspect of Cheyenne life: courtship ritual. As described in the catalogue, “A young man wooing a young woman would stand outside her residence, wearing a blanket. If she assented, the two could share the more private space defined by the blanket.” What a beautiful way to integrate textiles into one of the most important rituals of life.
For a people silenced by history and its recorders, the beauty of seeing them as they saw themselves through these drawings is beyond description. There is also the underlying message: that creative impulse cannot be suppressed. Matthew H. Robb says in his essay on the ledger drawings that artistic expression followed gender lines — women wove, beaded, and did quillwork as well as the more abstract painting of rawhide containers, whereas figural imagery on animal hides was the purview of men. In these ledger drawings we see the evolution of that tradition: denied access to the larger, asymmetric hides they were accustomed to, they transferred their drawings to the ledger paper they either bartered for or bought or even absconded with after an altercation. What further proof of the importance of an art form can you find than that the materials for it are a war trophy? This is how they saw themselves. This is their own perspective and portrayal of what they wore. Something priceless to material culturists and art historians.
In so many other exhibitions I can imagine, such drawings would have been lost. In the intimacy of the de Young’s Lines on the Horizon, they — and every other object displayed — had their chance to shine.
The other important aspect of this exhibition I came away with was the emphasis on the maker/artist/creative individual or community. It is a dichotomy, but I simultaneously admired the exquisitely beautiful pieces in this exhibition for themselves — not because there was a famous name attached — but also because of the invitation by the collection and the museum to look at each object as the individual creation of a specific person. Staring at some of the pottery, the wood carvings, the textiles, the sketches, you felt the hand reaching across the millenia, the centuries to say: I was here. This is what I saw. This is what I thought worth remembering.
Lines on the Horizon: Native American Art from the Weisel Family Collection is on display in the Textile Galleries of the de Young until January 4, 2015.
As always, I welcome news about specific exhibitions and events. Feel free to leave information about them in the comments — along with your own reactions to exhibitions covered or my post. Feel free to email me with tips and comments as well.