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The Responsive Eye: Ralph T. Coe and the Collecting of American Indian Art
September 9 - December 14, 2003
Some 200 American Indian objects assembled over almost half a century by the renowned Santa Fe authority and collector Ralph T. Coe will go on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, beginning September 9. Featuring objects dating from 3000 B.C. to the present, The Responsive Eye: Ralph T. Coe and the Collecting of American Indian Art will display a wide-ranging selection of works representative of most of the diverse Native American regions and periods. Objects on view will range from authoritative masks and headdress frontlets of painted wood made by peoples of the Pacific Northwest, to splendidly ornamented deerskin shirts and smoking pipes of the high Plains, to delicate and carefully wrought works of the Northeast region made with a clear understanding of European taste and acquisitiveness.
Born in 1929, Coe was raised in Cleveland, Ohio. After graduate work in art history at Yale University, where his specialty was European painting, he worked as a paintings curator in major museums including the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Subsequently, he served as director of that institution. Concurrently, Coe was becoming an authority on the art and culture of American Indian peoples, and went on to play an essential role in the growth of appreciation of Native American art. As a collector in the field, Coe began in 1955 when he was captivated by a Northwest Coast totem pole model that he saw in a shop on Third Avenue in New York City. In the years since, he has championed the aesthetic merits of American Indian art, both past and present, most notably through the organization of two landmark exhibitions: Sacred Circles: Two Thousand Years of American Indian Art, a display of hundreds of objects that was on view in London and Kansas City in 1976; and Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art 1965-1985, which traveled to nine United States museums. The latter featured recently made objects that illustrated the continuity of American Indian traditions.
In his personal collecting, Coe continued his early interest in totem pole models, and several are included in the exhibition. Smaller versions of the great, towering cedar poles raised to communicate family position and wealth in 19th-century villages along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, model poles -- standing an average of two feet high and worked with similar human and animal imagery -- were created to keep the carving tradition alive. Other impressive objects on view from the Pacific Northwest will be the large dance capes known as "button blankets," with dark blues and strong reds, and with the reflective shine of shell buttons. One such cape in the exhibition, made by the Tsimshian peoples of British Columbia in the 1860s, is generally recognized as one of the finest examples extant.
The Great Plains of the western United States are quintessentially identified with the American Indian, an identification based on a lifestyle imbued with heroic self-presentation. The exhibition includes an Arikara shirt that, with its painted elements, long fringes of hair and ermine, and quilled sections at neck and shoulders, is without peer in evoking that lifestyle. A superb example of the early 1860s, it is the type of Plain shirt awarded to tribal leaders who demonstrated qualities of leadership. Tobacco bags, pipe stems, and bowls are also in the exhibition, as are moccasins, the essential footwear. Moccasins on view include examples from the Northeastern United States where elaborate pairs were made, some in imitation of European shoes.
Several Northeastern groups are represented by objects in a wide variety of media and date. The exhibition features a number of "fancies," or cross-cultural objects illustrating the directions taken by Native American artists when European tastes began to be catered to in the 18th century. Also on view are birchbark letter cases and trays with floral designs of moose-hair embroidery, boxes and chairs decorated with dyed porcupine quills, and pincushions encrusted heavily with glass beads. Baskets of ash splint, from the region between Maine and New York, are included as well.
Baskets on view are the work of the Pomo peoples of California, whose compelling basket-weaving tradition incorporates bird feathers and is often acknowledged as among the finest basketry made by any indigenous people. Southwestern pottery includes a "Chungo Brothers" dough bowl made a decade ago by the Cochiti Pueblo artist Diego Romero (b. 1964), who has achieved fame as a master satirist in fired clay. Romero both continues and elaborates on the ancient tradition of pottery making. In this particular bowl, he gently ridicules the non-Native approach to academic archaeology. The ancient peoples of the Southeast will be represented by personally scaled stone objects of utilitarian function and symmetrical form, such as bannerstones, works that can date back as far as the fourth millennium B.C. in eastern North America.
The catalogue accompanying the exhibition includes essays by Ralph T. Coe, J.C.H. King, Eugene V. Thaw, and Judith Ostrowitz. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, it will be available in the Museum's book shop. This publication was made possible in part by the International Music and Art Foundation (Vaduz).
Additional support has been provided by the Mary C. and James W. Fosburgh Publications Fund.
The Responsive Eye: Ralph T. Coe and the Collecting of American Indian Art is organized by Julie Jones, Curator in Charge of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Installation design is by Daniel Kershaw, graphic design is by Constance Norkin, and lighting design is by Clint Coller and Rich Lichte, all of the Museum's Design Department.
An afternoon of educational programs related to the exhibition will take place on Sunday, September 14, in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, including lectures on "Victorian Fashions and Iroquois Beadwork: From 'Naturalized Invention' to the Invention of a Tradition" by Ruth Phillips of Carleton University, Ottawa, and "Collecting Boots: Contemporary Strategies for Acquiring Native North American Art in Europe and North America" by J.C.H. King of The British Museum, followed by a performance of traditional Native American dance and music. These programs are free to the public with Museum admission.
All works in the exhibition are courtesy of Ralph T. Coe. The exhibition will be featured on the Museum's Web site.
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