Centuries before geometric abstraction became one of the visual languages of Modern Art, Indigenous Americans employed minimalist and expressive shapes in their designs. In 2016, John Molloy Gallery in New York City mounted the exhibition Geometries: American Geometric Abstraction 1880 – 2016 that displayed 19th Century Indigenous American saddle bags along with 20th Century Abstractionist paintings, citing scientific research that both types of art objects registered similar emotional reactions in the brains of viewers. Indigenous communities across what is now called North America utilized distinct combinations of colors and stylized geometric forms.
Unfortunately, due to the continuing legacy of European colonization, the names of many Indigenous artists were not recorded. The collection of the Roswell Museum is not exempt from this legacy. While not all modern and contemporary artists employing geometric shapes were directly influenced by their Indigenous American predecessors, any dialogue about geometric abstraction would be incomplete without acknowledging this history of both Indigenous innovation in design and the resilience of Indigenous communities despite centuries of erasure.
The exhibition ShapeShift: Abstracted Geometric Forms explores this history of approaches to the use of stylized shapes in art from the 19th Century to the early 2000s through the lens of the collection of the Roswell Museum, including its limitations and omissions. This show includes work by unidentified Indigenous artists from Hopi, Hupa, and Navajo tribes as well as Jane Abrams, Edward Chávez, Delwin Christensen, Doris Cross, Susan Marie Dopp, Elen Feinberg, Jorge Fick, Louise Ganthiers, Gail Gash, Joe Grant, James Havard, Phillis Ideal, Michael (Lomawywesa) Kabotie, Alice Kagawa Parrott, Beverly K. Magennis, Agnes Martin, Donna Martin, Neil (Tall Eagle) Parsons, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Joan Watts, and Martha Zelt.
The visual strategies employed by these artists represent a diversity of approaches to using geometric forms to communicate ideas and to evoke feelings. Just as diverse are these artists’ materials, including acrylic painting, basketry, etching, graphite, gouache, lithography, mixed media, oil painting, pastel, serigraphy, textiles, tin, and wood.
Despite its limitations and the incomplete history of its collection, the Roswell Museum invites you to reflect on how the range of styles displayed in ShapeShift: Abstracted Geometric Forms affects our perception and to celebrate the historic to contemporary artistic explorations of shapes.