The inimitable artist T.C. Cannon has a retrospective at downtown Manhattan's National Museum of the American Indian opening this Saturday. The show is culled from roughly 80 pieces the late Cannon created across several mediums (including painting, poetry, music, and works on paper) and traces the trajectory of one of the most significant contemporary Native artists in the 20th century.
Tommy Wayne Cannon, who had Caddo and Kiowa heritage, was born in 1946 and grew up in Oklahoma. In 1964 he attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, he found a mentor in Fritz Scholder, the famous painter who later became a prominent figure in the New American Indian Art movement. There, Cannon was exposed to varying styles of art, as well as philosophy and poetry, all of which he refined through his work. This socially, politically, and personally turbulent time of the 1960s, especially given his experience fighting in the Vietnam War in 1968, trickled into the images he crafted.
“Cannon was a visionary at the forefront of broadening and reshaping the boundaries of Native artistic narratives," said Kevin Gover, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma in a press release. "The imagery he created was stunningly authentic and has influenced the work of many other artists, Native and non-Native alike.”
In the 1970s, Cannon spent time in New York City, a move that became game-changing for his career. At Cannon and Scholder's joint Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibition, “Two American Painters: Fritz Scholder and T.C. Cannon," the art dealer Jean Aberbach bought practically every single one of Cannon's works from the gallery. Until Cannon's death at 31 from a car accident, Aberbach represented the artist and exhibited his works at the Aberbach Gallery on Madison Avenue.
"He really was a very curious kind of obsessed historian who had tons of diverse interests in all kinds of art, poetry and religion," says Karen Kramer, the exhibition's curator and curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture at the Peabody Essex Museum, of Cannon. "I can imagine he would have been so delighted and kind of overwhelmed by all of the art around him in New York."
Cannon's most visible works—his magnificent paintings—frequently melded elements of Pop Art with emblems of Native life, often touching on identity, ownership, and assimilation. One standout piece from the show, a massive painting entitled Two Guns Arikara, features a man wearing Native and non-Native clothing alike, sporting a bright purple pompadour as he sits and looks at, and through, the viewer. "Images of Native people have been circulating since the invention of photography and non-Native people really have framed how Natives are understood," says Kramer. "And so for T.C. Cannon to take back the representation of Native people, and in this really bold way with these colors inspired by Matisse [and] Van Gogh but also inspired by his own cultural heritage is super powerful."
T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America will be on view at Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, at 1 Bowling Green, from April 6th through September 16th.