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Friday, April 26, 2013

Larry Beck: Contemporary Native American Art and Why We Collect Artists' Papers

Larry Beck, "Tunghak Inua." 1982.
NMAI catalog number 25/5410
Contemporary Native American art plays a very important role at the National Museum of the American Indian, which sometimes surprises people who expect our collection and exhibitions to be entirely historical in nature.  NMAI’s mission is to promote understanding of Native American’s culture – past, present, and future – and contemporary art provides an opportunity to show how traditional beliefs and modes of expression are dynamic and present today, and are vital in modern peoples’ lives.  Artists like basketmaker Gail Tremblay and sculptor Brian Jungen layer meaning and imagery, and explore topics that are relevant to Native Americans, and others, today. Artists use traditional forms, materials, or symbols in new and non-traditional ways that force us to think about the complex relation between our heritage and the modern world around us.

Lawrence “Larry” Beck was a sculptor of Yup’ik descent whose later art addressed the duality of tradition and modernity. When he began his career in the mid-1960s making large abstract public art installations, Beck did not identify with his Yup’ik heritage.  But after visiting the Alaskan coast in the mid-1970s and experiencing what he described as an artistic crisis, Beck abandoned large-scale, highly public art in favor of making contemporary takes on Inua, or spirit, masks. These sculptures are much more intimate in scale, and are the result of Beck’s explorations of both his ethnic heritage and the modern artistic movements that he personally connected with.

Traditionally, Yup’ik masks are made of wood, whale bone, feathers, and other materials found and traded in the course of the traditional lifestyle of Artic peoples. Beck made his from found objects, such as spatulas, rear view mirrors, and hub caps. As a profile in American Indian Art Magazine (Winter 1995, p.44) put it:
The ingenuity of Beck’s creatures made of oil cans, hubcaps, and tire parts cause laughter.  Then there is a shock of recognition that these are the discards of the automobile and of the oil industry that has been displacing the Eskimo subsistence economy and centuries old collections with the inau of the walrus and other animals.
Artists’ papers are among my favorite archival collections because they contextualize artists’ work, and show artists’ creative processes. I love seeing ideas come together, and Larry Beck’s papers provide some great examples of how he though out his work.  For instance, from Beck’s papers we can see early sketches of ideas that resulted in Ooger Uk Inua (Walrus Spirit).

Sketch from the Lawrence "Larry" James Beck Papers, and Beck's sculpture "Ooger Uk Inua(Walrus Spirit)." 1982.
NMAI catalog number 25/5423

And here is Beck’s parts list…

Parts lists for sculptures
from the Lawrence "Larry" James Beck Papers

…for what later became Tunghak Inua (also seen above).

Larry Beck, "Tunghak Inua." 1982.
NMAI catalog number 25/5410
The National Museum of the American Indian’s goal is, in part, to show how American Indian cultures are thriving today and are rooted in the traditions of past.  We collect contemporary art, and the papers of the artists who create it, in order to better tell this story.

Michael Pahn, Media Archivist
National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center


  1. I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it.I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.maybe old news, but it's new to me.

  2. In (about) 1995, I attended an estate auction at the former home of Lawrence James Beck in North Seattle. I acquired quite a few items of minor interest. I have one box that has artwork by him from grade school with comments by his teacher. I also have original negatives of people and places from his life. I have original slides of the artwork you show above. Any interest?