Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Art History


David Joselit

Committee Members

Jolene Rickard

Romy Golan

Katherine Manthorne

Aaron Glass

Subject Categories

Contemporary Art | Fiber, Textile, and Weaving Arts | Indigenous Studies | Interdisciplinary Arts and Media | Modern Art and Architecture | Museum Studies | Other History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Painting | Printmaking | Theory and Criticism


Northwest Coast Native art, Indigenous art, Alaska Native, First Nations, primitivism, Pacific Northwest


Histories of “primitivism” in the avant-garde show that Euro-American modernism was always engaged in the appropriation of nonwestern and Indigenous art, with particular interest in Northwest Coast Native art forms by the Surrealists, Abstract Expressionists, and Indian Space Painters. However, there has been little consideration for how Northwest Coast Native artists chose to engage with the styles and tenets of Western modern art. To date, the history of post-war Northwest Coast Native art has been dominated by what is known as the Renaissance, a narrative in which artists pursued a neo-traditional style in modern times through the recovered and revival of nineteenth-century Indigenous forms and mediums otherwise thought to be lost and disassociated from home communities by colonial history. Revival forms were based on a canon of objects and styles constructed primarily by non-Native scholars. These anthropologists and art historians defined formline design, an organizational structure that uses a swelling and narrowing band and repeated geometric motifs to delineate totemic forms, as a rule-laden system that determined the spatial arrangement of motifs in a consistent visual language. Native neo-traditionalist artists strictly adhered to this canonical style, producing work to meet the expectations of non-Native audiences and for internal use in home communities, rarely engaging with broader contemporary art movements.

Between 1962 and 1992, however, many Northwest Coast Native artists did depart from the neo-traditional style of the Revival. They critically drew on Western modernism and other non-Native aesthetic innovations to create works that complicate notions of identity, authenticity, and tradition. Trained in and deeply knowledgeable about Western modernism’s legacy, these artists understood and reframed aesthetic operations to represent and reflect on the estranged experience of Indigenous life, culture, and tradition in the twentieth century. They combine and layer Euro-American visual styles with and into customary forms to grapple with the fragmentary experience of modernity while striving to adequately express the cultural values of their heritage.Through the art of Nathan Jackson, Jim Schoppert, Lyle Wilson, and Edna Davis Jackson, I examine how Northwest Coast Native artists worked through the legacy of Western modernism by applying its procedures to Indigenous content. They created work outside of the binaries of tradition and innovation and allow for a reconsideration of the divide between modernism and postmodernism. I argue that their art produces visual expressions of the complex political relations between Northwest Coast Native Americans and the fragmented territories of settler-colonial states that they cohabit.