The Legacy of Allan Houser

By Arin McKenna



Santa Fe New Mexican


Chiricahua Apache artist Allan Capron Haozous (1914-1994) — known throughout the art world as Allan Houser (his name was Anglicized when he was a child) — was a master by anyone's definition. His talent shines through every work he created, including 500 stone sculptures, 450 bronze editions and thousands of works on canvas and paper. His modernistic aesthetic and use of stone and metal helped redefine American Indian art. He taught thousands of students over the course of his career, and his work has continued to influence generations of artists throughout Indian Country and the world. Houser's artistic vision challenged narrow definitions of American Indian art. His artistic integrity and courageousness overcame the barriers in his path. His legacy impacted the Native art world and — in ways for which he has not been given credit — is still changing the definition of American art. “The great part of his legacy is that he was the first at so many things,” said David Rettig, curator of corporate collections for the Allan Houser Foundation. “He was the first Apache child born out of captivity at Fort Sill, Oklahoma — [Apache chief] Magnus Coloradas was Houser's greatgrandfather, and Geronimo was his great-uncle. He was the first Native American sculptor. He was the first faculty member at the Institute of American Indian Arts [IAIA].” Some also credit Houser with initiating a renaissance in stone carving by training what Rettig called “an army of stone carvers” at a time when most art schools viewed it as an “arcane art.” Houser was also the first American Indian artist to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship (1949) and the National Medal of Arts (1992). "Allan's emotions and profound love of people came out in his work, that's why it struck a chord with so many. It was a privilege to nominate him for the National Medal of Arts," recalled artist and Indigenous arts advocate Julia Hahn. Numerous other awards include the Ordre des Palmes académiques, bestowed by the French Republic, a posthumous inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southwestern Association of Indian Arts (SWAIA) and a Visionary Award from IAIA. In 2004 the National Museum of the American Indian also recognized Houser's vision in its exhibition Native Modernism: The Art of George Morrison and Allan Houser. “I think he was a catalyst for change,” said Houser's son Bob Haozous. “I say a catalyst because he never really became a contemporary Native American artist, but he never was one of the old school. He was one of the people that helped create the transition.” Bob Haozous is president of Allan Houser Inc., where Houser's eldest son, Phillip Haozous, serves as vice president. Both men are renowned sculptors. Houser studied with Dorothy Dunn, perhaps the first person to teach painting in an American Indian school. “Dorothy Dunn wanted to give these young people a trade as painters,” continued Rettig. “It's sometimes referred to it as a vo-tech (vocational-technical) approach. It was a decorative painting [style] for the curio market, made for an Anglo consumer and what Anglos thought Indian painting should look like.” Houser's attraction to modern art conflicted with Dunn's demands for “unassimilated tribal authenticity” and her refusal to teach modern techniques. “His Native American heritage is integral to his life and work,” said Rettig. “It's something that drove him, but he didn't say, ‘I want to be an Indian artist.' He wanted to be an artist whose work had an international flavor to it.” Comrade in Mourning, Houser's first monumental sculpture and the first commissioned from an American Indian, reflects that attitude. The Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, commissioned the work in 1948 as a memorial to American Indian servicemen killed during World War II. “It isn't this highly detailed little narrative, cute thing,” explained Rettig. “It's this massive, clean, powerful, flowing, impactful form, and it already exemplified that modernist influence.” As W. Jackson Rushing III, author of Allan Houser: An American Master (Chiricahua Apache 1914-1994), said of Houser, “His works in stone and bronze comingled realism with quasi-abstraction — kind of idealized figurative forms. He demonstrated that you could make art about Native people in a modernistic style.” But gaining acceptance of that style was a struggle. “The market demanded that artists talk about a romantic, decorative, emotional history — not their real history,” said Bob Haozous. “Allan's gallery was totally against his abstraction. He'd take an abstract piece in, and they'd put it in the back room. They were feeding a very naive market that demanded Native people be decorations.” Haozous continued, “Allan thought we should talk about who we are today, that we had our own statement as valid as any other art in the world. He told his students, ‘Portray your life experience.' He didn't say, ‘Portray your father's or your mother's or your grandfather's or your cultural life experience.' That was also very important, and he did that too. But he always said, ‘Tell the world who you are.” Despite tremendous evidence of Houser's influence, he is virtually unknown beyond the United States. “The sad part of this whole story is that Allan is — and should be acknowledged as — one of the finest artists of this whole