Native American Art

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November 20th 2011
Published: February 24th 2013
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Philbrook Art MuseumPhilbrook Art MuseumPhilbrook Art Museum

Stunning view of the Philbrook Art Museum, from the formal garden in front
I walked out of my hotel this morning, and got a surprise.

I figured that by this point that all I would see was bare trees, and McKittrick Canyon would be my last foliage (see Most Beautiful Spot In Texas).

The brown forests along route 66 yesterday did nothing to dispel those thoughts.

Unexpectedly, Tulsa not only had foliage, it was still in color.

Wonderful red and yellow trees appeared all over the city.

Too bad the sky was grey and overcast, premonition of a huge cold front moving in.

Thanks to both its small size and oil wealth, Tulsa feels like a boutique city in many ways, kin to the wealthy suburbs found outside large urban areas.

Like wealthy men everywhere, those oil millionaires wanted cultural cache (see Adventures in Banktown), so Tulsa has an impressive set of museums for its size.

Unlike Dallas and Houston, Tulsa’s art collectors focused on work relatively overlooked by others.

The city’s two art museums now possess the most comprehensive collection of Native American artwork in the United States.

Philbrook Museum

After making his fortune, Waite Phillips started collecting art.

Naturally, he wanted a grand
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Formal garden from the museum balcony, one of the most photographed views in Oklahoma
estate to go along with it, so in 1927 he commissioned Edward Buehler Delk to design one for him.

Delk previously contributed to the design of Country Club Plaza in Kansas City (see Treasures of Art and History).

The result was Philbrook, a grand Italianate palace surrounded by formal gardens.

Like many others, he eventually donated the estate and its collections for an art museum (see The Calm Before the Storm, Pigs and Tobacco, and The Art of Gardens), still called Philbrook.

Like other houses converted to art museums, this one was a strange hybrid of a building.

The museum planners added a new modernist addition.

They also renovated the second floor and basement, keeping the first intact as an architectural exhibit.

Like many regional museums, the collection tries to be comprehensive, which I hate because it shows a little of lots of types of art.

The limitations really show in this one, because certain sections leave out entire decades’ worth of artworks.

The special collections, on the other hands, are standouts that make the place worthwhile even with the small size.

The original mansion rooms were consistently stunning.

Many were lined in marble with ceilings of
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The museum (and former residence) from the bottom of the first garden
painted wooden beams.

The original entrance leads to a multi-story atrium with a sweeping staircase.

Columns are carved to look like grapevines.

A room behind contains a player piano hidden in a wall.

One doorway leads to the former music room, containing a wrap-around mural of Greek myths.

A hallway leads to the original parlor, with an intricately carved wooden ceiling.

Many of the walls contain paintings.

These were bought by Phillips, and integrate with the décor well.

His taste ran mostly to Old Masters.

Unlike some museums, the curators here limited paintings to what originally existed in these rooms, leading to much more integral design.

The rest of the first floor focused on European art.

This section was limited and quirky, containing paintings from the second half of the nineteenth century, a few from the early twentieth, and almost nothing else.

I like much art from those years, so I minded less than some would.

Recognizable names included Raoul Duffy and Andre Derain.

The second floor held American art.

It was arranged chronologically.

The section started
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The modern museum extension, from the formal garden
with a few minor colonial portraits, then moved to Hudson River School landscapes.

For its size, the museum had a surprising number of these, including Alfred Bierstadt, Alfred Jacob Miller, and Asher Durand.

That lead to American Impressionism, highlighted by Ernest Lawson, a lesser known member of the movement, followed by a few paintings from the Ashcan school.

The survey finished with a collection highlight, an entire room of American Scene paintings.

Unlike some I’ve seen, these were by artists from Texas and Oklahoma and focused on the Dust Bowl, including Alexandre Hogue and Doris Lee.

Three galleries held contemporary art.

The first had a theme of portraits.

The styles ranged from photo-realism to pop-art inspired flat color to line drawings to a huge collage that only resolved to the portrait from a distance.

