"Symbols and Scenes: Art By and About American Indians," at the Cocoran Gallery of Art, is a strangley hollow show. It is full of Indians dancing, Indians hunting, Indians sitting by the roadside wrapped in blankets. But in the end we hardly see them. This curious exhibition tells us less about that people than it does about the article demands of mainstream culture.
All the old cliches are here -- the indian as granite-faced paragon of time-lessness, as noble savage skillful, silent hunter, horseman without peer. And yet it is not the Indian, but the decorative fashions of the 1920s and the holidays enjoyed by sun-seeking eastern painters that finally become the true subjects of this show.
Many of the pictures here were made by Indian artists, by Navahos and Hopis who had been encouraged by their white and well-intentioned teachers to try their hands at watercolor, that most British of the arts.
Many more were made by professional East Coast painters -- by Robert Henri, Georgia O'Keeffe, George Biddle and John Sloan -- who spent their summer holidays in Santa Fe and Taos. By the 1920s, a kind of picturesque primitivism had long been in fashion among those who had allied themselves to the new modern art. They knew that Paul Gauguin had broken with the old by sailing to Tahiti, that African sculpture had helped liberate the young Picasso's art, Frank Lloyd Wright already had begun to build in the style of the Aztecs. Long-scorned folk paintings by Colonial-era limners were already being sold in the posher New York galleries. In the rhythmic patterns of Indian pots and blankets, the vacationers sensed a special energy equally authentic and fresh.
The more academic sculptors represented here found the Indian manly and heroic. Paul Manship's running brave of 1922 is less Iroquois than Greek.
In Georgia O'Keeffe's "Kachina Doll" of 1931 (the doll that she portrays in this little oil was a present from the photographer Paul Sand), the figure has a bit of the strange and spooky spirit that O'Keeffe would later seek in sun-bleached skulls.
While the painters from the East were mining Indian culture for the fresh and the exotic. Awa Tsireh, Chiu-tah, Otis Polelonema, Quah Ah and the other Indian watercolorists included in this show were recording, with great care, the rattles and the headdresses, the face paint and the costumes that Indians wore at dance.
Their delicately detailed, strongly rhythmic paintings were enthusiatically (if condescendingly) promoted by their new friends from the East. "The American Indian race," wrote painter John Sloan in 1932, "possess an innate talent. . . which seems to be inherent in the Mongoloid peoples." Sloan's essay accompained a traveling exhibition billed as "the First Exhibition of American Indian Art Selected Entirely With Consideration of Esthetic Value."
In 1937, Sloan produced a little etching that shows his attitude just as clearly. A group of tourists, mostly ladies, are seated in the sunlight developing their tans as they watch Indians dance. "Knees and Aborigines" is the title of Sloan's print.
Almost all the works on view were drawn from the Corcoran's own collection by curatorial intern Myriam A. Springuel. The American Indian watercolors around which she's built her show from the collection given to the gallery in 1937 by Amelia Elizbeth White, who had run New York's first commercial gallery of native American art. "Symbols and Scenes" will remain on view through April 16.