world,” Haozous said. “I think that Allan's presence is still very much felt throughout the Native art world, but often people don't even realize it's his influence they feel,” said Bruce Bernstein, former executive director of SWAIA. “I'm perplexed why he doesn't have more of a national presence and an international presence. This is not just a local or regional phenomena; this is someone of immense talent and immense range, who generated an immense amount of creative power that we still feel today. What is it about the marketplace that has boxed him in? What can we do to loosen those shackles?” Bernstein believes Houser's ethnicity marginalized him: “I think that's the crux of the matter. Being Native was an essential part of him, just as being from New York City is an essential part of someone from there. Any artist's own heritage influences their work. But when that person's influence is Native, people immediately segregate that from other American art. And I do think that's a shame, because I think Allan's work can stand the test of quality, craftsmanship and aesthetic beauty.” It disturbs Bernstein and Indigenous artists alike that non-Native artists — many obviously influenced by Houser's work — receive acclaim for stereotypical depictions of Native people while masters like Houser remain obscure. “What are we so afraid of that we look to non-Native sculptors to give us insight into the Native world, when Allan was so generous in sharing his understanding of that Native world through his work?” Bernstein wonders. “Scholars are finally starting to think about American art in a way that includes people like Houser,” said Rushing. “But when a work is ethnically specific, it's often disparaged as not being universal, even though Houser's work communicated universal human values.” “There are different rules for different players,” Rushing continued. “Why are four or five French guys — all about the same age, all surviving the German occupation during World War II — not considered ethnic? Native artists are getting a better critical reception, but they are still marginalized, and more so those of Houser's generation than current artists. Pioneering Indigenous artists from that period are still underappreciated.” The immensity of Houser's legacy also works against him. “He was really a transformational figure,” added Rettig. “He created this whole style, the Houser style, which became so emulated, so widespread, so much in the public domain that it has, in some sense, become a caricature of itself. People look at Allan's work and say, ‘Oh, that's just more of that Southwest art' or ‘That's Indian art,' when in fact it's the genesis for all of that.” Houser's legacy spread to thousands of students, with a sizable number achieving successful careers and much acclaim. The artist taught for 11 years at the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah. In 1962 he founded the sculpture department at IAIA, where he also taught for 13 years. Rushing said that because of Houser and other faculty at the institute, “there are at least two generations of Native artists now who have an incredible sense of freedom about what they can and should do.” If some young American Indian artists insist that they owe nothing to Houser or his generation, “I'd like to figure out who they think they owe it to,” said Doug Hyde, one of Houser's students, whose awardwinning work resides in many prestigious collections. “The whole new movement of Indian art is very modern, and all the museums are collecting it,” continued Hyde. “But before Allan and the institute, their collection of Indian art was basically utilitarian: pottery, beadwork, everyday things that people used. That's one of the big barriers Allan broke. Now the young guys are pushing the envelope in all directions. They owe that acceptance of their work to the fact that the groundwork was laid by people like Allan.” Hyde believes Houser's years as a teacher may have delayed his career. “He would have been a lot better known had he just continued as a working artist,” Hyde said. “You're not selfpromoting while you're teaching, and that's how you get known.” Cliff Fragua's sculpture of Po'pay, leader of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, is one of New Mexico's two statues in the National Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol. Fragua attended IAIA to study painting but was drawn to sculpture after studying with Houser. Fragua's memories of Houser may help explain why Houser is often overlooked. “He wasn't flamboyant. He was quiet. His approach to his art was more personal,” Fragua said. Every person who knew Houser remarked on his generosity of spirit. Houser began exploring abstract forms after his retirement from teaching and sketched new ideas with every spare moment. Until his death at age 80, his creative energy remained as powerful as ever. “He never felt he had done the ultimate composition of a piece,” said Rettig. “He was always striving and always searching and always looking.” Arin McKenna is currently a staff writer/reporter for Northern New Mexico College. To learn more about the life of Allan Houser, visit For information about the Allan Houser Sculpture Garden or to book a guided tour, please call 505-982-4705 or stop by the Allan Houser Gallery, located at 125 Lincoln Ave. in downtown Santa Fe. The gallery is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and by appointment.