Journal of Surrealism and the Americas, Vol 7, No 1 (2013)

A Modernist Moment: Native Art and Surrealism at the University of Oklahoma

Mark A. White


In the late 1940s, a handful of Native artists studying and working at the University of Oklahoma began to experiment with modernist styles such as Cubism, Expressionism, and most notably Surrealism. Chief Terry Saul, Richard “Dick” West, and Oscar Howe used their Master’s theses to depart from established, accepted styles of Native painting in order to explore the possibilities of Native expression. They were encouraged not only by their instructors, who dabbled with various Surrealist tendencies, but also by notable examples in the museum collection from William Baziotes, Byron Browne, Charles Howard, and Adolph Gottlieb. For the Native artists, Surrealism in its various forms provided a strategy for producing work identifiably Native yet visibly modernist by contemporary definitions. Surrealist fascination with myth and magic provided an accessible framework for them to explore the visionary and mythical within their respective tribal cultures while creating work marketable as both modern and Surrealist.

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