The write-ups asked about what the artists were trying to convey with their choice of technique.

The answer usually has something to do with the personality of the sitter, or their relationship with the artist.

The second gallery was on landscape art.

As before, the style and areas depicted ranged all over the place.

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The rock garden between the gated garden and the mirror pond
picture was a volcano depicted as just an outline.

The best work, which many people may not even notice, was a highly realistic sculpture of the type of plant often found next to a sidewalk, on the floor near a window.

Its purpose is to bring nature into the gallery, which the artist views as a place designed to be sterile (ironically, the sculpture requires a “Do not Touch” sign).

The third gallery held the most unusual art museum fundraiser I have ever seen.

Philbrook asked local artists to create miniature holiday trees and gingerbread houses to sell.

The gallery held the results, including several from local schools.

Not one looked like a traditional tree, which is the point.

The statements talked about how each artist thought about the season, and then tried to incorporate things symbolic of those ideas into their work.

One tree, from a local high school student, was covered in kisses candy, an obvious double symbolism.

Another had paper clouds and rainbows.

The basement holds the standout collection, Native American artwork.

Oklahoma has one of the largest Native American populations in the
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Mirror pond and cupola beyond the rock garden
United States, thanks to its painful legacy as the location the US government exiled tribes it wanted to move to open land for settlers (see The Majesty of Trees).

The museum holds one of the largest collections of such artwork in the country, and has programs to encourage new artists.

Three galleries hold ceramics.

Most are from the Southwest.

The labels list which group made what.

Vessels are covered with geometric patterns, highly stylized pictures of birds, and flowers.

The collection is nearly equal to that in Dallas (see JFK), a much larger museum.

Another room holds large blankets weaved in geometric patterns, mostly from Navajo.

Four galleries held modern paintings by Native Americans.

The museum sponsors a juried show every year, and buys art from those who appear in it.

Virtually every contemporary painting style appears in these galleries somewhere.

The most popular was simplified drawing in flat color of complexly composed subjects, reminiscent of ancient pueblo art (see The Secret City) and painting on buffalo hides (see The Real, and Fake, Wild West).

Next most popular was realism with Native American motifs, such as a group of braves
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Philbrook from the edge of the mirror pond. Note how the design completely hides the gated garden
around a campfire.

More interesting work combined Modernist art ideas with Native American idioms.

Fritz Scholder painted a pop-art version of the famous western sculpture End of the Trail (see Home on the Range).

Patrick Desjarlait painted a scene of Native Americans processing rice in the style of the Mexican Muralists, Making Wild Rice; for those who know art history the political message is unavoidable.

Oscar Howe painted Victory Dance, which uses Cubist ideas to illustrate the energy of a traditional dance.

George Morrison painted Ex-Patriot, which from a distance looks like an abstract color field painting; close up it shows vague red figures being absorbed by white ones (a reference to cultural assimilation).

I haven’t seen work this wide ranging since the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey (see The Birthplace of Modern America), near the start of the trip.

The art in these galleries contrasts with the last Native American contemporary art I saw, back at the Institute of Native American Arts in Santa Fe (see The Reality Behind a Myth).

There, the works were highly theoretical, symbolic, and politically charged.

Most were so theoretical I couldn’t observe their intended message, but when they did it hit hard.

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The newer garden at Philbrook
the artists used techniques associated with Europeans and Americans (“dead white males” as some theorists put it) to communicate their experience of being Native Americans.

These works communicate their messages much better, but impact the viewer less.

The basement also holds a curious gallery called the Santa Fe room.

When Waite Phillips donated his ranch the Boy Scouts of America to become Philmont (see Be Prepared), he removed one room from his ranch house and installed it here.

The room attempts to replicate the atmosphere of the southwest with mock-adobe walls, rustic wooden furniture, and four paintings of pueblo Indians.

Those paintings are the only traditional western art in the entire museum.

Philbrook Gardens

Philbrook, like most other mansions turned into art museums, has extensive formal gardens.

The place is almost as well known for its gardens as the art.

