Allan Houser: The Peerless Innovator

Art is, among many things, fickle. Picasso, almost by sheer force of personality and ambition (and timing and being in—or rather, insinuating himself into—the right place), managed to take on almost any and every medium and style and have praise bestowed upon him no matter how well or poorly (or derivative) the results. Other artists, when they dare venture outside what critics (and collectors) deem as their proper or assigned medium, or subject matter, have a much tougher time branching out. Breaking their own barriers, barriers—petards—they’d hoisted themselves but hoped wouldn’t become so constrictive. Yet they sally forward. Critics and collectors be damned.

Allan Houser was one such artist. Multitalented yet confined by the so-called powers that be, in ways, to one talent. Primarily, sculpting. Yet he excelled at painting and drawing as well. And his sculptural styles, too, moved back and forth from the representational to the abstract with daunting facility and grace.

“Houser was more of an experimenter with different styles,” observes Katherine Hart, senior curator of collections at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art. “This type of facility in various media, and also in style, makes him an artist that is less in the traditional mode of artists who are recognized by academics and art historians.”

Houser, then, has had the dubious honor of having chosen to mine his talent in whatever direction it took him, rather than trying to rein it in for the satisfaction of critics or historians. And he has gotten dinged for it.

“He excelled,” adds Hart, “both in a narrative mode and also in abstract sculpture.”

Two other artists who may have had to deal with similar strictures—but didn’t—were the African-American painter Romare Bearden and British sculptor Henry Moore.

As Hart says, “Allan Houser was an innovator in that he took the subjects of his own experiences as a Native American and imbued them with a visual language that drew both on white traditions of European and American modernism and on the forms and symbols of his heritage. His significance as an artist cannot be divorced from that, just as Bearden’s art cannot be divorced from his own experience as an African American, which he drew on to create vibrant collages whose syncopated visual rhythms drew on his beloved jazz. Both of these artists were charting new territory and this makes them remarkable men, each achieving distinction in their chosen media. So I would not necessarily talk about peers here, as he does stand alone in both the level of production and creativity in a challenging medium. His confidence as an artist allowed him a certain flexibility—to try different styles and materials.”

As for Moore, he worked at a time when artists, as Hart points out, “were experimenting with stripping away the particular and concentrating on the universal and archetypal. And Houser, as an admirer, sometimes created similar pared-down geometric forms. It’s hard to think of Moore doing anything else. I think the answer has more to do with the fact that Moore was a practitioner within the dominant culture, with access to the system that promotes artists of that culture. Houser did not, and thus his work is less known than someone like Moore. Also, by choosing to create primarily Native American subjects, he was not working within the mainstream market.”

Nevertheless, Houser not only forged ahead (pardon the pun), he paved the way for others both artistically and inspirationally. Whether those who appreciate his work are artists or not. “I believe he did have a large impact, but not in the conventional way,” says Hart, who curated the 2014-2015 Hood Museum Centennial Exhibition of Houser’s work. “He was a teacher for years at the Institute for American Indian Arts and his example as an artistic entrepreneur, and also as an artist with a national reputation, gave inspiration to many who worked with him.”

And to those who have viewed his work as well. And perhaps even some future collectors and art historians.

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