Of the inaugural exhibitions in the National Museum of the American Indian, "Native Modernism" is the best looking and the least amorphous. That's because it shows you beauty steadily evolving, and skill expanding, and history in detail, which most of the others don't.

In it are two artists -- Allan Houser (1914-1994) and George Morrison (1919-2000). Both were beloved teachers, and steady pros. Houser lived in Santa Fe. He made prideful statues of carved stone and cast bronze. George Morrison was born and died in northern Minnesota but lived for many years in Greenwich Village, Provincetown and Paris. He made abstracted landscapes, assembling the largest from pieced-together planes of sawed-and-sanded wood. A divide afflicts their show.

"Native Modernism," inevitably, pulls in two directions. You know that from its title. "Native" carries with it a sense of the primordial, of being on this continent, as the Indians put it, "since the beginning of time." "Modernism" makes you think of hunting for the new.

The show -- which inaugurates the third-floor space for changing exhibitions -- would like to be perceived as Chippewa and Apache. That both these men were Indians and sometimes treated Indian themes, however, is a truth that doesn't tell one much about their works of art. The "Indianness" proclaimed throughout the new museum is not core to this exhibit. Morrison and Houser shared another heritage. Their objects, when examined, lead the mind through resonant and rooted visual traditions that aren't Indian at all. The intricate and honorable traditions that wind through it instead are Arcadian, abstract-expressionist, classroom academic and neoclassical. Both these men were modernists.

This isn't really a show about Indianness. It's a show about 20th-century art.

W. Richard West Jr., the museum's director, likes to call his institution "the museum different." Fortunately "Native Modernism" is "the exhibition same" -- it has a catalogue, and traditional wall labels so that you know what you're looking at, and oil paintings, and statues on pedestals, and a chronology. In all this it resembles other modern-art shows long seen on the Mall.

The new museum knows this but has something else to stress: Houser and Morrison, writes director West, "hold our attention for another reason as well: They were Indians, and every inch so."

But they were different kinds of Indians. One came from the woodlands, one came from the West. And though both of them were modernists, they made different kinds of art.

George Morrison belonged to the Grand Portage Band of the Chippewa. The museum identifies all of its exhibitors by tribal affiliation. Morrison, "every inch" an Indian, was also part Scottish, hence his name. In a book of reminiscences, "Turning the Feather Around" (1998), he says his totem was the raven, and that his father hunted beaver. Morrison was born, and died at age 80, on the forested shores of Lake Superior, long his people's land.

As a kid he made $1 tomahawks and canoe-themed tie racks, but not for long. The craft of his art isn't Chippewa-traditional -- no basketry, no beadwork. Nor did he spend his childhood drinking in ancient Indian lore. ("There wasn't much more than a smattering of Indian stories left," he remembered.) The key traditions in his art are those he was exposed to in the progressive, non-Indian art schools where he learned and taught -- the Minneapolis School of Art, the Art Students League in Manhattan and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris.

In 1963 Morrison was appointed assistant professor of art at the Rhode Island School of Design. He became a full professor -- in studio art, at the University of Minnesota -- in 1971.

Allan Houser was a Chiricahua Apache. His people, unlike Morrison's, had been moved around a lot, partly by their nomadism, partly by the U.S. Army. "The mountains and deserts of Arizona and New Mexico were the landscape of his blood," N. Scott Momaday writes in the catalogue, but "he knew Fort Sill, where his father was Geronimo's interpreter." Like Morrison, he was indebted to non-Indian art teachers, in his case especially to Dorothy Dunn, the progressive young woman from the Art Institute of Chicago who started the painting studio of the Santa Fe Indian School in 1932. Her students shared a style, and Houser was one of her best. She taught them what to paint, and how. They were all to show Indian scenes they'd seen themselves -- of sandstone buttes, and ponies, and Indians being Indian. Dunn's school provided water-soluble paints, and expected a certain look. The style she promoted was decorative, depictive, strongly-outlined and exact.

Houser, for a while -- but only for a while -- did just as he was bid.

Morrison was a second-generation abstract expressionist. That art-historical label, with its hints of Eighth Street in Manhattan and automatic drawing and explosive "one-shot" paintings all done in one go, rises like a perfume from his almost-abstract art.

No ravens and no beavers are summoned by his pictures. The scene they most evoke is the art scene in New York, and no wonder: Morrison, who'd studied with Morris Kantor and Vaclav Vytlacil at the Art Students League, was in the thick of it. He lived in Greenwich Village in a $30 walk-up. He haunted the Met and the Modern. He was often overwhelmed, like almost everybody else then, by the overpowering example of Picasso. He saw his first Picasso retrospective in 1939 and was, he remembered "very impressed." One sees it in his art.