Unlike most, the museum has filled their gardens with a modern sculpture collection.

The house overlooks a long sloping hillside, which contains a wide formal garden with criss-crossing diagonal paths lined by hedges.

The formal garden ends at a rock garden, featuring

Close-up of the gabezos along the south garden
bushes and an artificial stream.

That leads to a series of small ponds with water plants.

A gazebo sits on the far end of the furthest pond.

This vista from the house terrace forms one of Philbrook’s most striking and photographed views.

The view from the lowest pond, with the house and hillside reflected in it, may be even better.

The original house plan had another long formal garden to the side, but it was never completed.

In 2002, the museum finally built it to the original design.

It consists of a long narrow tiered lawn lined with gazebos.

Between the two formal gardens lie a large sweep of forest and open areas, leading down the hill to a brook.

Stone paths wander through the area, lined with most of the sculpture collection.

The one from the side garden to the brook passes what appears from a distance to be two small trees in bright foliage color.

At this time of year, I had to get closer to realize they are a little TOO bright.

Both trees are completely artificial!
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Sculptures at Philbrook. Look closely at the leaves

They are an ironic comment on the environment, in what appears to be natural landscape is actually entirely artificial design.

The brook itself flows through a rock lined channel, as well constructed as everything else here.

It flows through a few small (artificial) waterfalls.

The banks contain yet more modern sculpture.

This included a large metal sheet with an outline of a tree cut out, an abstract collection of metal tubes, a highly realistic deer, and a metal rabbit sitting on a rock.

The path ultimately gets close to the outlet for the artificial ponds above, making a nice little hiking loop.

Gilcrease Museum

Philbrook only contains a fraction of the Native American artwork on view in Tulsa.

To see the rest, I headed across town to the Gilcrease Museum.

It holds the largest collection of such artwork in the country.

The Museum was founded by Tulsa oilman Thomas Gilcrease.

He was a member of the Creeks, one of the Five Civilized Tribes exiled from the southern states to Oklahoma in 1835.

When oil was discovered near Tulsa, he decided to drill a well on his family’s land.

They hit a jackpot, a portion of one of the largest oil fields ever discovered in the state.

Gilcrease used the proceeds to earn a college degree (the first from his family to do so) and then started an oil company.

He used much of his resulting fortune to collect art.

Unlike many, he favored art that related to subjects he had personally experienced, Native Americans and the American west.

Such art was considered dated and out of favor in the 1920s and 30s, so he was able to amass a vast amount.

He opened a museum to showcase it in San Antonio in 1949.

Disappointed in its reception, he moved it to his own estate in Tulsa ten years later, where it’s been ever since.

I found my visit both fascinating and disappointing.

The Gilcrease Museum contains an amazing amount of artwork.

It’s also remarkably small compared the collection it owns, so only a tiny fraction is on view at any one time.

I’ve encountered this situation before, and it always leaves me wanting more
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Artificial cascades along the Philbrook creek
(see Big Architecture in a Small City).

The museum contained four main sections.

The first held samples of art from many Native American tribes.

It had baskets from the Cherokee and the southwest.

Pueblo pottery made an appearance, along with incredible woven blankets.

Something I’ve only previously seen in the Appalachians was a selection of incredible woodcarving: bowls, utensils, and ceremonial objects.

A selection of beadwork from the Lakota and other tribes (see Tourists in a Sacred Land) rounds out the historic work.

Uniquely, this museum attempts to go beyond looks.

The displays point out that tribe members did not make these items to show in museums; they made them to be used in ceremonies and everyday life.

How items feel, act, and wear is just as important as how they look.

Modern visitors can’t experience that side of it, because touching artwork will degrade it (thanks to oil in fingerprints).

Instead, the museum has samples of the raw materials to touch and manipulate: buffalo hides, grass stalks, woven thread, and feathers.

Everything feels different, and completely unlike modern clothes.

A small part at
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Foliage in the residential streets of Tulsa
the back holds paintings from Native Americans.

