Something Oklahoma and New Mexico have in common is that both can claim Chiricahua Apache Allan Houser (1914-1994) as a favorite son. Houser, a prolific sculptor and painter, was an influential teacher and mentor at some of the nation’s premier Native art institutions. Notable among these are the Intermountain Indian School, a Brigham City, Utah, boarding school for Native Americans in operation between 1950 and 1984 — where Houser taught for about a dozen years, starting at the time of its inception — and Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts. In 1962, when IAIA was founded, Houser was asked to join its teaching staff. He continued his career there as an educator through the mid-1970s.
As part of this year’s centennial observations in the artist-teacher’s honor, museums nationwide have been paying homage with major exhibitions of his work and that of many of his students, each one focusing on different themes from Houser’s legacy. A quick survey of the more prominent Houser shows easily confirms the extent of his influence on generations of Native artists as well as his broad range of styles and motifs. Earlier in the year, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Houser’s home state of Oklahoma hosted the exhibit Allan Houser and His Students, featuring works by Houser, his son Bob Haozous, Kevin Red Star, T.C. Cannon, Fritz Scholder, and others. A show of Houser’s drawings, which are not as well known as his sculptures and paintings, closed in May at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum at the University of Oklahoma. Form and Line: Allan Houser’s Sculpture and Drawings wrapped up in June at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, and current shows include five monumental sculptures by the artist at the Oklahoma State Capitol and the Philbrook Downtown in Tulsa. There are shows at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum, where Houser was its artist in residence in 1979, and at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.
Santa Fe has offered the public the chance to experience Houser’s work with its permanent display of a portion of his sculpture since it first opened in 1993 as the Allan Houser Art Park at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. This is the site of the Indian Market weekend premiere of Cannupa Hanska Luger’s film project, This Is a Stereotype, a collaboration with director Dylan McLaughlin and producer Ginger Dunnill that was inspired by the Native artist’s thought-provoking 2013 MoCNA exhibit, Stereotype: Misconceptions of the Native American. Visitors to Museum Hill can see Houser’s work at Footprints: The Inspiration and Influence of Allan Houser, a show on view at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture through spring of next year. In addition, an unparalleled selection of monumental pieces resides at the Allan Houser Studio and Sculpture Gardens situated on a portion of the Houser-Haozous family compound. Its annual open house takes place over Indian Market weekend.
David Rettig, who is curator of collections at Allan Houser Inc., a corporation that was founded in 1982 to preserve Houser’s legacy, runs the Studio and Sculpture Gardens and manages Houser’s archives. “Philip Haozous, Allan’s son, purchased the property and started building Allan’s house in 1979, and Allan’s studio was finished in ’82,” Rettig told Pasatiempo. “The dance ground and visitor’s center were created in ’85. His last design and drawing studio was built in 1990.” The garden contains about 80 works by Houser, carved in stone, cast in bronze, or made from fabricated sheet metal. But Houser began his career as a painter. Under Dorothy Dunn’s direction at the Santa Fe Indian School Art Studio, the paintings he made in the 1930s reflected the flat fields of color and narrative focus promoted by the school as an authentic expression of Indian art. This style, as taught by Dunn, recalled historic ledger painting, while the school also imposed parameters for the Native students to follow that some found too rigid. “Dorothy Dunn wanted students to use their oral histories, family stories, and ceremonies,” said Rettig. “Allan had not experienced that much but, through his father and through his family, had heard lots of stories about these ceremonies, so they became a principal subject of his early paintings.”
During the years when Houser taught art at the Intermountain Indian School, his great ability to mentor and inspire his many students became evident. This was also a time in Houser’s life when he could focus on his painting, finishing hundreds of canvases and experimenting with a variety of mediums, including watercolors and oils. “I thought it was important to show that, not only was he a master artist, he was a master teacher,” said Della Warrior, MIAC’s director. “His art was always evolving into many dimensions. Over the years I learned of all the different painters and sculptors who were influenced by Mr. Houser.” The challenge for Warrior and Footprints’ guest curator, Dorothy Grandbois, was to present an exhibit that places Houser in a particular context while using only a limited number of works to convey his wide range of artistic concerns. “It was important to show that he didn’t have one particular style he was locked into,” said Warrior. Due to the sculptures’ large size, the exhibit is located outside the museum’s entrance on Milner Plaza. The show includes works by several artists with a history at IAIA, where Warrior once served as president. “I got a list of his students that were there for a long time, like Chuck Dailey and Bob Harcourt,” she said. “We called them up and asked if they would like to be in it. They were all very enthused and wanted to do this for Mr. Houser, out of their love and respect and appreciation. These are his former students ... and other people that he guided.” Footprints also features works by Cliff Fragua, Rollie Grandbois, Estella Loretto, Doug Hyde, and Bob and Philip Haozous. Philip Haozous’ realist portrait of his father, Allan Houser Haozous, 1914-1994, a life-size commemorative bronze, stands just inside the museum’s entrance.