At the Five Spot in the Village, he shook hands with Thelonious Monk. At the Cedar bar nearby he drank, a bit too heavily, with such famous AbEx "big boys" as muscular Jackson Pollock and mustachioed Franz Kline. (Morrison acknowledged that he had been "an alcoholic" in "high school and college and later. Alcoholism happens to a lot of families, as it did to us. These things have to be said.") Kline was godfather to Morrison's son. When Morrison himself grew a big abstract-expressionist mustache, he remembered, "they thought I was Persian."

Never a huge art star, he nonetheless did fine. He showed in the Whitney Annuals and nine times at the Grand Central Modern Galleries, and in the summers he retreated, as did many New York painters, to Provincetown or Rockport.

In 1952, he won a Fulbright Fellowship. Morrison went to France. He drank wine on the Left Bank. He took a villa in Antibes. One need not be an Indian to be inspired, as was Morrison, by the line of the horizon where the water meets the sky. Picasso and Matisse, he knew full well, also had been attracted to the Riveria; that's one reason he went there. The Chippewa coasts of Lake Superior are not the only shores suggested by his art.

Houser stayed anchored to the Southwest, where he made himself a sculptor, a fashioner of monuments of wood and stone and bronze.

His figures are Indians. You see that in their hairdos and their cheekbones. His vision, writes Truman T. Lowe, the exhibition's curator, presents an "affirming and empowering Native view." But the style he evolved isn't so much native as it is streamlined neoclassical. His statues radiate the same oversize nobility and un-ironic pride that one finds in the Civil War statues of generals that are scattered through our parks. Houser, too, was sort of a booster. Sarcasm and doubt are absent from his art.

When Morrison was young, his style was American regionalist. Later he became interested in process art and constructivism. He was responsive all his life to what he called "the trends of the day." They ruffle the surface of his art the way the wind ruffles the water. Particular reminders of Adolph Gottlieb's ideographs and Hans Hoffmann's "push-and-pull," of Paul Klee's witty line and Mark Tobey's "white writing" flicker in his work. Morrison, as a young man, was quite willing to show with other Indians, not that they wanted him. In the late 1940s he submitted his work to the Philbrook Art Center in Tulsa, to no avail. "My art was too extreme," he told Margot Fortunato Galt. "It wasn't Indian enough." His interest in things Indian grew in 1970 when he moved back to Minneapolis to teach both studio arts and American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota. He began making "totems." He built himself a home on a Chippewa reservation on Lake Superior. A new calm and assurance marks his most distinctive objects, his fine all-over drawings and sawed-driftwood landscapes. Perhaps coming home again had brought him calm and strength.

Houser, too, looked far beyond his Indianness for his inspiration. Many other sculptors -- Henry Moore, Constantine Brancusi, Ernst Barlach, Barbara Hepworth -- are acknowledged in his art.

"American Indian art is, in the whole range of its expression, indigenous and unique," Momaday writes in the exhibition's catalogue. Houser's "spirit," he adds, "was that of a people. . . . He was not a spokesman for the Indian; he was the Indian."

Houser made no such claim. "I want to be free to inquire in a contemporary way," he said, "like Noguchi or Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, all of whom I admire very much. . . . It has always been my hope that my work would be acceptable all over the world, not as the work of an Indian artist but of a contemporary American sculptor."

Morrison thought similarly. He saw himself, correctly, as "an artist pretty much in the mainstream. . . . I'm an artist," he added, "who happens to be an Indian."

Art is seldom comfortable in identity museums -- this one for Jews, that one for women, this one for Indians. All such institutions are inherently restrictive, and by confining they mislead. Get into its mood and this show's spacious Morrisons ought to take your thoughts not just to Lake Superior but also to Cape Cod and Antibes, as Allan Houser's heroes and madonnas should send your mind to Florence, not just to Santa Fe.

When Morrison was dying he asked for a memorial stone in the Chippewa cemetery. But he asked that his ashes be scattered. "Having it both ways," he said.

"Native Modernism's" curator, Truman Lowe (Ho-Chunk Nation), also edited its catalogue. The show will remain on view through September 2005.

Sculptor Allan Houser, above, and George Morrison, who shared a heritage beyond their Indian roots. The artists' work makes up one of the museum's inaugural exhibits.Allan Houser's "Like a Dream" (1993), left, and an untitled 1983 wood collage by George Morrison are featured in "Native Modernism," the first show in the Indian Museum's third-floor space for changing exhibits.