With items from a collection that was a half century in the making, the new Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition of “The Coe Collection of American Indian Art” is an absolute must-see this holiday season.
On view now through May 28 in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, this extraordinary exhibit comprises some 40 objects that span a period from several millennia BCE to the year 2001. Objects are made in materials that vary widely, from stone to ceramic to animal hide.
Ralph T. Coe, known as Ted, was both a collector and curator. He played a major role in increasing public recognition and appreciation of American Indian art during the 50 years over which his collection was formed.
The oldest pieces in the exhibition are the intimately scaled tools known as bannerstones and birdstones. Part of the paraphernalia used for hunting with spears, they are exceptionally well designed utilitarian objects, both aesthetically appealing and attentively finished. Coe found these and other ancient North American objects compelling, and the archaeology of North America was a consistent interest of his.
Bannerstones, which come primarily from the Upper Midwest, can date as early as the fourth millennium BCE, while birdstones, from much the same geographic area, are somewhat later in date. However, they serve nearly the same function.
Other pre-contact works in the exhibition date from the Mississippian period of the 13th and 14th centuries. Named for the great river around which much of the Mississippian culture flourished, they consist of ceramic, shell and stone objects. A limestone tobacco pipe in the form of a bound prisoner speaks to the warrior aspects of the period.
The major part of the Coe collection, however, dates from the 18th and early 19th through the 20th century, a significant period for the collecting of American Indian objects.
Ball-headed clubs with a spike are the best-known type of war club. The club in the Coe Collection features an animal, perhaps an otter, holding the ball in its mouth. The balls of these weapons were made of tough parts of wood, such as knots.
Birch bark model canoes are another type of object identified with the woodlands of the Northeast and Great Lakes region, where full-sized canoes of birch wood were used by indigenous tribes.
Model canoes had a prominent place in what has come to be known as “souvenir art.” Well represented in the current exhibition, souvenir objects are those made for sale to travelers and white settlers. In the Coe collection, there are paddles, banners, fish spears, diminutive fish and rolls of birch bark for repairs.
In the Northeast/Great Lakes woodlands region in the 18th century, Catholic nuns of the Lorette region of Quebec began teaching the local Huron women to embroider and use decorative floral imagery, and there’s evidence of that new direction in a pair of American Indian moccasins of the period.
The brown-dyed deerskin moccasins on display feature both the embroidery and the floral patterns. The floral patterns of moose-hair embroidery are circumspect and carefully outlined. Dyes stay in a close range of pink-red hues.
Floral patterns later became more exuberant, as in the Huron/Iroquois pincushion of the mid-to-late 19th century. The pincushion, an item of functional Euro-American use, has a foundation of red wool trade cloth embroidered elegantly with moose hair in a natural-hued floral pattern. While of unquestioned Native American manufacture, the pincushion is clearly Victorian in taste.
Other works in the Coe Collection by established artists include a large mask by the well-known Haida sculptor Robert Davidson (b. 1946). An imposing work titled “Noble Woman” presents a large image of a traditional, mythic female.
Born in 1929, Coe was brought up in Cleveland. He occupied an important position in the field of American Indian studies.
During the half-century or so that his collection was forming, he had a significant role in the growth of appreciation of American Indian art. The role began in 1955 when he was captivated by a Northwest Coast totem pole model that he saw in a shop on Third Avenue in New York City, and would continue to influence the aesthetic merits of American Indian art throughout his life.
The Met will offer free gallery talks in conjunction with the exhibition. To learn more about these talks and the items on view, visit the Metropolitan Museum’s website at www.metmuseum.org.