Clifford Beck, Jr.
(1946 – 1995)
Clifford Beck, Jr. is regarded as a world renowned American Indian artist who worked in the mediums of oil and pastels. He grew up on the Navajo Indian Reservation in northern Arizona where his father was a tribal councilman and his mother was a weaver. Beck drew heavily upon his heritage in his work and credited impressionist Edgar Degas as his greatest influence. He described his art as “semi-abstract and occasionally surrealistic.” His paintings were respectful homages to traditional people whom he considered the foundation of his Navajo culture.
As a boy, Beck attended a boarding school in Holbrook but returned home every summer to help with the livestock. After graduating from Flagstaff High School in 1963, he was determined to attend college. Clifford was one of the first of his tribe to receive a tribal scholarship. He attended the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California, where he was drawn to anatomy and figure drawing. During that time he met painter R.C. Gorman who gave him much encouragement and subsequently became a family friend. He considered those years a period of incredible professional and personal growth. During the summer months, Beck maintained cultural ties to the reservation and returned every year to work. In fact, he illustrated for the Navajo Times in 1965.
Upon graduation in 1968, Beck designed materials for Indian Health Services in southern Arizona while simultaneously pursuing his professional fine art career; he was represented and sold at Tom Woodward’s trading post in Gallup, New Mexico. In 1971, he was hired as an art instructor at the newly formed Navajo Community College where he taught design, advanced drawing and painting. As commercial interest in Beck’s work accelerated, his work was exhibited and sold from 1975-1978 at R.C. Gorman’s Navajo Gallery in Taos, the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, the annual Scottsdale National Indian Arts Exhibition as well as the Heard Museum Indian Market. By the late 1970s, Beck was a full time professional fine artist.
Beck’s earliest portraits were of relatives and later he expanded to his subject matter to include other tribes. He portrayed people as they were – capturing a glimpse of a significant moment. He typically painted older people whose worn faces showed difficult lives, but also reflected a heroic quality.
Artist: Clifford Beck, Jr. (1946-1995)
Two Women with Kerchiefs
Artist: Clifford Beck, Jr. (1946-1995)
Artist: Clifford Beck, Jr. (1946-1995)Description: Oil (1991) | 48”h x 36”w; Unframed
Artist: Clifford Beck, Jr. (1946-1995)Description: Oil (1994) | Image Size: 48”h x 32”w; Unframed
Native Chief in Blue
Artist: Clifford Beck, Jr. (1946-1995)Description: Oil (1968) | Image Size: 24”h x 48”w; Framed Size: 33.5”h x 57.5”w
In this very evocative portrait, Clifford Beck, the artist, used a subtle play of light across the cheek and neck of the subject to call attention to the lines and features that reveal the man’s experiences and character. The background suggests a broad empty prairie with brown earth topped by gray clouds. Nature is de-emphasized while humanity is examined.
Artist: Clifford Beck, Jr. (1946-1995)Description: Oil | Image Size: 48”h x 40”w; Unframed
Navajo artist Clifford Beck, Jr. developed a very effective style of portraiture painting. His large formats emphasize broad swaths of bold color reminiscent of color field paintings. The faces, however, are meticulously drawn and painted with a humanitarian emphasis.
As an art student in Oakland, California Clifford was particularly focused on anatomy and drawing figures which played an enormous role in his development as an artist as did many of the 19th century French painters and pastel artists he was drawn to. Upon returning to reservation life, reconnecting with family and home, he taught and illustrated for several years which accorded him the opportunity to develop and perfect his artistic style and eventually leading to not only his participation in numerous exhibitions and shows, but receiving top honors at them as well. Clifford’s work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian and numerous others.
Artist: Clifford Beck, Jr. (1946-1995)Description: Critique II was the last pastel completed by Clifford Beck (1946-1995) just before he passed on. At the time, Clifford asked his family to take him from the hospital to his studio so he could put the last strokes on this masterwork. He then asked his family to make sure it was delivered to his shik'is (the Navajo word for friend), Eddie Basha (1937-2013).
Once entrusted to his care, Eddie placed the pastel in the gallery nestled among several other of Clifford’s works for a few years prior to his relocating and displaying it at his Santa Fe residence. (Its move was protested, but visitation privileges were awarded.) However, when the Santa Fe residence was sold, Eddie ensured the return of Critique II to the gallery. Little did we know that the day of this work’s return would mark the last time Eddie toured the collection he’d assembled. He marveled at the greatness of the artists, their artistic passions and personal pursuits, and reminisced about the gifts of friendship each and every one had blessed him with.
As he bid adieu later that afternoon, in a jesting parting shot, Eddie remarked, “And just because Clifford’s pastel isn’t going home with me today, doesn’t mean it won’t next week.” “Yes,” I replied, “but possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Borrowing Olympia Dukakis’s line in Steele Magnolias, he replied, “Touché, spoken like a true smartass.” And then we laughed: He with his “I’m-a-good-man-but-a-bad-boy” swagger and I, grateful for that swagger, leaned down to kiss his big, beautiful, shiny bald head.
Perhaps the penetrating elder gazes of this artist’s final pastel were meant to intimate the reflections and experiences of lives well-lived. If so, we thank our departed shik'is, Clifford and Eddie, for the humbling honor of Critique II’s entrusted care, and for sharing the lives you both lived so well with us.