("Tea Party" by Kevin Red Star of Montana's Crow Nation)

BIERSTADT TO WARHOL: AMERICAN INDIANS IN THE WEST, UTAH MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, Feb. 15-Aug. 11

The new exhibit of Native American imagery opening at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts on Feb. 15 offers what UMFA Executive Director Gretchen Dietrich dubbed "an incredibly diverse group of art objects," and after a quick preview of the show, I can confirm that the lady ain't lying.

But it's not the size of the show that is most striking aspect. It's the scope of perspectives on American Indian life and art that make this a must-go for art lovers--even those who think they've seen plenty of "Western art" in their lifetimes. The Bierstadt to Warhol show offers a look at Native American life through the eyes of American and European artists, but it adds some stunning pieces done by Native American artists themselves. And it throws in playful twists on traditional Indian imagery by more contemporary artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, among others.

The show, Dietrich said, is " a history of American dreams and ideas about what it means to be a Native American person."

Donna Poulton, UMFA's curator of Art of Utah and the West, added that the show includes more than 100 works spanning more than 160 years. It's a combination of paintings and sculptures that includes works by some of America's famed Hudson River Valley artists, who romanticized the West early on, to Paris-trained Taos Society of Artists, who focused on the truth and beauty of nature, to contemporary Native Americans capturing a more realistic look at life among the Indians, and ultimately to the Warhols, et al, who played with "reinterpreting cliches" of Indian imagery.

Much of the show is drawn from the private collection of Sam and Diane Stewart, local art lovers and UMFA board members, who started buying artwork of Native Americans about a dozen years ago.

There was no rhyme or reason to what they bought, Diane said, noting that "we bought with our hearts, and it's nice to see them  approached in this scholarly way" with the UMFA show.

Unwittingly, the Stewarts' collection has a theme that came through their purchases.

"We were not buying cowboys," Diane noted. "What spoke to us in the art of the American West were Indians. And women."

As a result the Bierstadt to Warhol show features plenty of portraits, along with stunning natural landscapes and some incredibly moving work by Native American artists, particularly that of Navajo artist Shonto Begay, who will be doing a free artist talk Friday night at 6 p.m. at the UMFA, followed by a community celebration of the show's opening.

Here is Begay's Grandfather's Funeral:

(Photos from the Collection of Diane and Sam Stewart)