Skip to next element

Remembering the Colorful Life and Art of Benjamin Harjo Jr.

By Chadd Scott on

Benjamin Harjo Jr. (Absentee Shawnee/Seminole; 1945–2023) died a year ago May 20. I remember reading his many obituaries at the time. Despite my interest in Native American art, I didn’t know anything about him other than his name which I’d run across a time or two in my reading.

I’ve been thinking about Harjo recently after having my first opportunity to spend time with his artwork up close earlier this month at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR. He’s prominently featured during its current exhibition, “Space Makers: Indigenous Expression and a New American Art.”

Included in the show are a pair of Harjo’s paintings from 2001. Both show off a fantasy of color, geometry, precise, curvilinear lines, and nods to Native American heritage and culture. The checkerboards reference Seminole clothing patterns.

Exhibition wall text for Ancient Images, Modern Times quotes Harjo describing the piece:

“This could be the moon or a spirit. The hand is extended beyond the arm, which is stylized with a lot of geometric patterning and circles, and the circles are open to signify life-spirt or energy. Out of the hand flow designs from the Spiro Mound people who were mound builders in east-central Oklahoma and western Arkansas. The elements that come from the hand flow in an S-curve back into the body because these people must have been very creative to have made all their beautiful artifacts.”

Benjamin Harjo Jr. Honoring the Spirit of All Things

Benjamin Harjo Jr. Honoring the Spirit of All Things

Indian Space Painters

“Space Makers” argues that the influence of customary Native American art – Pueblo pottery, Northwest Coast masks, Navajo textiles, etc. – had a greater impact on the development of Modern art in American than has been previously recognized. With mid-20th century American artists trying to create “a new American art,” disconnected from Europe, rooted in precedents from this continent, a group of them called the Indian Space Painters took inspiration from historic Indigenous artforms.

“Indian space showed me the way of merging (Indigenous) and Western art together,” Indian Space Painters member Will Barnet (1911–2012) explained of the movement. “It took me beyond Cubism in a search for American values.”

Indian space was flat and featured all-over compositions. Also important to note, the Indian Space Painters were not Native themselves, they were white artists working in New York and studying at The Art Students League, the most important art school in the country for the first half of the 20th century. Students there included Georgia O’Keeffe and Jackson Pollock. Alexander Calder and Mark Rothko.

Instructors included famed modernist painter Stuart Davis (1892 –1964). In 1923 he visited New Mexico where surely he would have been exposed to Pueblo pottery and culture. Aesthetics it’s impossible believing wouldn’t in some way have been passed on to his students who included Pollock. Davis was a major influence on the Indian Space Painters, too.

As was Seymour Tubis (1919–1993), an Art Students League instructor during the 1950s “Space Makers” puts at the center of Native American art’s influence on modernism in America. Tubis’ greatest influence on Modern art in America, however, came not from instructing hundreds of promising white painters at the Art Students League, but in doing the same for budding Native artists at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.

Benjamin Harjo Jr. 'Ancient Images, Modern Times' 2001.

Benjamin Harjo Jr. 'Ancient Images, Modern Times' 2001.

Seymour Tubis

In 1963, Tubis took his vast knowledge of Modern art and went west to IAIA. The school had only been founded the year before. From the outset, its mission centered the creation of contemporary Native American art.

“The future of Indian art lies in the future, not the past,” longtime IAIA Director  Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee; 1916 – 2002) famously said.

New encouraged students to draw from their cultural heritage when creating, but not be beholden to customary ways of making.

Who better to help students put this mandate into practice than Tubis, an Easterner trained in New York and Philadelphia and Paris and Florence with a reverence for Indigenous art and culture who’d already studied with and instructed scores of the nation’s leading modern artists. Tubis taught painting and design at IAIA from 1963 to 1980.

One of his students was Harjo, who attended IAIA in the late 60s. Harjo considered Tubis not only an art teacher, but mentor.

Another of his students was Anita Fields (Osage/Muscogee; b. 1951), profiled by “Essential West” two weeks ago.

“(Tubis) knew how to do everything and he was so willing to share it,” Fields said. “(He would) talk to you, set you down and go, ‘I feel like you've got some talent here and I want you to think about these things.’ He was very generous and kind, making you think. ‘What do you want to do with this? Do you want to be an artist or is this just a passing thing for you right now?’ It was vital to have instructors like that.”

Tubis, as with the Indian Space Painters, was white, not Native, unusual for IAIA.

“Seymor Tubis is an outlier as an instructor, but I think in the best way, and his influence is certainly felt,” Jordan Poorman Cocker (Kiowa), curator of Indigenous art at Crystal Bridges, told me when I toured “Space Makers” with her. “People get into the trap of creating this false dichotomy between Indigenous artists and non-Indigenous artists, and there's this hard line drawn. Something that is really easy to do is slip into this binary way of thinking that communities are distinctly separate.”

“Space Makers: Indigenous Expression and a New American Art” can be seen at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art through September 30, 2024. Admission is free.

Benjamin Harjo Jr.

Harjo was born in New Mexico, but spent most of his life in Oklahoma. He served in Vietnam. He graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor's degree in fine arts. He’s in the school’s hall of fame and his work can be found in museums around the country.

Harjo exemplified IAIA’s goal of producing artists equally as grounded in their traditional cultures as they were informed about Modern art developments. In doing so, artists like Harjo would go on to both preserve and reanimate their Indigenous heritage, while pushing modern and contemporary art in exciting, new directions.




previous article

Alexandre Hoge: America's First Environmental Activist Painter

next article

A Visit to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art