Palm Springs Desert Museum

Palm Springs, CA



"Water": Allan Houser

April 11 - June 10, 2001


Following are major excerpts from the Educational Guide to "Water" Allan Houser written by Nelson Foss, Curator, The Allan Houser Foundation

"Water" is an exhibit of art works created by Allan Houser (1914-1994) from the 1950s to the 1980s. The exhibition contains 46 watercolors curated from the massive collections at the Allan Houser Archives Compound. These images represent the wide range of subject and expertise with the medium and were completed throughout Mr. Houser's lifetime. All but a few are figurative, and most depict historical or romantic themes. The majority of these watercolors have never before been displayed and were discovered in the dozens of full sketchbooks he left behind, and now housed at the Allan Houser Archives. The exhibit also contains 7 bronze sculptures created by the artist between 1980 and 1994.

While Allan Houser is most recognized for his three-dimensional works, he began his career as a painter and continued this discipline throughout his lifetime. Drawing was an integral part of Houser's sculpture process. From the number of drawings housed in the Allan Houser Archives it is obvious that he was driven to sketch whatever he saw. He drew on boards and rocks, in magazines, on receipts and napkins-in other words on just about anything that would take an image. Houser regularly went on sketching trips with such friends as Bill Prokopief, Doug Hyde, and Dan Namingha. During these trips he honed his skills at landscape painting while broadening his knowledge of the images of his people and their way of life.

The watercolors included in "Water" demonstrate his ease and familiarity with the medium, while maintaining a defined style developed through years of practice and experimentation. Anyone acquainted with the medium knows how unforgiving watercolors can be. Houser's incorporation of white space, as well as his use and clarity of transparent colors, indicates a mastery of the medium.

Houser probably first became familiar with water-based media while attending the "Studio" of Dorothy Dunn in the 1930s. The "Studio" was part of the United States Indian School at Santa Fe, New Mexico, and was the catalyst for many of the great Native American artists including Pablita Velarde, Andy Tsinnajinnie, Gerald Nailor, Joe Herrera, Maria Martinez and many others.

The "Studio" began modestly, and after the first year it was questionable whether it would continue. Interest in the "Studio" began to grow as the students started to have some shows and were reviewed in local publications. At the start of the second year, the Supervisor of Elementary Education from the Office of Indian Affairs, Rose K. Brandt, paid a visit to the facility. She was very impressed by the work being done and promised to "go to bat" with the Director of Indian Education in Washington. From this intervention the "Studio" gained credibility and was able to expand and offer a more complete program to its students.

After four years at the school, Houser felt constrained by the rigidity of the curriculum presented and decided to leave. He was one of the first students to "rebel" against the rather limiting style taught at the "Studio."

"Contrary to the thought that Dorothy Dunn stresses, that there is only one Indian art and if it is altered it is no longer Indian art. I believe that any Indian with strong feeling and strong emotions of what and where he is has great potential of developing these ingredients into something with quality and meaning, something fresh."
Allan Houser: Letter to Dr. Magna De Spur (HF1995.3-7l.N)

After leaving the "Studio" he and fellow student Gerald Nailor rented a space and began experimenting with their own styles and pushing the limits of the techniques learned from Dorothy Dunn. In 1939 they were commissioned by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) to paint murals in the Department of Interior building in Washington, DC. In the text American Indian Painting of the Southwest and Plains Areas it is stated that:

" Houser possessed a remarkable balance of artistic intelligence, self-assurance, and industry which enabled him to advance his work from crude drawings to paintings of fine-arts caliber in the four years of his Studio career ... One thing could, upon occasion, mar his figures, and that was a tendency to caricature".
Dorothy Dunn, American Indian Painting of the Southwest and Plains Areas, UNM Press, 1968, Pp.306-307

This ability to exaggerate and distort is one of the things which make Houser's work so interesting and unique. It is undeniably the basis for his abstracted works.

In 1940 Allan married Anna Marie Gallegos; soon after that they left Santa Fe and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a pipe fitter during the war years. He was commissioned in 1947 by the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas to do his first monumental sculpture which was in memory of the Indian soldiers who fought and died in World War II. This was his first major sculpture commission.

In 1949 Houser was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and he returned with his family to the farm outside of Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he immersed himself in his work. His teaching career began in 1951 at the Inter-Mountain Boarding School in Brigham, Utah, and in 1962 he moved to Santa Fe to teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he remained until his retirement in 1975. Houser drew throughout his career but it was not until the 1980s that he decided to develop a style of his own:

"I have tried to show the effort I'm making to come up with a style that expresses what feels right for me. I have sketched all throughout my car-rear (Sic.) but only for preparation for painting or sculpture. I have never really drawn for the purpose of selling my work. I have suddenly become interested in developing my drawing skills with the hopes of finding an individual style."
Allan Houser: Sketchbook entry circa 1989 (HF1995.2-21K.N)

The pieces in the exhibit "Water" represent a step in that development.