Houser continued to produce narrative, realist works in sculpture and painting throughout his career, but his passions clearly lay in creating modernist sculpture. His influences included luminaries such as Constantin Brâncu¸si, Auguste Rodin, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, and Isamu Noguchi. Houser was particularly interested in Noguchi’s use of negative space. The Sculpture Gardens contain some of Houser’s animal and human figures with a Noguchi-like passageway running through them. Though representational, the forms are reductive, streamlined carvings that draw the eye to their circular centers. “He wanted people to know that modernist pieces were the singular influence, the strongest influence on all of his work,” said Rettig. “Some of his most abstract pieces still have a body and a spirit in there somehow. I knew him for many years, and we talked about all kinds of different influences and artists he liked. I once said to him, ‘You must really like Ernst Barlach.’ He was a turn-of-the-century German Expressionist doing sculptural work, a contemporary of Max Beckmann. He did a lot of these shrouded forms. Allan said he didn’t know his stuff, but then I saw a reference to Barlach in one of his sketchbooks.”
Throughout his most prolific time making sculpture, a period during the 1980s and 1990s, Houser experimented with different materials, such as bronze sheet metal and corten steel, that allowed him to produce smooth, rounded forms with a seamless appearance — such as his 1993 piece Fabricated Buffalo. “[Tesuque foundry and gallery] Shidoni had a guy working out there named Ryan Rich. Allan was impressed with Ryan’s technical abilities to work in bronze, and they ended up forming a collaboration,” said Rettig. “Ryan built for Allan about 25 different editions of the buffalo made from sheet bronze. It’s a thin metal, and each segment is cut out from a 4-by-8-foot plate and welded and shaped and ground down. They’re impeccably crafted.”
Although many of his works on paper stand on their own as complete compositions, Houser also used drawing to examine an idea from every angle and position, working out his sculpture in the round two-dimensionally before setting it in more permanent form. He crafted a profuse number of works over the years, but he was a discerning sculptor. Themes appear and reappear throughout his career, such as his bold and detailed Apache spirit dancers — mysterious hooded figures in ceremonial dress — a subject he also depicted in early paintings, such as his Ghan Dancers, a tempera on board from 1934, which is in the collection of MIAC. But when people think of Houser, the theme that often comes to mind is that of mother and child, such as the depiction in his Earth Mother, a bronze from 1986. It was a subject he sculpted in various formats, from realist depictions to abstract, rounded works with just a suggestion of figuration. “This is the quintessential Houser,” said Rettig. “He created this style. He authored this style. There are thousands of Native artists, and non-Native artists as well, who do some form of this sculpture. I was in Los Angeles 25 years ago. There’s a big shopping center off La Cienega called the Beverly Center. I was looking for a bathroom and got off the escalator up in the housewares section and there’s all these lamps, sofas, and coffee tables. On one of the coffee tables was a plaster tchotchke of Earth Mother. It’s copied in every detail, but it’s all out of proportion — like a lump of clay that got dropped on its side. When I told Allan someone was ripping him off, he said, ‘I see those all over. They have them at Dillard’s here in town.’ He was nonchalant about the whole thing, but it drove home to me how the genre of sculpture he created had become so much a part of the public consciousness.”
Another such instance is the official State of Oklahoma license plate that depicts Houser’s Sacred Rain Arrow, one of his most iconic works. The piece was inspired by the pro-civil rights gesture made by African American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. There, they raised black-gloved fists during the singing of the American national anthem, an action assumed by many to be a Black Power salute. Houser’s original version of the sculpture, carved in ebony, showed a clenched fist, lifted into the air and bearing a truncated bow — a symbol of power, strength, and solidarity with Native struggles. A more detailed bronze of Sacred Rain Arrow, made much later, was a featured work at Salt Lake City’s Olympic Village for the 2002 Winter Games it hosted.
Among the last pieces Houser completed before his death was a polychrome sculpture, made in a small edition, called Spirit of the Mountains, an example of which resides at the Sculpture Gardens. It is the only polychrome bronze of Houser’s that Rettig is aware of. “There was some confusion after his death because it had been done so close to the time he passed away that there were some family members who thought that it wasn’t in a patina he specified. There’s an artist, Star York, and an artist — deceased now — named Dave McGary, who did these brightly painted pieces they were working on at Shidoni, and someone thought they decided to paint one of Allan’s. But since then, we’ve found a photograph of him standing very proudly next to it after it was completed.” ◀