New York Art Galleries This Week Goes Native American

A Tlingit basket from the Fenimore Art Museum on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

‘American Indian Art From the Fenimore Art Museum’

This stunning little exhibition at the Met provides an intense, possibly life-altering immersion in the profound artistry of Native Americans, both before and after they had contact with Europeans. The 38 masterworks by mostly unrecorded artists extend across nearly two millenniums and much of the North American continent. Simply put: Everything is a high point.

Yet they are only the tip of the magnificent iceberg of some 850 pieces from the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. Assembled over nearly three decades, the collection was given to the Fenimore by the Thaws, benefactors of several New York institutions, especially the Morgan Library & Museum, which opens an exhibition of old master and Modern drawings from its Thaw Collection this month.

The oldest object here, from the Seward Peninsula in Alaska, is a tiny Ipiutak polar bear effigy in carved ivory, dated around A.D. 100-600. Ears flat, teeth bared and flanks incised with riblike arcs, the animal projects a tense ferocity far exceeding its size.

With its spherical shape and surface of broad, undulant bands and incised patterns, a Caddoan clay bottle found in Texas (from around 1500) recalls some very early Chinese pottery on view elsewhere in the Met. Less purely coincidental may be the crouching figure on a carved-shell Caddoan gorget (or pendant) from Oklahoma, dated around 1200-1350, whose design has some of the taut compression of Mayan figuration.

Especially impressive are several objects from the artists of different Pacific Northwest groups, among them a magnificent Tsimshian wood war club (around 1800-30), dense with incised patterns and images; a Tlingit basket (around 1850), ringed in striking geometries; and a nearly life-size Kwakwaka’wakw Potlatch figure (around 1880-95) in carved and painted wood. Its angular forms depict a man holding a “copper”: a shieldlike sheet of that metal, painted with designs, that was displayed as a symbol of wealth. Next to him stands an imposing example of an actual copper, of either Haida or Tsimshian origin, dated 1840-60.