“The Responsive Eye: Ralph T. Coe and the Collecting of American Indian Art,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, Sept. 9 – Dec. 14

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has made an important step in promoting the art of cultures from around the world. “The Responsive Eye: Ralph T. Coe and the Collecting of American Indian Art” shows a diverse selection of art and artifacts from various North American native cultures.

Coe, who studied art history and became a curator, and later, director of a museum, had a personal interest in American Indian art. Over the past half-century, he collected items, some 200 of which are being shown.

His collection surveys American Indian design both regionally and historically. There are a few prehistoric items, and some items made by contemporary artists.

Works from northern tribes are a prominent part of the collection. One carved mask from the Northwest Coast, that of a bird, has a mechanism by which the beak can be opened and closed for use in ritual drama. There are also small totem poles, kayak models and large blankets with buttons made of shell that form an animal design.

It is well known that Europeans traded beads with Indians and that Indians used the beads in traditional patterns, creating its most commonly associated body of decorative art. Coe’s collection from the northeast includes not only traditional floral beadwork, but some very unique items showing the influence of European design. A small cushion was beaded in a Victorian floral pattern. A dollhouse chair has a seat made of porcupine quills forming a design.

Beadwork, of the sort that usually comes to mind, can be found on pipe bags in the Plains section. One pipe bag is by the contemporary artist Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty. The beadwork depicts a warrior carrying an upside down American flag – a distress signal. This section also has some parfleche (rawhide suitcases) and a man’s shirt, unusual in the depth of color of its paint and fur decoration. A pair of moccasins beaded on the soles, indicates they were ceremonial moccasins.

The Southwestern section also has a work by a contemporary artist. It is one of my favorite pieces in the show – a bowl by Diego Romero. Decorated around the sides with traditional Cochiti patterns, in the center are two men. Under the left man is written:

“Name: Dan Yei-Bachata
Census #: 704-74-6574
Occupation: Painter
Life Long Ambition: To be the next Indian Market poster boy!”

The guy on the right is a casino worker who wants to be “the next Don Trump of Indian gaming.”

One of Nampeyo’s bowls is on display. Nampeyo was a very renowned Hopi potter. There is also a bowl attributed to Maria and Julian Martinez, however it is not the black pottery typical of their work, and may be one of their earlier pieces. Maria Martinez is considered one of the world’s greatest potters. She would create a bowl, or platter, and her husband Julian would decorate it.

The Southwest section has some Kachina dolls (Kachinas are the sacred, called forth during ceremonies, the dolls are representations) and top-quality baskets.

There are also some spectacular baskets created by the Pomo, from California. One is simply huge. Another is small with delicate bird feathers interwoven with the reed.

One of the loveliest objects is a pre-European contact ceramic bottle unearthed in Arkansas. An intricate interlocking linear design is etched on the surface.

Coe’s educated and perceptive eye allowed him to select objects of extraordinary quality, beauty and uniqueness. However, several of the items, such as the Victoriana pieces, while extremely well done, and very interesting, were made for non-Indians and reflect a more Western aesthetic. That is a key difference between this exhibit and other showings of American Indian art held around the country. It is Indian art from a collector’s viewpoint – the responsive eye.

As a first exhibit of American Indian art, it is a magnificent collection for the Metropolitan Museum to present. In addition, the museum brought in Native artists to lecture and perform. Nadema Agard, a Lakota-Cherokee-Powhatan artist, spoke on the compelling need for Indians to create art. Her lecture encompassed both traditional and contemporary Native North American art. Agard told the World, “We create art that embraces the contemporary global community, but also reflects a deeply rooted tradition that allows for both individual and collective indigenous identities simultaneously.”

Lloyd Oxendine, another Indian artist, and former director of the American Indian Community House art gallery, spoke of his hope for future exhibits featuring American Indian artists at this prestigious museum, possibly one of contemporary works.

Some images from the exhibit can be seen on-line at

– Karen Moy
The author is part Lakota and can be reached at