Art from Fort Marion: The Silberman Collection. Joyce M. Szabo. With foreword by Steven L. Grafe. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, March 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8061-3883-1, $49.95. 197 pages.
Review by Emily E. Auger, Ph. D.
Joyce M. Szabo is an established scholar who has published several books on the art of the indigenous peoples of the American southwest, including Howling Wolf and the History of Ledger Art (1994). This earlier book takes a fresh view of the subject of Karen Daniels Petersen's Howling Wolf: A Cheyenne Warrior's Graphic Interpretation of His People (1968). Szabo's latest book rediscovers the subject of Peterson's Plains Indian Art from Fort Marion (1971), that of the art produced by Native Americans who were taken from their homelands and traditional way of life on the plains in the 1870s and incarcerated at Fort Marion for several years prior to being released to a quite different way of life on the reservations designated for them. Whereas Peterson's Plains Indian Art from Fort Marion has only eight color and fifty-eight black and white plates, Szabo's Art from Fort Marion: The Silberman Collection is distinguished by having almost all of its 128 plates showing drawings, photographs, and other objects in either color or sepia. But whereas Peterson addresses eleven major and fifteen minor artists and includes a pictographic dictionary showing the stylized ways in which Fort Marion artists represented headdresses, men, women, hairstyles, tribal affiliations, and so forth, Szabo includes only seven artists, all of whom were previously discussed by Petersen. Five are Cheyenne: Bear's Heart, Cohoe, Howling Wolf, Making Medicine, and Squint Eyes; and two, Kiowa: Zotom and Etahdleuh. These differences are in part the product of Petersen's attention to art at Fort Marion as a general subject and Szabo's more specific focus on selected materials from the Silberman collection.Arthur and Shifra Silberman began collecting Native American art long after Arthur left Europe in 1941 to make Oklahoma his permanent home. The couple became interested in and began purchasing Native American art; then, in 1975, they founded the Native American Painting Reference Library in Oklahoma City and contributed their collection of paintings to it. In 1995, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum purchased this Reference Library, which was soon followed by the Silberman's art and archival material, thus considerably expanding the Museum's previous emphasis on cowboys and ranchers to include the American Indian. In 1997, the Silberman Gallery opened at the Museum with rotating displays of American Indian art drawn from the collection of over 2,500 paintings, prints, drawings, and other objects, including 88 drawings, a vase, a fan, and a shield which were among the many works produced by Native Americans held at Fort Marion as prisoners between 1875 and 1878. All of these Fort Marion works are illustrated in Szabo's book, thus furthering the already positive influence the Silbermans have had in terms of expanding the already familiar visual history of cowboys and ranchers in the west.
Although the text is slightly vague on this point, all of the Silberman collection's Fort Marion works were evidently purchased during or after the 1960s and 1970s when Native art had gained a certain market credibility, and collections and individual pieces gathered by others were occasionally to be found at auction. The adoption of such western forms as the easel painting and perspective systems by Native artists at the Santa Fe Indian School had furthered public acceptance of their work in the Southwest earlier in the century, as did the publications of Dorothy Dunn, and later, those of Karen Daniels Petersen. The support provided by these and other individuals, organizations, and institutions tended, however, to discourage images showing anything other than a romanticized "traditional" Native way of life; this preference has had a stultifying effect on the Native art of many regions in North America. The Silbermans' interest was not, fortunately, so limited; thus the most important features of the present volume include, like the collection it represents, not only its many images of the formerly traditional ways of hunting, camping, and courting, but its many images showing signs of the Americanized West, such as trains, ships, right-angled architecture, the American flag, and soldiers in uniform, not to mention the Indian warriors on horseback carrying umbrellas, from the point of the view of the Fort Marion prisoners. More unique items illustrated and discussed by Szabo include the fan painted by Howling Wolf, the vase painted by Bear's Heart, and the shield painted by an unidentified artist. The point in the text where these items appear as the sole exemplars of their respective types is one at which the reader may be frustrated by the limits, while remaining appreciative of the benefits, of a study defined by a particular collection: could there not have been at least two or three fans? At least two painted ceramics? And how can there possibly be only one shield! Szabo, however, provides at least some interpretive and stylistic analysis for many of the images and all of the artists, and while her study cannot serve as a comprehensive art history of the area or the period due to the limitations of the collection on which it is based, it contributes to that larger objective through its attention to the art produced at Fort Marion as part of a vital and ongoing visual tradition that did not immediately lapse into the past tense with the arrival of Euro-Americans, nor even with the incarceration of the men who were to become, as Szabo shows, the artists whose works are among those most truly representative of this particular period in American history.