A New Generation Rediscovers an American Master
There is a broad misconception that indigenous art remains rooted in traditional forms and pictorial renderings. Painter and sculptor Allan Houser, né Haozous, challenged this perception, creating a range of artworks in almost every category from abstraction to near-photorealism. His works stand equal to those of his contemporaries, such as Moore, Noguchi, Hepworth, Chillida, and Botero in the landscape of 20th-century art. With more than 50 major exhibitions and solo retrospectives since his passing in 1994, the Houser collection remains more relevant than ever.
A survey of Houser’s oeuvre reveals an artist who never ceased evolving, moving back and forth between realism and abstraction without ever departing from the narrative of his indigenous heritage and its reflection on contemporary society. Houser is widely seen as responsible for expanding indigenous art from the stigma of the ethnic folk craft milieu.
Allan Capron Haozous was the first free Apache child born in Oklahoma in 1914 after 27 years of captivity. The artists’ parents, Sam and Blossom Haozous, were both Chiricahua Apache. His father was the nephew of the Apache leader Geronimo after his 1886 surrender; Sam Haozous was incarcerated and with him in Florida, Alabama, and Oklahoma. Allan grew up in a rural Oklahoma setting with few artistic references or instruction other than a surrounding of tribal history and design. His family name Haozous was changed to Houser at his primary school registration, and he would later adopt it as his professional surname. In his final years, he used Houser-Haozous as his signature on both sculpture and drawings.
“Houser was more of an experimenter with different styles,” observes Katherine Hart, senior curator of collections at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art. “This type of facility in various media, and also in style, makes him an artist who is less in the traditional mode of artists who are recognized by academics and art historians.
“He excelled both in a narrative mode and also in abstract sculpture,” adds Hart. “Allan Houser was an innovator in that he took the subjects of his own experiences as a Native American and imbued them with a visual language that drew both on white traditions of European and American modernism and on the forms and symbols of his heritage.
His significance as an artist cannot be divorced from that, just as Romare Bearden’s art cannot be divorced from his own experience as an African American, which he drew on to create vibrant collages whose syncopated visual rhythms drew on his beloved jazz. Both of these artists were charting new territory, and this makes them remarkable men, each achieving distinction in their chosen media. I would not necessarily talk about them as peers, as he does stand alone in both the level of production and creativity in a challenging medium. His confidence as an artist allowed him a certain flexibility—to try different styles and materials.”
Houser was the first in numerous landmark achievements for Native American Artists. In 1934, he was among the first students in the painting school at the Santa Fe Indian School, and he became its most widely recognized painter. He found the studio school’s teachings too orthodox in its requirement of an “Indian style,” and this conflict would set the course for the lifelong evolution of his own aesthetic ideas.
His paintings were featured in early exhibitions at the Museum of New Mexico, followed by the Art Institute of Chicago and the New York World’s Fair. In 1938 and 1939, he was commissioned to paint five large murals at the Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C. He married Anna Maria Gallegos in 1939 in Santa Fe, but unable to support his growing family with art commissions during the war years, he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked in construction from 1942 to 1947. The exhibitions and artists he met in Los Angeles began forming his perceptions about international trends in contemporary sculpture and painting.
He created his first major sculpture, Comrade in Mourning, in 1948, a commission for the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. This monumental work in Carrara marble established his reputation as the aesthetic voice of the post-European-arrival Native American experience. A Guggenheim Fellowship followed shortly thereafter.
- Sacramento Exhibit
- October 30, 2016 – February 26, 2017
Houser’s role as an educator was also enormous. Following 11 years of teaching at the lntermountain Indian School in Utah, in 1962, he became the founding instructor at the new Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Melding ideas he drew from the work of Moore, Hepworth, Arp, and Noguchi into his own forms, he is credited with influencing vast numbers with an evolutionary change in both native and non-native 20th-century art.
In 1992, Houser became the first Native American to receive the National Medal of Arts when President George H.W. Bush presented him with the honor. In 2004-2005, a retrospective of his work was an inaugural exhibition of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, viewed by nearly 3 million visitors.
His inclusion in shows pairing him with Moore and Pablo Picasso, among other groundbreaking exhibitions, speaks to his global reputation and influence. His paintings and sculptures reside in more than 90 museums around the world, making him one of the most widely collected and exhibited artists in history.
In 1985, Houser presented Offering of the Sacred Peace Pipe to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. He presented a bronze Sacred Rain Arrow to the Smithsonian Institution in 1991, the first permanent installation by a Native American. In 1994, the sculptor offered May We Have Peace to then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as a gift “to the people of the United States from the First Peoples.” The inspirational sculpture, along with 12 others, resides in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Houser’s work also appears in the National Portrait Gallery, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the Japanese royal collection.