Exhibitions/ The Responsive Eye

The Responsive Eye: Ralph T. Coe and the Collecting of American Indian Art

September 9–December 14, 2003
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

Formed over the last half century, the Ralph T. Coe Collection of American Indian Art comprises representative pieces from most of the diverse Native North American regions and periods known today. Two hundred works, dating from 3000 B.C. to the present, are included in the exhibition. Objects range from authoritative masks and headdress frontlets of painted wood made by the peoples of the Pacific Northwest to splendidly ornamented deerskin shirts and smoking pipes of the High Plains to the delicate and carefully wrought beaded and quilled works of the Northeast.

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 commemorate family position and wealth in nineteenth-century villages along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, model poles stand an average of two feet high and are worked with human and animal imagery similar to the large poles. Other impressive objects on view from the Pacific Northwest are 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 1850s, 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 were represented by objects in a wide variety of media and date. The exhibition features a number of "fancies," or crosscultural objects illustrating the directions taken by Native American artists when European tastes began to be catered to in the eighteenth 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.

Featured in the exhibition are baskets woven by 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 are represented in the exhibition 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 exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

All works in the exhibition are courtesy of Ralph T. Coe.