Interpretive Notes to selected Watercolors - Images Pending

#509-P (Warriors on Horseback: Large war party scene):Here we can see the process the artist went through to develop a composition. In the background we see several possibilities explored and left behind while at the same time the more finished central warrior figure is seemingly emerging from the picture. The image behind him depicts an Apache war party setting up an ambush.

#507-P (Apache Warrior on Horseback: War party with two-horned serpent symbol): This is a scene of an Apache war party making its escape after a battle. In the sky is a two-horned serpent symbol. The horned serpent symbol was used by many of the tribes from the southwest and as far south as Mexico and Central America. It has different meanings for different tribes and is found on local petroglyphs. This is one of the few times Houser uses this type of symbolism in his painting.

#519.P (Philmont Scout Ranch): This image depicts a scene at the Philmont Boy Scout ranch, which is located in Cimmaron, New Mexico. It is a 127,000 acre ranch, which was donated to the Boy Scouts in 1938 by Waite Phillips of the Phillips Petroleum Company. Currently about 18,000 Scouts and 2,000 volunteers come there for camping and retreats each year.

#521.P (Two Horses): Houser painted many images of horses, and his progression with the horse figure is plainly seen throughout the exhibition, both in the watercolors and the sculptures. This particular watercolor demonstrates his love of the horse, and his understanding of the horse in the landscape. You can see other comparative pieces, with the horse alone or ridden, still and in motion.

#569.P (Small Landscape): Although most pieces in the exhibition are figurative and refined, this small and beautiful watercolor shows a comfort with the medium and a more modern approach to his style. It is also one of the only pieces in the exhibition that is horizontal (possibly cropped).

#515.P (Landscape with Tree): This beautiful image shows how Houser used color and composition to create drama and atmosphere in the landscape. He uses the dead tree branches to draw the viewer back into the scene, while highlighting the beauty of the Southwestern landscape and sky.


Interpretive Notes to Bronzes - Images Pending

"Reclining Figure II" 1982 Reclining Figure II is an early sculptural exploration in abstracting the reclining female figure. We can see how he was experimenting with negative space and a minimal use of molding to suggest rather than recreate figuratively. Houser takes the essence of an image and distills it into an aesthetic composition.

"Reclining Nude III" 1992 This work shows the influence of sculptors Henry Moore, Arp, and Lipschitz, all of whom Houser admired greatly. Throughout his career, Houser explored the boundaries of his environment and the symbolism of his heritage. In Reclining Nude III we can see how Houser's organic abstraction and strongly essentialised figures give a massive but softly modeled feeling. This piece is part of a progression of reclining female figures and shows a continuing simplification of this themes.

"May We Have Peace" 1992 This scepter depicts a Plains Indian making a prayer to the spirits? He would be facing east, asking the Great Spirit to bring peace to all the land and all the tribes. The prayers are in the smoke; the pipe is often referred to as a "peace pipe" by the white man since it was smoked at peace ceremonies. This theme was revisited often by Houser throughout his long career. This piece is a maquette-size version of a monumental work. A dedicated casting of the monumental size piece is installed in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, and is on loan to the Vice President's residence in Washington DC

"War Stories" 1985 This sculpture is of two Apache warriors sitting side by side telling stories. It is a wonderful example of Houser's refined figurative works with narrative content and relates directly to many of Houser's earlier paintings and sculpture depicting intimate Apache themes. One can almost hear them recanting tales of past battles and glory.

"Unconquered" 1994 'Unconquered" was initiated as a possible commission for the White Mountain Apache tribe. It is the last monumental piece Houser worked on in his lifetime.The image represents two Apache warriors ready for battle. The Chiricahua were never really conquered by the White man ... in essence they surrendered to the unrelenting pressure of a technologically advanced nation determined to prevail. This piece was produced in monumental size where the strength and power is even more evident. An example of the monumental piece is located at the Allan Houser Compound on a pedestal of native stone. It greets 7,000 visitors each year.

"Appaloosa" 1980 This piece was produced in 1980, and one can see clearly that Houser was starting to explore abstraction and negative space. The form is made up almost entirely of negative space bounded only by a skeletal frame. The horse was an important symbol for Houser; he drew them from every angle-constantly refining their anatomy. You can see the horse in many of the watercolors, and his interest in painting them still or active. His background on a farm where horses were a necessity for transportation and work gave him a unique view of the horse.

"The Future Family" 1985 The first scale version of three studies on this theme, "The Future Family" presages the future of Native people. Houser is telling us that it is our children who hold the promise of the future in their hands. The Apache couple is looking to the future as they hold their newborn child in a cradleboard. One feels the connection to the land in the strongly grounded base of the piece. The sculpture exhibits strength, dignity and family relationships.

See these prior articles concerning Allan Houser:

Read more about the Palm Springs Desert Museum in Resource Library Magazine.

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11

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