The selection was painfully limited, about a room’s worth.

The styles covered most major trends, and the work itself was great.

Much was realistic scenes done in an almost cartoon style of simple lines and flat color.

Called “Flat Style”, it dominated Native American painting for the first half of the century.

Notable examples included The Four Moons by Jerome Tiger, and Preparation for the Ribbon Dance by Solomon McCombs.

Pop Chalee combined the style with Japanese motifs to create Forest Scene, a stunning painting of blue deer prancing through a highly stylized forest.

The next section held Central American art from before and just after the Spanish conquest.

It held carved figurines, some clay ones, and Mexican masks.

The collection on display was smaller and less comprehensive than the selection I saw at the San Antonio Art Museum (see Hispanic Art).

The third section held a wide selection of Western paintings.

Like the cowboy art at the National Cowboy Center, the paintings were western scenery, cowboys, and Native Americans done in a realistic or romantic style.

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Part of the gardens at the Gilcrease Museum
of the important names appeared, including Frederic Remington, Charles Russell (see Unexpected Art) and Albert Bierstadt (who is not always considered a western artist, see The Golden State).

Gilcrease bought the estate of Thomas Moran, the artist famous for his pictures of Yellowstone, and several of his canvases were on show.

I prefer more recent art styles, so I found it all repetitive after a while.

The last galleries held an ambitious show called “America: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of a Nation”.

It attempts to tell a balanced history of the United States through art and artifacts.

I say ‘balanced’ because this museum includes Native American viewpoints along with the typical European settler ones.

The first part covers the colonial period to the War for Independence.

It held lots of portraits of colonial leaders like George Washington, next to rare portraits of Native American chiefs.

They visited eastern cities for treaty negotiations, and usually agreed to sit for a portrait at that time.

The section also has Benjamin West’s monumental canvas, Penn’s Treaty with the Indians.

The captions point out that things usually didn’t turn out well; nearly all treaties were
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Fountain at the Gilcrease Museum

One of the portraits features Scyacust Ukah, one of the Cherokee chiefs who visited England in 1762.

The section on the war opens with a copy of the Declaration of Independence, one of only a few original copies in existence.

It has several lithographs of battle scenes.

Many Native Americans supported the English in the conflict.

The display also has one of many copies Jean Antoine Houdon made of his bust of George Washington, the only one based on a life cast.

The next section covers the bitter battles over slavery leading to the Civil War.

It has leg irons used to control slaves (which are de rigueur for this type of exhibit) and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Art included a life cast of Abraham Lincoln’s face by Leonard Volk, used as a reference by countless sculptors since.

The last section covered the settlement of the west, which for Native Americans was really ‘conquest’.

This part had more lithographs and some impressive landscape paintings.

A highlight was artifacts from multiple tribes, including items used at the Battle of Greasy Grass (which
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Part of the English garden at the Gilcrease Museum
most people know as Custer’s Last Stand, see The Highway in the Sky).

It has War Record by White Swan, an account of the battle by a Native American participant.

Since the museum sits on what was once Thomas Gilcrease’s estate, it also has formal gardens.

They are not as extensive as Philbrook.

The highlight is a formal English garden outlined by hedges.

Trails go down a hillside to a pond surrounded by native trees.

A few sculptures appear in places, but not nearly as many as Philbrook has.

One of them is Sacred Rain Arrow by Allan Houser, a Native American warrior poised to shoot an arrow into the sky.

I felt something unexpected leaving the museum tonight, a little depressed.

Darkness falls really early now, and I’m doing more and more of my driving by headlights.

That heavily overcast sky surely contributed too.

For the first time, I’m starting to wonder whether I want to keep going or not.

For now, I did.

I had a long drive south out of Tulsa, which I did on local roads to avoid an obnoxious
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Pond at the Gilcrease Museum
toll road, followed by the Interstate east.

The cold front promised by those clouds arrived, and rain fell in sheets.

I finally stopped somewhere in Arkansas when I simply could not go any further, at a hotel I found in a coupon book.


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