What if he had 30, or 50 more years? The question that haunts the work of Mozart, Keats and Basquiat also makes the work of T.C. Cannon seem, at first, tragic. Born in Oklahoma in 1946, he was a member of the Kiowa tribe, a brilliant artist and an original voice in the realm of what we now call social justice. In 1978, at age 31, Cannon was killed in a car crash, and his work, which was gaining momentum in the larger art world, began to recede into relative obscurity, admired, sometimes wistfully, by people who followed the twists and travails of Native American art.
For more than a year now, Cannon’s paintings and drawings have been the subject of an important retrospective, seen first at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., then at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla., and now at the Smithsonian’s New York branch of the National Museum of the American Indian, in Lower Manhattan. The exhibition’s arrival in New York has given it by far the greatest exposure, and the impact on Cannon’s reputation has been transformational.
There is, in fact, nothing “tragic” about Cannon’s art. It manifests the full range of emotions one would expect from a young man working during a period of national upheaval — the 1960s and ’70s — keenly aware of his people’s history and how brutally and dishonestly they were treated by the European-derived migrants who had displaced them from their native lands. Rather, his art is vigorous and trenchant, flecked with wit and irony, and passionately engaged with the larger history of art, from van Gogh and Matisse to Francis Bacon and Robert Rauschenberg. In little more than a decade, we see the artist progress from virtuoso reconfigurations of existing modernist ideas to a fully developed independent vision. And yet, throughout that rapid transformation, one also detects a recurring sensitivity to the world, a poetic consistency that suggests Cannon wasn’t just changing his technical or stylistic profile, but also looking for new ways to express a coherent set of thoughts and feelings.
Cannon wasn’t just a painter. He also was a poet and a musician, a huge fan of Bob Dylan, a Vietnam vet (close friends say the experience changed him profoundly) and an opera lover (in a poem about “the wonderful world of opera,” Cannon imagines himself voiceless and on the sidelines of an art form that nonetheless maps and defines his emotional world).
His art parallels his relationship with opera, suggested by the poem and a 1978 woodblock print titled “A Remembered Muse (Tosca).” In the print, two Plains Indian figures are listening to an old Victrola, one of them standing defiantly (like the title character of Puccini’s “Tosca”), arms on her hips, is singing along, while the other, a male figure, listens, lost in thought. The album cover of “Tosca” is on the floor, and cut off by the frame of the image. The print suggests a dual relationship to an inherited, alien yet richly meaningful artistic tradition: One figure is absorbed in it, while the other takes over and makes the voice her own, a double drama enacted in private, away from white eyes.
Cannon’s opera print was used as the cover image for the Santa Fe Opera’s program book in 1978, inscribing it within a tradition of colorful, decorative and sometimes sentimental visions of the American Southwest. Cannon died in May of that year, before the summer opera season began, and the image raises one of the big “what if” questions of his career. Would his art, which began in a place of semi-abstraction, gestural and bold, and embedded with words and cultural references, eventually become anodyne, nostalgic, culturally compliant and pretty in a regionally colorful way, like the art that is still sold in Santa Fe today?
Let’s put it more bluntly: Would he have sold out? The question means different things for different artists. Cannon was working within a tradition that was already interwoven with European-derived artistic ideas and forms. In the 1920s and ’30s, non-Native artists played a significant role in developing Native artists in Santa Fe, encouraging them to adapt their artistic past for contemporary purposes and tastes; this was a complicated engagement, both preserving and sentimentalizing a tradition that was seen as in danger of dying out. Later artists, teaching in the 1960s, encouraged Native artists to grapple with modernist ideas, and one sees the influence of Pop art powerfully in the work of Cannon, who studied at the influential Sante Fe Institute for American Indian Arts in the mid-1960s.
Selling out for a white artist was a matter of balancing one’s individual sense of style, purpose and subject matter with the tastes of the market. But for an artist like Cannon, it was about negotiating one’s fundamental sense of identity. He was an insider and outsider to America, an artist in love with multiple ways of depicting reality, some of them “native” to his Indian identity, others just as native to his place as an American living in the broader world. He was a Native American and a world citizen who had the poetry of Robert Frost, E.E. Cummings and Allen Ginsberg dancing in his head.
For a white artist, selling out is about surrendering to the market; for Cannon, it would have meant dismembering his own self, lopping off essential things to become more of what the world expected of him.
So would he have sold out? Absolutely nothing in the art of T.C. Cannon suggests that he would have ever diverted an inch from his own path. Right until the moment his life was extinguished, his art was truculent, bold, arresting and unassimilable. The bold colors, an electrified palette that amplifies the colors of the desert Southwest as a sunset makes the everyday sky seem surreal, are undiminished. The faces of his figures refuse to behave or resolve into visual subservience. And the tendency to embed something disconcerting or destabilizing in every image is consistent right through to the end. The political and cultural independence — or resistance — is undiminished.
So it’s unlikely that Cannon’s work would have become the standard material for Christmas cards, or the poster prints framed behind the bed in hotels made of concrete block plastered with faux adobe. What is unknown, however, is whether the art world would have crushed him, forcing him to the margins. Perhaps only today would we be rediscovering him, as a man in his 70s, struggling to answer the persistent questions of an interviewer who wants him to say something about not being bitter.
But in retrospect, we can at least say this: It’s not that Cannon might have been a great artist, he already was.
T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America Through Sept. 16 at the National Museum of the American Indian, New York. americanindian.si.edu.