Of God and Mortal Men

The Genius of T.C. Cannon

T.C. Cannon, Turn of the Century Dandy, 1976, acrylic on canvas. From the Nancy and Richard Bloch Collection. Reproduced by permission of the Estate of T.C. Cannon. 2017 Estate of T.C. Cannon. 

Of God and Mortal Men: Masterworks by T.C. Cannon from the Nancy and Richard Bloch Collection is now on view in the new Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust Grand Gallery at Heard Museum. One of the most significant Native American artists of the 20th century, T.C. Cannon’s multifaceted works continue to resonate almost 40 years after his passing.

“The Bloch’s collection represents the finest collection, public or private, of Cannon’s work,” said Heard Museum Director and CEO David M. Roche. “It’s an honor, and a true thrill, to introduce these paintings, many of which haven’t been shown publicly for more than 25 years, to a whole new generation of people.”

Born Tommy Wayne Cannon in 1946, he was raised in Oklahoma. An enrolled member of the Kiowa Tribe with Caddo and French descent, Cannon was given the Kiowa name, Pai-doung-a-day, which means “One Who Stands in the Sun.” Known as as T.C., Cannon was exposed to the art of the Kiowa Six, a group of Native American painters who achieved international reputations in the fine art world and who helped developed the Southern Plains-style of painting.

Cannon attended the Institute of American Indian Arts of Santa Fe (IAIA) where he studied under Fritz Scholder. After graduation, he enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute, but left after two months to enlist in the U.S. Army. As a paratrooper assigned to the 101 First Airborne Division, Cannon served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. His heroism at the Tet Offensive earned him two Bronze Stars and induction into the Black Leggings Society, the traditional Kiowa warriors’ society.

While still stationed in Vietnam, Cannon had a breakthrough in his art career. Rosemary Ellison, curator of the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Oklahoma, included him in a major traveling exhibit, Contemporary Southern Plains Indian Art.

After leaving the military, Cannon  gained recognition in the early ‘70s  His vibrant, colorful imagery typically features stylized depictions of American Indians. Cannon’s work reflects a wide range of social, political and cultural influences including the civil rights movement in the United States, new figuration movements in art of the ‘70s, film and pop art.

Soldiers by T.C. Cannon.

Gestating Grandmother by T.C. Cannon.

In 1972, Cannon and teacher/fellow artist Fritz Scholder had a two-man exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution National Collection of Fine Arts, titled Two American Painters.

Over the next six years, in preparation for his first one-man show, Cannon produced a large body of work. The show was scheduled to open at the Aberbach Gallery in New York in October 1978 but, unfortunately, several months earlier, Cannon died in an automobile accident. After a delay, the show opened in December, 1979 as T.C. Cannon: A Memorial Exhibition. Featuring 50 works, the show travelled to such locations as the Heard Museum and the New Mexico Museum of Art.

The current exhibition features work from the artist’s mature Santa Fe period, including a majority of his most iconic paintings such as Self Portrait in the Studio, Chief Watching and Grandmother Gestating Father. Also featured are woodblock prints, lithographs and drawings. Visitors can page digitally through the artist’s sketchbook that contains drawings, poems and song lyrics. And, a video remembrance of Cannon from the Colores series by the New Mexico PBS station KNME-TV accompanies the exhibition.

T.C. Cannon, Self Portrait in the Studio, 1975, oil on canvas. From the Nancy and Richard Bloch Collection. Reproduced by permission of the Estate of T.C. Cannon. 2017 Estate of T.C. Cannon

Often referred to as the “James Dean” of the American Indian art world, like Dean, Cannon was famously charismatic, deeply gifted and lived a short life. In 1978, Cannon tragically died in a car accident at the young age of 31. A primary goal of the current exhibit is to bring new attention to an under-recognized artist and make the case for including his work in the broader narrative of American art.

In conjunction, two related exhibitions are open at the Heard Museum. Lines and Codes traces the history of Plains Indian drawing from which Cannon’s work emerged. And, It’s Your Turn provides family-friendly activities inspired by the Cannon exhibit suitable for children eight-years and up.

The Heard Museum, in partnership with the Museum of New Mexico Press, has published a book entitled Of God and Mortal Men: T.C. Cannon. Depicting the artist’s genius through his best and most iconic paintings and essays, the book is available for sale at the Heard Museum bookshop.

Photograph of T.C. Cannon.



Of God and Mortal Men: Masterworks by T.C. Cannon 

from the Nancy and Richard Bloch Collection

Through April 15

Heard Museum