By Sandra Hale Schulman
A pioneering Indigenous artist, Clark Vinson Fox, Southern Cherokee, recently had a retrospective with a full-color catalog that takes a serious new look at his six-decades-long career.
Influenced by his background extremes—time spent on reservations and on occupied Alcatraz followed by being part of an exclusive art club in 1970s New York City that included Andy Warhol and Larry Rivers—Fox is a fiercely independent and unique Native Americana artist.
Clark V. Fox: Subversion and Spectacle ran last year at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston, with more than 350 paintings and assemblage works filling the entire museum. The catalog by the same name has essays by Station Museum owner James Harithas; former curator of the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art, Jane Livingston; Native American scholar Christopher Green; author, museum curator and filmmaker Roger Gastman; and one from this writer.
His oeuvre ranges from Pop Art to abstraction, with imagery of Ulysses Grant as a grinning skeleton in a top hat, bison thundering through beer can labels and stoic Indian chiefs staring down Mr. Peanut. The exhibition touches on narratives surrounding Native histories, consumerism, monuments, patriarchy, race, justice, commodity and identity—heavy topics done with a colorful Pop Art hand.
There is a painted car, done in colorful stripes from his Washington Color School series. Fox treated it as an immoveable object as he himself does not drive. “Never have!” he says. “I’m a bus and bicycle guy.”
As an artist beyond categorization, Fox’s prodigious achievements are measured in the outsized influence that his pieces exert on the viewer and the shock waves his work continues to send through contemporary art,” says Harithas.
Being Indigenous, with family listed in the government’s books that attempted to list every Indian left alive from the early 1900s, set Fox’s course as an artist with a dual vision of life. He holds a card that recognizes him as 50 percent Southern Cherokee. He saw the way Native Americans were marginalized and commercialized, the struggle his tribe went through to be recognized, then how Native activists rode war ponies in the 1970s. Casinos developed on their sovereign lands both saved and destroyed them.
His father was a glider pilot in World War II, and the family ended up in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he ran the Stars and Stripes military publication. His earlier family skipped off the dangerous Trail of Tears from Tennessee and then to Texas where they became horse ranchers.
“The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma didn’t like that so many Natives escaped and settled in other states,” Fox says about his family history. “That they didn’t want to go to the penal colony called the reservation. The whole situation with the Cherokee Nation is pretty screwed up. They had a war called the Cherokee Wars in East Texas where they massacred a lot of the Natives. My relatives skipped out and settled in West Texas. That’s why I don’t go around trying to sell my art as being a recognized ‘Indian artist.’ I don’t do ‘trading post’ art.”
Fox went out to California, to powwows and to Native churches. From those experiences and teachings, he studied Lakota religion and gave up Christianity. “I’ve got this big spirit thing, the Native Americans show up. I’ve had Native Americans in spaces I live, they materialize. I’m right there seeing it. They told me don’t get off the Red Road,” he says.
Fox made his way to Alcatraz during the occupation of Indians of All Tribes from 1969 to 1971. He walked through Al Capone’s old cell and heard what the occupation was about from Native war activists like John Trudell who felt their culture had been stripped away, but says he felt distant, an outsider.
The day-to-day life during the occupation, which lasted for years, wasn’t all that exciting, as the Native American activists there went about their business, cooking, taking care of children. There wasn’t much going on he felt he could contribute to.
Then the art world spirits came calling.
He moved to Manhattan, former Lenape Tribe territory, in 1970 where he fell in with the group of artists who would become the biggest names in Pop Art: Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. The way they used contemporary images from products and comics would infuse his art from that point on.
This is when he started to paint Mr. Peanut to comment on consumerist capitalist culture and brand-name icons. JFK, Planter’s Peanut man, big dimply oranges, Abe Lincoln, ears of corn, buffalo, USA maps, dollar bill graphics of George Washington and a $5 bill Abe Lincoln all became repetitive image banks. He pulled Indian images from beer labels and motorcycles. Like Warhol’s soup can and Jackie O. and Mao, Fox painted the images repeatedly, hammering the point home. The outsider knocking, painting his way in.
“Much of my work is political and socialistic but incorporates classical art traditions of still life color, and portraiture,” Fox says. “In the 1960s, my still life studies of oranges were done as a meditation on form and color, but they were also my tributes to the Mexican migrant workers making less than $1 a day selling oranges on the highway.”
Oranges as commodity. Presidents as commodity. Indians as commodity. Everything, everybody, bought and packaged and sold.
In his work Two Chiefs, he pulled a stoic Indian head with feathered headdresses from two different sources. One Indian chief is a flat abstracted graphic with a headdress like a picket fence, holding a tomahawk in each hand, poised to strike the other feathered Indian chief, whose more realistic head is from a beer label he picked up in Milwaukee. The background is a dappled purple, with small Thunderbirds and Circles of Life arranged in the corners.
The two chiefs represent different things, one more aggressive yet rendered flat and cartoonish. The other is a more stereotypical visage: the stoic Indian as seen on coins and product labels, used to sell alcohol to a race. He faces off to the attack of the cartoon Indian, placid and unmovable.
Little Big Horn is the most powerful work, with a classic image of Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota leader who led his people during decades of resistance against American government policies. He had visions and was formidable, leading the successful battle of Little Bighorn that ended with cavalry soldiers and George Armstrong Custer killed. After the battle, Sitting Bull performed in the Wild West Show that toured Europe, the first Native American with star power, packaged and sold.
But President Ulysses Grant was incensed by the defeat, and later had him shot down by Indian Agency Police during an arrest attempt. Grant is a leering skeleton wearing a top hat, a familiar topper worn by presidents to convey authority and strength. “All the presidents from the 1840s to John F. Kennedy always wore top hats at inaugurations. The capitalist always has a big top hat on,” Fox notes.
Fox comes at all this as a self-proclaimed “renegade” like the late “Jimmy Durham school” who shunned joining the tribal enrollment as a protest against discrimination.
“I see myself as a history painter using icons. American heroes were people that I could look up to. I painted these heroes for many years. Then as my interest grew, I read more books to get into their heads so these figures come alive when I paint them.”
Despite his outsider claims, Fox worked his way into the professional big leagues, turning his fledgling gallery into a nonprofit and founding the Museum of Contemporary Art in Washington, D.C., in 1992 and running it until 2006.
The Native in him gives him “this mindset that kind of sets you apart. My mother always said, ‘You know, never forget you’re Cherokee.’ I’m getting to be an elder now so I do prayers and meditation to get direction.”
Of the sprawling exhibit and catalog, he says he is pleased and a bit overwhelmed to see so much work at once, the decades of thought and travel and history overlapping on clean white museum walls.
An enormous wall of 288 paintings of oranges becomes a citrus color dream, darting the eye from fruit to fruit, catching the repetitive rhythm of the artist’s hand. Portraits of American presidents abound from George Washington to Barack Obama, their solemn expressions hard to crack considering the artist’s eye as an Indigenous man whose tribe was hounded over the centuries. A surprising series is of architecture, ornate walls with windows that become sophisticated meditations on abstraction and color blocks.
At this point in his career and life he has seen it from many sides: artist outsider, gallery-owning insider, card-carrying Native American with no tribal allegiance. Pulled in different ways, the main direction he gets is to still get up and paint.
The Chiefs are still out there, and the war ponies still run.