Northwest Coast Indian Forms, c. 1938, tempera on board, signed lower right, 20 x 30 inches, label verso reads: "this painting Northwest Coast Forms was one of a series I did in 1938 - all based on Indian Designs / Robert Bruce Inverarity"
During the 1930s, many painters and sculptors across the United States worked to create a truly American art by looking to historical antecedents for a usable past. For some, this search extended to the material culture of the Colonial and early Federal Eras and included folk traditions gleaned from European immigrants. Far away from the East Coast, a handful of artists living in California and Washington, looked beyond European traditions to Native American culture as something to be preserved, honored, and built upon. Synthesizing these largely untrained traditions with contemporary trends, Depression Era artists developed a type of naïve Modernism, which gained favor through venues such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery.
Lala Eve Rivol and Robert Bruce Inverarity shared many commonalities. Of the same generation, both artists were active participants in New Deal art programs along the West Coast and approached their work through the lens of anthropology and a deep reverence for and desire to preserve the legacy of America’s first people. Their prints, drawings and paintings connected Native American design to European and Anglo-American art and in the process created a unique form of Pacific Coast Modernism. Through national exhibition of their Native American-influenced works, Rivol and Inverarity helped educate ordinary citizens across the United States about the contributions and influence of indigenous peoples.
Robert Bruce Inverarity was a multi-talented painter, printmaker, museum administrator, photographer, collector, and scholar. Born in Seattle Washington July 7, 1909, his father, Duncan George Inverarity was active in vaudeville, puppetry, and photography, having assisted Edward Curtis on an Alaskan expedition in 1899. His father’s interest in the Native Northwest culture and art was a major influence on Inverarity at an early age. The family moved to Canada but returned to Seattle. After graduating from high school, Inverarity went on a 500-mile hike of the Canadian coastline to study the landscape and the indigenous tribes who lived there. During this trip, Inverarity began to document and collect native American material culture. Upon his return in 1928, he studied and shared a studio with Mark Tobey who was teaching at Cornish College, eventually taking over his classes when Tobey left for Europe. Around the same time, the Japanese woodblock print master, Yamagishi Kazue arrived in Seattle to teach courses in block printing. Inverarity attended these sessions with fellow Northwest artists, including Waldo Chase and his brother, W. Corwin Chase.
Inverarity exhibited as part of the Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists in 1927 & 1928 and had his first one-man show at the Seattle Fine Arts Society before leaving for San Francisco in 1929 where we taught art at the Y.W.C.A. and worked on block prints depicting the city. While in California, Inverarity exhibited at Curtis Galleries, the Blanding Sloan Workshop Gallery, the Edward Weston Gallery in Carmel, “Studio on Wheels” in Santa Barbara & Ventura and the El Paseo Gallery in Palm Springs. In addition, he travelled extensively exhibiting his work in Seattle at Lowman & Handford (Pioneer Square) and the Henry Gallery at the University of Washington, as well as in New York, Chicago, and Vancouver. In 1931, Inverarity moved to Vancouver, British Columbia to act as the Director at the School of Creative Art.
In 1932, Inverarity traveled to the Queen Charlotte Islands and recorded anthropological observations of the local indigenous tribes and documented his three-month trip with sketches, maps, paintings, and pastels. Much of his oeuvre can be traced to this expedition and many of the resulting works were exhibited at his one-man Vancouver Art Gallery show in December 1932. Bruce planned to publish a book on the Haida Tribe from the islands. Although unpublished, his journal, photo album and sketches have survived. Inverarity noted that a group of block prints, etchings and line drawings based on this trip were completed after he returned to Seattle in 1933.
In Seattle, Inverarity assumed a puppetry position with the University of Washington drama division. He continued to work on art and exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Canada, the Chicago World’s Fair, Gump Gallery in San Francisco and at the Seattle Art Museum. He left his position at the University to become the State Director of the Federal Arts Project for Washington State (1937-39) and the Washington State Art and Craft Project for the WPA (1939-41).
From the mid to late 1930s, Inverarity completed a series of compositions based on Northwest coast Native American forms. Numbering at least twelve in total, most of these works are egg tempera, though several are mixed media or oil. The works focus on simplified indigenous patterns and designs drawn from objects in Inverarity’s collection or from observations made during prior trips to visit native peoples. Inverarity’s graphic depictions of indigenous material culture are set against striking modernist backgrounds which range from hard-edge to biomorphic abstraction. Sometimes drawing on flattened cubist forms, these works are rare in 1930s American art as Inverarity’s combination of modernism and Native American forms predates the New York-based Indian Space Painters. One of Inverarity’s compositions was exhibited at the prestigious main art exhibition at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and another bears the label from a 1940s Pepsi Paintings of the Year Exhibition. Inverarity’s entry to the New York World’s Fair is currently a centerpiece of Cascadia Art Museum’s exhibition Native American Modern: Shared Expressions of Northwest Art.
During World War II Inverarity designed camouflage for the Navy and became an official war artist in 1943. When the war ended, he worked briefly as an art director for Boeing in Seattle before moving to Los Angeles where he obtained Master of Fine Arts and Doctoral degrees from Fremont University. From 1947 through 1949, Inverarity served as Assistant Director of Photography at the F. Archer School of Photography in Los Angeles. During the 1940s, he exhibited at the Oakland Art Gallery, the Los Angeles Art Association, and the California Watercolor Society.
From 1949/50 into the 1970s, Inverarity held several senior positions as a museum administrator, including at the International Folk Museum in Santa Fe, the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, New York, and the Philadelphia Maritime Museum. Bruce’s treatise on Northwest coast Native American material culture is considered a classic in its field. In 1976, Inverarity sold his meticulously curated collection of indigenous objects to the British Museum, where it is still housed today and can be viewed on the museum’s website. Inverarity retired from museum work and moved to Southern California where he lived for several decades.